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What I learned from talking to college kids tasked with reading The New York Times for a week

U of M Honors discussion
MinnPost photo by Brian Lambert
Dr. Matthew Bribitzer-Stull, far right, leading a U of M Honors discussion on The New York Times.

There is an unusual layer of despair hanging over a certain segment of the population. The belief seems to be that the vulgarians have won, that the characters described in Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid style” of American politics have their hands around the throat of democracy and anti-intellectualism is triumphant.

It’s kind of grim. But also not entirely true. Emphasis on the word “entirely.” As proof of at least one exception, I give you an Honors program at the U of M designed by professor Matthew Bribitzer-Stull out of the School of Music.

A U of M publicist invited me over to observe a dozen or so undergrads spending a week reading and discussing the contents of the New York Times. If part of the ambient despair is that “kids these days” have checked out of interest in the broad landscape of the world around them, concentrating instead on Tinder, microbrews, social media inanity and god knows what? you couldn’t be more wrong.

The experience of listening in on what these very — sometimes startlingly — bright young people thought of Times’ January 13 collection of stories was edifying. Under discussion: A piece on the latest influx of Goldman Sachs bankers into Donald Trump’s swamp-draining administration, stories on pro-Trump voters in Iowa, the new face of Islam in Indonesia, products and services curated for the paper’s monthly “Men’s Style” section and what editors may have been implying with their choice of and layout of photographs of the (old, rich, white) men testifying to become members of Trump’s cabinet.

Despair over a culture clueless to nuance in messaging is misplaced with these kids. (When was the last time you had a conversation about “ironic masculinity,” “post-ironic masculinity” and the inherited social phobias discomfiting men in a Lush cosmetics store?)

The one nagging question I had, though, was, “Where are the conservatives?”

The group, which was divided in two, with Bribitzer-Stull and Craig Packer (from the U’s Ecology Dept.) moderating the flow, was composed entirely of appalled liberals. Or so it seemed. There certainly was no one representing a Tea Party intellectual point of view, if such a creature exists.

Views of Trump and his incoming administration were uniformly negative, with perspectives alternating between informed fears over blatant conflicts of interest, the rollback of gains made to women’s, gays’ and minority rights and familiar undergrad mockery of the sheer dystopian farce of it all.

Those of us who were not nearly as bright and disciplined as these Honors kids — from majors ranging from Chemical Engineering to Art History — and who largely misspent our college experience, still recall the occasional outlier. There was always the guy, committed to ROTC during the Vietnam War, determined at age 19 to make a killing in banking, who was part of late night dorm room bull sessions. The reciprocal needling added some energy and fun to the conversation. There were none of those here.

“It’s a frustration,” Bribitzer-Stull freely concedes. “I think the conversation would be better if we had those voices. They would bring a different tone. I’m sure they’re out there, but I’m kind of at a loss for how to bring them in.”

The New York Times exercise was the third of five such week-long, 45-hour programs he created for this school year, and arguably the most likely to incite a political dialogue. (Although a previous week, on Dracula and Vlad the Impaler, could, I assume, also propel a conversation into topical politics.)

It would have been interesting, for example, to have some conservative input when the conversation segued from the abundance of luxury goods hyped in the “Men’s Style” section to the curious faith the pro-Trump subjects in small town Iowa expressed in the essential goodness of the very, very rich. The presumption being that The American Dream is rooted in the belief that those who are fantastically wealthy are not only smarter and have worked harder than most everyone else, they are also … more virtuous. As the chemical engineering student said, one of those who spoke sparingly but with succinct acuity, “Rags to riches in America today is not a realistic goal. But that is a narrative we all buy into. At best a person in this country can move from poverty to comfortable. The numbers on those who move up from poverty to the 1 percent are basically non-existent. It doesn’t happen.”

One consensus was that the Times, that day at least, does a generally good job of crafting stories “palatable” to what the kids considered “moderately conservative” readers. Further to the right of that, not so much.

Every group has its alpha wolf, and this one had 21-year-old Eve Hoppie, a junior Art History major born in Santa Cruz and a graduate of high school in Mankato. She had so many thoughts on such a range of topics I first thought she was one of the instructors. “No,” she laughs, “I’m just one of those people who abhors a vacuum.”

