Where is the Center?

Last week there was an interesting controversy about a New York Times op-ed (this one, in case you’re curious) that sparked an email discussion between some friends and I. I had been reading up on the concerns about the op-ed, which were mostly coming from left-leaning folks (summary of the controversy here) and was interested to note that in many of the discussions the political orientation of the New York Times was considered germane, as the NYTs was not considered a “friendly” publication to the left. I read multiple times that the NYT was obviously a “center right” publication.

This assertion surprised me, as I had always heard the NYTs referred to as a left leaning publication. As I’ve previously mentioned, I went to Baptist school through 12th grade, so this was actually a thing pretty frequently discussed.

As tends to happen when I hear two sides who disagree on something, I immediately wondered what definitions everyone was using. As I mentioned recently while discussing the political tribes study, measuring where the center is when it comes to compromise is hard. How do we measure where the center is when it comes to journalism? Or in general?

It strikes me that when we use the word “center”, people can mean a few things:

  1. Center of public opinion of the country This one makes sense when we’re talking about elections, though can be deceptive. I heard someone recently mention that most people were actually liberal, because most people support expanding social services. Well yeah. The problem is that most people really tend to hate when their tax bill goes up, so they also tend to vote against that. What “most people want” can shift and wiggle depending on specifics.
  2. Center of public opinion of those they are aware of I’ll come back to this one in a second, but who we see every day matters. A person growing up in Massachusetts will almost certainly end up with a slightly different idea of “center” than a person growing up in Texas. Likewise, a person spending a lot of time on the internet may believe that the center is something different than it is in real life.
  3. Center of public opinion of a group of countries/the world This one comes up a lot when people talk about things like healthcare or anything that starts with “out of the G8 countries, the US is the only one without _____”. Likewise, a friend of mine who is Methodist recently sent out a video where their pastor pointed out that what was being proposed as a “moderate” stance on LGBT issues would actually be a radical stance for the Methodist churches located in Africa. Center changes quickly if you move outside the US.
  4. Moderate political beliefs While there doesn’t appear to be a firm definition of moderate vs centrist, I did really like this Quora discussion about the difference. There’s an interesting assertion that non-extreme liberals like to use the word “centrist” whereas non-extreme conservatives like to use the word “moderate”. The political tribes study certainly took this stance, and called the right leaning center the “moderates”. Essentially though, “moderate” seems to imply a slower paced version of the liberal beliefs you align with. So someone who was “moderate” on taxes might believe they should be lowered, but would advocate gradual change. Someone who was “centrist” might believe they should stay where they are.
  5. People who express their beliefs politely and are willing to listen to others, or who otherwise strive for harmony I’ll be coming back to this one as well, but there is an idea that “centrists” may just be people who don’t really like to openly argue with others. They may be people who put harmony ahead of political stances. They may be center by disposition, not by belief. Interestingly, the political tribes study I just mentioned put those who were “politically disengaged” in the exact center, flanked by those they called “passive liberals” and those they called “moderates”.
  6. Someone who doesn’t agree with you on a key issue, but agrees on others. This one would be particularly key if you had one issue you felt strongly about. Major political parties tend to have a platform, but there are many people who are more single issue. If someone disagreed with them on that one issue, they may end up not thinking of them as  on “their side” even if they were based on our traditional definitions.

With all those options, some groups that try to assess political bias have taken a multifaceted approach to ranking media outlets. For example, the website AllSides.com uses reader surveys that include a measure of the readers own bias in the calculation. When you sign up, you take a survey to assess your own bias, then they weight your rating of articles/outlets with that in mind. They also tell you how disputed the rankings are, and for large newspapers they rank the news and the editorial page separately. All Sides ranks The New York Times news section is rated “leans left” and their editorial page is rated “left”, FWIW.

So why the perception that the NYTs is center right?

Well, I thought about this and I’m guessing it’s a bit of #1 and 6 put together.

