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The Times's Conservative Problem

What does a conservative beat mean for The New York Times?

11:00 PM, Mar 2, 2004 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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FOR MORE THAN A MONTH, one of our national papers of record, the New York Times, has been examining "conservative forces in religion, politics, law, business and the media." No, that isn't made up. The quoted material comes from Times national editor Jim Roberts, announcing last month that David D. Kirkpatrick, the former media correspondent, would patrol the new beat.

As with any press release, it deserves a question or two, beginning with why the Times thinks it can cover all of those conservative forces with only one reporter. The task would seem to require a legion of correspondents, but somehow, with just one, the Times will manage.

The "job," Roberts said, "will take [Kirkpatrick] across the country and make him a frequent presence in Washington." It will thrust him into "the political campaigns," and yet "we expect that much of what he does will transcend the race itself and delve into the issues and personalities that drive--and sometimes divide--conservatives."

In fact, division turns out to be the dominant narrative of the journalism so far. Consider the headlines of the first three stories: "Bush's push for marriage falls short for conservatives," "Conservative groups differ on Bush words on marriage," and "A concerned bloc of Republicans wonders whether Bush is conservative enough."

Moreover, those and other "conservative" stories have proved more than a little strained. The words "conservative" and "conservatives" are used to excess--24 times in one story--as though to assure readers that the Times is on the conservative beat. And people otherwise not known to be important conservatives turn out to be major, on-the-record sources, no doubt delighted that the Times has reached them. Was the point of actually announcing a "conservative beat" to interest conservatives in becoming sources?

Earlier this month, Sridhar Pappu, the enterprising media reporter for the New York Observer, interviewed Times executive editor Bill Keller about his paper's unusual undertaking. "I winced a little when I read that job announcement," he said, "because it was a little like the New York Times discovers this strange, alien species called conservatives, and that's not what this is about."

Keller offered two explanations of "what this is about." The first is that the paper wants to get beyond "the shorthand you use for any interest group" and instead try "to figure out why people believe what they do, how big their constituency is, where it comes from."

Keller surely knows that his own newsroom often is perceived as liberal and that a more intense effort to report on conservatives might rid his staff of any misconception that conservatives are all, well, strange or alien. In any case, good journalism should attempt to get beyond convenient but distorting labels. And give the Times credit: Kirkpatrick's latest piece--headlined "Southern Baptists bring New York their gospel"--does a decent job of telling readers why Southern Baptists, who certainly qualify as a "conservative force" in religion, have organized evangelistic efforts in New York ZIP codes full of Times readers.

As for Keller's other explanation of "what this is about," he told the Observer that the Bush administration "is not the most accessible in the history of the Beltway" and that its "reasoning and . . . strategies are often clouded in secrecy and spin." Here, Keller may have said more than he wished. Or maybe not. Was he merely saying that to understand what the administration is doing you need to consult conservatives on the outside? Or did he mean to telegraph that the Times is preparing to use its news pages to challenge a presidency that its top editor regards as uniquely inaccessible and given to spin?

It bears noting that the Times hasn't assigned anyone to cover "liberal forces in religion, law, politics, religion and the media." Given our equally divided electorate, you would think that a liberal beat might be warranted and that the Times might favor its readers with pieces on, say, the liberal groups working to block Bush judicial nominees or the liberal groups strategizing to litigate same-sex marriage into states outside of Massachusetts.

But, no, Keller told the Observer, liberals aren't equally situated, for they are completely out of power, holding neither elective branch. Conservatives have all of the power, so they alone qualify for special journalistic treatment.

By Election Day, we will know what that treatment has meant for conservatives featured in the pages of one of the nation's most influential papers--and, not least, for George W. Bush.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard. This column originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.