Terry Mattingly has a good post up at Get Religion, the website focusing on how the media cover religion, in which he focuses on the particular nature of the liberal bias at The New York Times. This bias is not really what many conservatives think it is, he implicitly argues, focusing on new and past statements by Bill Keller, the paper’s former executive editor. Examining Keller’s own statements about the Times’s liberalism, TMatt finds Keller saying the Times works hard to be unbiased in covering everything except social and cultural issues, where it takes an unapologetically liberal stance. Excerpt:

For me, this leads to a simple question. Is the former Times editor essentially saying that his newspaper is committed to doing fair, accurate, critically balanced coverage of all kinds of issues — except for those that are touched by the uniquely dangerous, judgmental and irrational reality that is religious faith and practice? In other words, it is acceptable for Times journalists to produce advocacy journalism on a list of approved religious, moral, cultural and social issues. So there.

That’s really bad news for people, like me, who keep trying to defend the New York Times. This would certainly, for example, clash with GetReligion’s conviction that — whether journalists are believers or nonbelievers, we don’t care — they need to realize that it’s impossible to understand how real events occur in the real world without understanding that religion is often a real and powerful force in human affairs.

Why should the Times try to understand the worldview of these people if it has an a priori commitment to the idea that they are Bad and must be defeated? I’m not trying to be snarky here. I honestly don’t get why the Times doesn’t think it’s important to strive for the same fairness and balance in covering religious and cultural issues as it says it does in covering politics. TMatt quotes from a recent interview with the paper’s new executive editor, Jill Abramson, in which she signals continuity with the Keller bias. “I sometimes try not only to remind myself but my colleagues that the way we view an issue in New York is not necessarily the way it is viewed in the rest of America,” she says — which is true, but then she goes on to speak of compensating for bias in coverage in a strictly political sense.

Leaving aside issues of journalistic professionalism, this makes no business sense to me. The Times is not going to survive as an institution if it doesn’t expand its audience of paid subscribers nationally, through its digital edition. This is what the Wall Street Journal is trying to do as well. The Journal has a natural advantage in holding on to its print subscribers, because it has long had a national audience among the business and financial class, who have long read it for its financial coverage. The Times doesn’t have this. I can’t find the article right now, but at some point in the past year or two, I read something in the journalism trade press analyzing circulation figures, and reporting that the Times’s print circulation in NYC is declining so rapidly that if it weren’t for the paper expanding its readership elsewhere, the paper’s losses would be even starker.

Plainly it is in the vital business interest of The New York Times to overcome its parochial, Manhattan-centered cultural biases, and report in a more balanced, thorough fashion on the national scene. Keller, and now Abramson, seem to understand that from a political point of view, but on social issues, religion, culture? Forget it. How come? It’s maddening. I’m about to move to a small town in the South. I plan to keep my NYT digital subscription, because I strongly value the paper’s coverage of national and international events and issues, its terrific coverage of the food and food culture, and David Brooks and Ross Douthat. Whatever its biases, the Times is a truly great newspaper. But I tell you, the paper’s aggressively liberal cultural bias severely tries my patience. I tried to subscribe to the Journal’s digital edition last year, simply because I think its cultural coverage is so superior (not because it’s conservative, but because it’s sophisticated and balanced), but something went wrong with the payment process online, and I got frustrated and decided I should probably just save the money, given how expensive the Times and the Journal both are. I can’t afford both, and I have a prior loyalty to the Times. My relationship to the Times is that of a conservative Episcopalian to his church: perpetually just one more outrage away from storming out the door, never to return. But that day never seems to come.

It might, though. Anyway, I wonder how many potential readers of its digital edition the Times might have if its leadership understood that the paper’s strongly liberal cultural bias — the fact of which they already recognize! — is a bug, not a feature. I’m not asking that the paper become culturally conservative (as if such a thing were possible), only that it become culturally more comprehensive and balanced by expanding the scope of its coverage. Wouldn’t that make the Times a better newspaper?  I think so. Why is that so hard for the Times’s leadership to understand? There’s something about the culture of American newsrooms — and I’m not just talking about the Times here — that cultivates a powerful sense of liberal self-righteousness about culture-war issues, such that these institutions persist in their biases even though it arguably hurts their economic bottom lines in a catastrophic business environment. They’d rather be righteous, on their own narrow terms, than fair, balanced, or successful.