A convert to Islam as a 12-year-old from a family of “Richard Dawkins atheists” — the patriarch of which holds a PhD in Theology — Hoppie says she’s like a lot of people her age, getting the first flow of news from Facebook and Twitter, and rarely if ever coming in contact with the dead tree version of something like the New York Times. “I do have a subscription to The New Yorker,” she says. “But you know how that goes. I get through maybe two articles before I set it aside and then another one shows up.”

“I think there’s a bit of self-selection in the lack of conservatives,” she says. “I imagine they looked and saw ‘New York Times’ and decided it was going to be too liberal for them. I think in general people are separating themselves more than they used to.”

This led to a riff on the way algorithms used by Facebook and other sites drive more of the kind of information you already consumed to you again. A benefit of a week actually reading the paper version of the Times being exposure to “Men’s Style,” a topic are, Hoppie says, “I never otherwise would have had anything to do with.”

Henry Zurn, a 21-year-old English-PoliSci major from Eden Prairie actually has a subscription to the on-line Times. “It’s only 50 cents a week or something for students, so it’s a pretty good deal.” But then he remembers reading the Star Tribune every day as a kid and “watching The CBS Evening News every night with my dad.”

“I’m not so sure there were no conservatives among us,” he says, “as much as I think there was no one who would speak up for Trump. That’s a different thing.”

Like Hoppie, he says was struck by the breadth of topics he engaged within a week with the actual paper as opposed to what is fed in via Facebook. “International news, in particular. There was a story about the new government in Myanmar and human rights abuses that I doubt ever would have read if it weren’t for this experience.”

As a past President of the Honors Students Foundation, Zurn may have a special level of bias, but he thought the 45-hour experience with the Times and the conversation it provoked was, “phenomenal.”

To an appreciative outsider, it certainly offered a note of reassurance.

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Comments (11)

Current events

Schools in general could do a much better job of engaging students with current events. The problem, of course, is that there's not a standardized test, so we just focus on readen' an' 'rithmatec.

One of my better college courses required a subscription to business week. That was a pretty good way to learn about the world we were hoping to enter (as students at a business college).

NYT Echo Chamber

These young people need much more diverse sources of information than just this one, and very one-sided, media outlet. The NYT business model is to confirm the existing views of its overwhelmingly left-wing subscriber base. The best proof of this statement is the comments sections following almost every article or opinion piece that is at all politically related. 95+% of the commenters are clearly moderate liberal to far Left, with at most 5% moderate to conservative of some type.

A puzzling question about the last four public editors of the NYT: has the NYT succeeded or failed with those hires? They don't blindly approve of everything the NYT does. All four of them are self-described liberals, but all of them have stated directly or in so many words that the NYT is saturated in a left-of-center slant. The current public editor - Liz Spayd - wrote about being surprised by the number of complaints from liberals about the NYT's blatantly partisan coverage of the recent election: "I found myself wishing someone from the newsroom was on the line with me, especially to hear how many of the more liberal voters wanted more balanced coverage. Not an echo chamber of liberal intellectualism, but an honest reflection of reality."

I'm a political moderate, more liberal on some issues, more conservative on others. The left-wing slant in the NYT and the rest of the mainstream media is obvious to me on all issues, even the issues where I take the liberal side. I want to be informed by news sources - not indoctrinated.

Any examples?

"The left-wing slant in the NYT and the rest of the mainstream media is obvious to me on all issues, even the issues where I take the liberal side. I want to be informed by news sources - not indoctrinated."

So do you have any examples that fit this allegedly bias-free reportage that exist somewhere? And does the truthfulness of the stories reported have any relevance to you, or is it only the perspective of the reportage, as you see it, that is important? And lastly can you give any examples of where you felt like reportage (not op-eds) was akin to indoctrination? I'd be curious what falls under that rubric for you.

"The best proof of this statement is the comments sections following almost every article or opinion piece that is at all politically related. 95+% of the commenters are clearly moderate liberal to far Left, with at most 5% moderate to conservative of some type."

That's just an example of the right living in their echo chamber just like the left, isn't it? What's the makeup of the comments on Fox News?

