David Leonhardt

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is the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times. He joined The Times in 1999 and wrote the "Economics Scene" column, and for the Times Sunday Magazine

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dleonhardtnyt236 karma

Great topic to start with. One of the tricky issues for mainstream journalism is the middle ground between undeniable fact and opinion. I won't spend too much time quoting my old articles, today but Lessons From the Malaise seems directly relevant to this question. In it, I wrote: "[Some] truths may not rise to the level of two plus two equals four, but they are not so different from the knowledge that the earth is round or that smoking causes cancer.

The earth is not perfectly round, of course. Some smokers will never get cancer, while most cancer is not caused by smoking. Yet in the ways that matter most, the earth is still round, and smoking does cause cancer. Both of these facts are illustrative in another way, too: seemingly smart people spent decades denying them."

It's easy for us to deal with 2+2. And it's fairly easy for us to deal with an opinion, like "This policy should pass Congress;" we also quote someone who says it shouldn't. But the gray area is harder. And yet I think we need to deal with it: we sometimes need to look for ways to say which side in a debate has more claim on the available evidence.

A question for you (or another Redditor): which things that are "objectively false" do we not do a good enough job of explaining to be such?

dleonhardtnyt109 karma

I disagree, respectfully, on point 1. The truth does sell papers. Whatever our flaws and sins, The Times has the audience that it does because it has built up a reputation for reporting the truth over many years. When other papers cut back during wars, the Sulzbergers expanded our news report. When the government told us not to publish the Pentagon Papers, we did anyway. Again, we have made mistakes over the years -- and they prove the point, in that they have hurt us, not helped us.

This election brought one more example. Despite enormous criticism, Nate Silver and Micah Cohen, on the 538 blog, continued to talk in a straightforward way about what the polls were showing. They were simply reporting the truth, and it looks very good in retrospect.

dleonhardtnyt67 karma

We're fortunate in two ways. One, access isn't the only way to do journalism. If the Secretary of X won't talk to us, a lower-level employee in the Department of X often will.

Two, given our readership (which is way of saying thank you to all of our readers), we tend to get access even when people don't like what we write. We don't always get as much as we'd like, but we simply don't spend much time worrying about access. If anything, our reporters spend more time saying no to officials who want to talk to them than unsuccessfully trying to talk with officials who won't do so.

dleonhardtnyt49 karma

Yes, we do. We went to a pay model with great reluctance. ("Wall" isn't quite right word, given the various ways readers are able to get around it under certain circumstances.) But we are very pleased with how it's going. We have signed up more paying customers than we expected to have at this point, and our online traffic remains very strong.

It's a big reason I remain so confident about The Times's future. We have a very large audience, including many people who pay a substantial amount for our journalism, online or in print. That combination suggests there is a business model that will work quite well -- even if I can't predict exactly what it will be at this point.

You'd hear a more detailed answer from the people at the paper who are working on these issues. (I'm just a journalist.) But I think the bottom line would be the same.

dleonhardtnyt44 karma

I think the Web has created a more responsible press, with higher standards. Think how much easier it is for readers to point out flaws (or perceived flaws!) in a story today than in the past. You don't have to rely on our Letters to the Editor page or our Corrections process. You can write your own blog post or get the attention of a media critic (including our public editor, a job that didn't exist until a decade ago). Such criticism isn't always enjoyable -- and we don't always agree with it -- but there is little question that it makes us better at our jobs.

Beyond this new accountability, the Web has also allowed and required us to become much more innovative. Think of the tremendous interactives that Amanda Cox, Steve Duenes, Matt Ericson, Kevin Quealy and all the NYT graphics editors produce.

Or think of all the real-time political coverage that Jeff Zeleny, Jim Rutenberg, Mike Shear and others provided during the presidential debates this year. Or the columns in the Business section, most of which are relatively new. Or the videos, like the celebrated one on hockey fighting. Or the Well blog, by Tara Parker-Pope.

Whichever of these features you like or don't like, I'm utterly persuaded that The Times is a better publication than it was in the past.

dleonhardtnyt40 karma

Thank you.

As it happens, I just sent the following email to our public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who also asked this question:

We've covered him and will continue to do so. But as with any other legal case, we won't cover every single proceeding. In this case, doing so would have involved multiple days of a reporter's time, for a relatively straightforward story. The A.P. article recounting the main points of Mr. Manning's testimony about his conditions of confinement that ran on page A3 of The Times conveyed fundamentally the same material as a staff story would have. And Charlie Savage covered his conditions of confinement, as they were being debated, in two previous articles: http://goo.gl/dvFV0, http://goo.gl/gYTX7. Again, though, readers can definitely expect more coverage of Mr. Manning in the weeks to come.

dleonhardtnyt39 karma

I think the prospects of major climate-change legislation -- a cap-and-trade bill or carbon tax -- remain remote. There is too much opposition among Republicans (who can block it in the House) and among a subset of Democrats who represent coal or oil states in the Senate (who keep the Senate from getting to 50 votes, let alone 60). So I think it's essentially irrelevant whether Obama introduces a comprehensive bill.

But there is still a real question about how aggressively his administration will pursue other policies to address the climate. The policies the administration pursued in the first term have already had a substantial effect, playing a role in creating the recent wind and solar boom.

Will the administration push Congress to extend the wind and solar tax credit? And will Congress do so? Will Obama make a push on building standards, much as he did on fuel mileage-standards? How aggressive will the EPA be?

Even without a comprehensive bill, the White House has some big decisions about how much it wants to push on climate. I agree that Sandy makes it more likely Obama will make a push, and more likely any push would succeed. But I don't know how much more likely.

dleonhardtnyt38 karma

I'm not sure I can improve on what's already been written on the subject, including The Times and Iraq - NYTimes.com and THE PUBLIC EDITOR; Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction? - New York Times, among many other things.

dleonhardtnyt33 karma

I don't think the last four years were roadblocked. The last two, yes.

But whether you think it did great harm or great good, Congress and the Obama administration passed a lot of hugely important legislation in 2009 and 2010. The health-care bill, alone, is the most significant piece of legislation in decades, both because of how it changes the safety net and because how it attempts to reduce inequality. On top of the health-care bill, there were the changes to higher education and K-12, the Dodd-Frank bill and the climate bills and regulations I mentioned in another answer.

The last two years, though, were deadlocked, because Obama and Republican leaders in Congress agreed on very little. I expect the next four year will end up somewhere in between the first two years of Obama's first term and the second two years.

The looming "fiscal cliff" means that aspects of the current tax code is likely to change significantly. And the Republicans' concerns over their image among Latino voters means some kind of immigration bill seems likely to pass too.

dleonhardtnyt22 karma

Read good journalism. And support it economically: subscribe to publications you value (in print or online). If a publication doesn't charge, make a point of clicking on ads that catch your interest.

(As I say above, I don't actually think the state of journalism is sad. It's imperfect but better than ever.)