The Thumb On The Scale

A left-punching New York Times essay shows how corporate media boosts a particular ideology.
The Thumb On The Scale
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

This morning, the New York Times published a screed from pollster Mark Penn and former New York City lawmaker Andrew Stein demanding Democrats abandon their promised agenda ahead of the midterm elections. The massive 1,500 word op-ed — designed to define the political news cycle for the coming week — echoes a house editorial from the newspaper making much the same argument, and it mirrors previous Penn diatribes that the Times has platformed in the past.

In the process, this essay offers a rare glimpse of how corporate media imperceptibly puts its thumb on the scale for a particular ideology that is decidedly neither centrist nor objective.

The Times’ original headline on Monday’s piece (which has since been changed) read “A Way Forward for Biden and the Dems in 2022 & 2024.” It argues that President Biden should “listen to centrists (and) push back on the left” and insists Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema “are in fact the very heart of the Democratic Party.”

It’s a hot take that might be mildly interesting, if it came from voices who genuinely had the Democratic Party’s best interests in mind. However, the Times decided to not tell readers that Penn is a private equity mogul with myriad connections to the corporate world that’s looking to kill the Democratic legislative agenda that the op-ed seeks to curtail. The paper doesn’t mention Penn’s ties to No Labels, a dark money group funded by big donors that’s been vilifying Democrats’ reconciliation bill. The paper also declines to mention that Penn advised President Donald Trump during his first impeachment, nor does it mention that Stein is the guy who literally ran Democrats For Trump.

Instead, the paper of record tells readers only that “Mr. Penn is a former adviser and pollster to President Clinton and Hillary Clinton (and) Mr. Stein is a former president of the New York City Council.”

This unmentioned context makes sense of many seemingly inexplicable aspects of the op-ed. This additional information explains why the diatribe ignores all the polling about how popular Biden’s promised-but-still-not-delivered economic agenda is, why it goes out of its way to insult Bernie Sanders, and why it bizarrely blames the left for the results of last week’s gubernatorial race in Virginia, in which the undead corpse of Clintonism, Terry McAuliffe, lost  blue-state contest to Glenn Youngkin, a Republican former Carlyle Group co-CEO.

Penn’s essay comes amid a slew of New York Times content beating the drum with this same blame-the-left message.

The icing on the cake is how the paper chose to run this Penn column after quickly rejecting a separate reported commentary piece citing history and data to make the opposite argument: That Democrats’ own history makes clear that abandoning their promised economic agenda in advance of a midterm election can deliver an electoral shellacking, just like it did in 2010.

The reason I happen to know that the Times decided to reject such a piece and instead publish Penn’s argument is because Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney and I were the ones who wrote that alternative op-ed, which summarized the findings of our nearly two years’ worth of reporting for our podcast series Meltdown.

Now, sure, maybe you could argue our piece somehow didn’t meet the writing standards of the Gray Lady. But that seems like a bit of a stretch at a newspaper that regularly publishes the mixed metaphors and incoherent prose of folks like Tom Friedman and Bret Stephens. And if there was some fundamental writing flaw at play in the submission, the piece probably would not have quickly found a home at The Guardian, a nonprofit news outlet with a sizable international audience.

Please understand this isn’t an episode of sour grapes. The Times has some good reporters, and were fair to me in a profile a few years ago. I genuinely don’t care that the newspaper didn’t run our piece — I’ve been at this work for 20 years and don’t take this kind of thing personally, because it isn’t personal. (And I’m glad the paper at least published one soft essay from a former Virginia congressman sorta-kinda-but-not-really pushing back on some of the left punching).

This is about something much bigger — it is about systemic ideological skewing of the discourse, a topic I’ve obsessed over since I wrote my first book on the subject, and since I first read Noam Chomsky’s masterpiece, Manufacturing Consent.

And if you somehow think this ideological skewing is an anomaly rather than something impersonal and systemic, just look back at how the newspaper once backedited a story to make it more negative about Sanders, or how the paper was preemptively blaming the left for Biden’s agenda stalling, or how it’s chief political reporter was recently demanding progressives in Congress back down. Alternately, just go read this incredible thread about the Times stalling and ultimately killing an op-ed about Tyson Foods, before publishing a much rosier piece about the company.

That’s the larger point here: This is corporate media culture, not a series of isolated incidents. The Times’ decision to preference and launder Penn’s corporate talking points spotlights how ideology is quietly baked into corporate media — not just through writing, but also through story framing, voice selection, credential washing, and editorial omissions.

Certain perspectives are prominently promoted and given 1,500 words of space, while other perspectives are shunned. Corporate mouthpieces are scrubbed and presented as dispassionate observers, while corporate critics are flicked away from the platforms. Inconvenient truths about corruption, campaign cash, and corporate clients are omitted, and sponsor-friendly simplified talking points are promoted. And for every example that is sussed out and exposed, there are countless episodes that quietly occur without a peep.

The ideological skewing, tone policing, and parameter setting is happening all day, every day — not just at the Times, but as our reporting has shown, throughout the corporate media world. It starts at the bottom with Washington newsletters and eventually percolates to the top of the pyramid at legacy newspapers’ opinion pages and on cable TV news.

This is almost certainly why in recent years there has been more audience interest in non-corporate media — more and more news consumers likely suspect that corporate media is often feeding them content that just so happens to serve their corporate paymasters. Whether on the op-ed pages or in the news coverage, corporate media’s unending naysaying, criticizing, and eye-rolling of the reconciliation bill and progressive economic policy helps create the conditions to kill legislation that might, for instance, reduce the predatory profits of the drugmakers that bankroll corporate media.

This unceasing media drumbeat on every legislative question shapes not only what policies lawmakers are willing to consider, but more fundamentally what they — and the public at large — are willing to believe is even possible.

Realizing how this all-encompassing machine works isn’t easy; it’s akin to a fish realizing he is immersed in a thing called water. But recognizing this system is the first step towards an awareness of what’s really going on — and a prerequisite for any hope to change things for the better.


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