Anyone who reads news without reading between the lines, and paying attention to who is paying to distribute said news, is destined to be led by the leash.

Response

Two issues where the other side is rarely if ever presented in the mainstream media (MSM): abortion and immigration. Republicans who oppose all abortion (other than for rape and incest cases) are always labeled by the MSM as "extreme." In the context of the American political spectrum, that position IS extreme. A solid majority supports the right to first trimester abortion for any reason; Republicans who oppose abortion for any reason are therefore extreme. But at least 75% of Americans - including 75% of women - believe that third trimester abortion should be outlawed when it is not medically necessary. In the recent campaign, Hillary Clinton refused to say that abortion should be banned under ANY circumstances; that is now the dominant Democratic position. On the American political spectrum, that is an extreme position, but the MSM will never inform the public of that fact, and won't even ask the question to Democratic politicians. The liberal pundit Kirsten Powers has noted this reality numerous times (she is a pro-life liberal Christian).

The NYT, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnpost, and almost all non-conservative media constantly advance the preferred narrative that illegal immigrants are only doing "jobs Americans won't do." However, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that the only job Americans won't do is farm labor, and that only about 4% of employed illegal immigrants work in farm labor jobs. The rest have displaced lots of citizen workers in the building trades, factory jobs, and all kinds of service jobs. Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, the NYT editorial board, Paul Krugman, Nicholas Kristof, Cesar Chavez, Barbara Jordan, and many other prominent liberals are on record as having said that illegal immigration badly hurts lower-skilled citizens by displacing them from jobs and forcing down wages. It is now politically incorrect to note these facts, and you will rarely/never be informed of them in the MSM.

You write: "Anyone who reads news without reading between the lines, and paying attention to who is paying to distribute said news, is destined to be led by the leash." OK, let's follow that logic. The NYT was rescued from likely bankruptcy by the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, who favors unlimited immigration from Mexico into the U.S. Who is leading whom by the leash? (and before you again hurl the lazy "Fox News" canard, Rupert Murdoch and his sons favor mostly unrestricted immigration to the U.S.)

Finally, did you notice what the NYT public editor said about the surprising number of liberal readers unhappy about the partisan coverage? That's the indoctrination I'm talking about.

Quick point

"Republicans who oppose all abortion (other than for rape and incest cases) are always labeled by the MSM as "extreme." "

...If you oppose all abortion, you really can't go any 'more' in that direction, so isn't that extreme by that definition? I'm not sure what point you're trying to make there, it is an extreme position if you can't go any farther with. Also, I don't think Hilary was campaigning for abortion in 'any circumstance under the sun' I think that's a gross exaggeration and almost as silly as Donald's argument at the debate about 'you could be 8.75 months in and take the baby out and kill it'. You say 'that is now the dominant Democratic position' That's just not true.

Good questions...

I read the NYT not for the opinion pieces that I will occasionally peruse. I read for the content of the news articles. Reportage is thorough. There are facts, there are statistics, there are quotes from primary sources, there are attributions of attempts to get full and broad coverage ad to consequent of a news event and there is a willingness to make comment of the information gathered. And what local sources give me that experience ? The Strib has descended into carrying the news of others and "promoting" primarily conservative columnists. Who even looks at the Pioneer Press ? MPR reportage is quite good. And this digital sheet has it's moments. I was listening to a non news podcast today. I was amazed at how uniformed the 50 year olds were of Chinese and WWII issues.
And above all I am pleased to see that maybe just maybe out of our current there maybe a greater focus on how issues evolve to become current events. If anything we have this dilemma we now have totally to news having evolved away from informating to become entertainment and opinion.

Check Your Reasoning

Using the comment section on any given web site to discern either its subscriber base or business model is the height of poor reasoning. It's akin to saying, "I know that dog is mean because his tail is brown." One has nothing to do with the other. Case-in-point: Does the Strib market only to people wearing tinfoil hats?

One very obvious problem with your argument is that not everyone comments, and you know absolutely nothing about those who don't -- not how many there are, not why they didn't comment, and not what they might have said. Commenters are a tiny minority of the readers.

