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For the first time in a while, a headline made the news this week. It turns out The New York Times stepped into controversy by changing a headline. Not that such a change would be controversial in itself; updated headlines happen all the time. The reason for the change is what caused the heartburn.

After a rash of shootings last weekend that led to dozens of deaths from Texas to Ohio, the president of the United States did what presidents usually do in these miserable situations: He gave a speech in an attempt to console.

In turn, the newspaper of record did what it usually does: write an innocuous headline about the speech. The copy editor(s) in charge Tuesday put this up for its readers:

Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism

Which is exactly what he did. You can look it up. The speech Donald Trump gave earlier this week about the shootings could have been given by Barack Obama, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. It was more newsworthy because Trump actually denounced white supremecy, and instead, urged unity in addressing the hate and bigotry that has caused some of these shootings. That might not be what some would have expected considering President Trump's past statements. But The Times' story correctly noted what he had said.

Then a blogger got on social media, criticizing The Times' headline. The blogger got 3,000 re-tweets and 18,000 likes. And that stirred up more than just the blogosphere. It got the Democratic contenders on their high horses:

After the initial headline, Cory Booker--not exactly the sort of objective editor you'd need at the moment--called on The Times to do better, whatever that means. Beto O'Rourke, another candidate for Donald Trump's job, called the headline "Unbelievable." And AOC, that font of journalistic integrity and Olympian objectivity, took to Twitter to say this, along with a screen shot of the paper that morning: "Let this front page serve as a reminder of how white supremacy is aided by--and often relies on--the cowardice of mainstream institutions."

Note to AOC & Co.: The story below the headline was exactly about the president saying white supremacy had no place in America.

The Times appeared to have caved to the pressure, and changed its headline in face of that criticsm. The new title of the story became:

Assailing Hate But Not Guns

We don't see how that's any better or worse, or more descriptive or less. The point is that after a few Facebook posts and retweets, the nation's largest paper folded like a cheap suit. Courageous, this was not.

On April 18, 1896, Adolph S. Ochs wrote this "Business Announcement" after assuming control of The New York Times. He published this on the editorial page. We reprint it here in the name of science:

"It will be my earnest aim that The New-York Times give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form, in language that is parliamentary in good society, and give it as early, if not earlier, than it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved; to make of the columns of The New-York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion."

Without fear or favor.

But the perception now is that the newspaper fears or favors certain people in the Twitterverse. And will change 1A headlines above the fold when those of a particular political persuasion become verklempt.

We're reminded of 1957 in Little Rock. After a series of editorials and stories and photographs and general newspaperizing on the school desegregation crisis, The Gazette lost 15 percent of its subscribers. The old lady didn't back down. In fact, there's been a grand tradition over the years of newspapers all across the fruited plains standing up to the popular, or at least contemporary, opinions of the day. We once asked an editor here if we should reflect public opinion. He huffed back: "Hell, no, boy! We should lead it!"

Cory Booker said The New York Times should do better. On that much, we can agree with the senator.

Two thousand newspapers in America have shut down in the last 15 years. The business is struggling not only to make a profit, but to remain extant. Those running the ship in New York seem to have figured out the digital age. The rest of us are still trying.

The newspaper industry, American readers, and maybe even the country need a strong New York Times. We don't need that paper following the lead of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC--that is, rooting for one political side or another, or advising one political side or another, or cowing to one political side or another.

Without fear or favor?

Democracy may depend on it.

And so what if a little criticism comes our way? Too many journalists today seem to confuse journalism with safe harbor, not the grand adventure it used to be and ought to stay. And could be again if certain editors would use some backbone and adhere to the core values of journalism.

Editorial on 08/10/2019

Print Headline: Standing head here


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