The first time I saw the NYTs referred to as “right leaning” was when they started profiling Trump voters after the election. Some people thought that was giving more air time to half the country than the other half, as there were not equal profiles of non-Trump voters. Of course the response is that the NYTs newsroom is almost certainly made up of non-Trump voters, along with much of their readership and that their typical articles reflect this, but there was still some thought that this should have been made more equal. This seems to have gotten in to the conventional wisdom in some circles, and now is getting repeated.

However on a deeper level, I wonder if #2 and #5 are coming in to play, particularly for younger people. It occurred to me that most of us older than, I don’t know, 25 or so, probably grew up with a different exposure to media than younger people have. When I was a kid, my parents subscribed to the newspaper (the Union Leader) and maybe watched the evening news. Now, both my husband and I read our news online. We’ve never gotten a newspaper, and we only watch the news when something big happens. This means my son has almost never seen how we get the news. He has much less of a baseline for news than I would have at the same age. If I’m not careful, his first exposure to reading the news will be random stories that catch his attention on Facebook/Twitter/whatever social media dominates when he starts getting in to it.

It occurred to me that if the bulk of your initial media exposure is viral headlines and journalism that openly advocates for certain positions, you’re going to have a very different take on what “center” is. If you’re used to media outlets marketing themselves directly to your demographic, then anything that doesn’t do that may not feel like “your side”. The further we get in to the internet/market segmentation age, the more people will have grown up without exposure to anything different.

I have no idea what the outcome of that would be, or if it will be a good thing or a bad thing. I do think it might have an impact on where we consider “the center” to be, as it may more and more come to mean “those not given to conflict” as opposed to “those attempting to represent both sides”. Not sure if that change is for the better or for the worse, but I do suspect there will be a shift.

I will note that we may already be seeing a shift in journalism due to Twitter. Someone noted recently that while about 20% of Americans have a Twitter account (including <18), almost 100% of journalists do. This means that journalists are most likely to hear from those who want to go on Twitter and mix it up with journalists, which almost certainly leaves out the “passive liberal” and “politically disengaged” off their radar. The survey suggested that’s 41% of the population, so that could lead to a serious skewing of perception. If they’re not hearing from “moderates” often, then they’re missing almost 60% of the US. One guesses they are hearing from the extremes (8% and 6%) more often than anyone else.

So those are my thoughts. BTW, if any of my readers happen to hold the opinion that the NYTs is center right, I would actually be rather interested in hearing why you drew that conclusion. I’ll admit I do not tend to read them, so I may have missed something. For everyone else, I’m equally curious what you call “center” and how you get there, or just in general what you think of the All Sides rankings. They seem to have gotten my two local papers right (Boston Herald – leans right, Boston Globe – leans left), so as far as I can tell they’re solid.

Good luck out there.


6 thoughts on “Where is the Center?

  1. “Center” varies historically too. I’m pretty moderate (by self-definition 🙂 ), but wrt the divine right of kings I’m a dangerous radical. I have similar judgments about the divine right of “credentialed elites”, but I think that puts me squarely in the center in a nation founded on revolutionary principles.

    It gets complicated, doesn’t it?


    • That’s true! In my lifetime the “center” stance on gay marriage has changed quite profoundly, but the “center” stance on abortion has barely budged.


  2. Something that occurred to me for the first time while reading this is that where a news source is perceived as lying on the political spectrum (okay, “lying” on the spectrum is actually sorta funny) is deeply related to Who they praise or disparage as much as What Issues they support. That speaks more to cultural and class divide rather than political. The major outlets sneer at (most) conservatives culturally, so conservatives perceive them as left wing based on the hostility, not the position. The NYT is not far-left on Israel and the ME. Free-speech, tariffs, and transgender rights are all things that are moving about the spectrum now. Yet who one makes fun of, and what their symbolism is, seems to remain remarkably stable.

    That is going to be even more pronounced under a social media “what do the Best People think” sky.


  3. In terms of how some describes a media outlet politically, I’ve seen this formulation used occasionally.

    Corporations/Businesses are right-wing.
    (media outlet) is a Corporation/Business.
    Therefore, (media outlet) is right-wing.

    I can never tell if people are actually serious about it or just trolling.


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