But setting that failed argument aside, the Times may be the most widely read publication in the world. If all of those readers were "liberals," or if the paper were actively trying to "indoctrinate" people, the world would look like a very different place. At the very least, the most recent election results would support an argument that, if the Times were trying to indoctrinate people, it failed miserably. So your argument fails on that point as well.

I would also submit that, if the Times' business model ever fell into something approaching "indoctrination" on either side, the subscriber base would be decimated instantly. In fact, the first hint of a fall in that direction would be devastating to their bottom line.

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the reporting of facts which support a "liberal" point of view represents "liberal bias." But facts do not have bias, which is perhaps one reason that the new administration seems so averse to them.

Two possibilities

There are two possibilities here: either there are not conservatives there or they are afraid to speak. Either way it is bad. Should we have an affirmative action for conservatives on colleges and safe zones for them where they are not attacked?

Also, to add to the previous discussion, there is a third issue where another side is presented in MSM: Race relations. Anyone of opinion that racism is not a big problem is called a racist and discussion ends there.

Yes

Because its relatively easy to point out qualitatively that it is, and they most often are.

False "Balance"

You seem to suggest that, unless someone representing a "conservative" point of view is at the table, no meaningful discussion can ensue. That doesn't make much sense.

If we are having a discussion about the color of the sky, and the participants are split about which exact shade of blue can be observed -- periwinkle, cyan, robin's egg -- the discussion is in no way hindered by the absence of someone who would claim it is tartan plaid.

Separately, please be aware that using acronyms like "MSM" betrays a certain lack of rigor in reasoning. What, exactly, is the "mainstream media"?

I suspect that you would include publications like the New York Times, and networks like CBS. But what about the Wall Street Journal? The Washington Post? The Atlantic? What about Fox News (which has a very large viewership)? Or the New York Post? What about TMZ, which is followed by millions? Or The Week (which aggregates news from many sources for a gigantic audience)? What about the Star Tribune (owned by a conservative billionaire)? Or NPR, which also reaches many millions? What about First Things (which you may never have heard of, but is rather widely read)? What about The Daily Show? The Late Show? The Tonight Show? The View?

What about Reuters? Or the Associated Press? Yahoo? Are they part of the "MSM"?

What about MinnPost?

My point is that there is literally NO SUCH THING as the "MSM." It exists only as a FICTION in the minds of those who seek to discredit a particular slice of news reporting which does not support what they believe. Consider it this way: Do YOU decide what constitutes the "MSM" or do I? (As far as I know, there is no independent agency granting or denying memberships. Unless you count Rush Limbaugh.)

No, the designation is applied and rescinded as the occasion warrants. It as an ad hominem (name-calling) argument, which has no substance whatsoever. It is, therefore, effectively meaningless. Any argument built on that acronym or the phrase behind it will fail before it gets out of the gate.

Should something be done?

Mr. Haas, if you agree with me, should something be done?

Mr. Prescott, I disagree about you color examples: So long as another reasonable opinion is possible, it will benefit everyone. But when we talk about conservatives’ participation, we are not talking about discussing sky color but rather political issues and excluding an opposite point of view leads to meaningless discussion where people just repeat each other and don’t get real answers.

I usually don’t use the term MSM but most people agree that it is a combination of the media available nationwide: NYT, WaPo, WSJ, USAToday, ABC, NBC, PBS, and CBS and also a few cable news channels that are included in most basic lineups – MSNBC, CNN, and FOX. MPR, Reuter, AP, and Yahoo news may be added to this and maybe a few widely read websites such as HuffPost. TMZ of course is not a part of it because it is a tabloid style thing, same as NYPost. You may add the Daily Show, the Late Show, the Tonight Show and local papers in large cities (no matter who owns those local papers in big cities, they lean left because their audience is mostly left leaning) to that but it will only make my point stronger: 90% of what I listed leans left and strongly left.

By the way, to interfere into your other conversation, comment section does reflect the leaning of the publication (if taken with a grain of salt, of course) and that reinforce the leaning of the publication. It is obvious that MinnPost is left leaning based on what it publishes AND on the content of most comments. So if we use your dog example, we can say that a dog is mean because its tail is between its legs.