Washington — Why, you might ask, was I invited to a New York dinner party last week hosted by mainstream media’s Peter Jennings? And, then, were there fisticuffs when the affable Jennings introduced me to the first person standing nearby as I entered his elegant apartment? That would be Frank Rich, the man who had just pronounced me “insane” in the New York Times, where he, with clockwork regularity, deposits such preposterosities. Well, I neither belted the hyperbolist nor defenestrated him. The occasion was all conviviality, and the reason Jennings had gathered us was to celebrate the arrival on the New York scene of a new daily broadsheet, the New York Sun.
The Sun will be good for New York and good for the quality of journalism and political debate in the country. Edited by an old Wall Street Journal hand, Seth Lipsky, the Sun is going to be right-of-center. It is going to be energetic in its coverage of the city and uniquely cosmopolitan in its foreign coverage, using the foreign services of London’s Telegraph newspapers and of the Jerusalem Post. The Telegraph newspapers, in particular, have fetched my admiration for years, combining a lively curiosity about the world, an informed knowledge of it, and an amused gaze across the globe. In reporting on New York, the Sun promises all of that; and so I have answered Lipsky’s call to serve as a Contributing Editor, but only so long as I can accord absurdity a few laughs. That, I believe, will be a long time.
Lipsky has lined up the support of some of New York’s most successful businessmen. They and he have flourished in the city. They are defiant, after the atrocity of September 11, that the city thrive. Pursuant to that goal the Sun will fasten on New York City, its neighborhoods, its commerce, and its people with reporters who are street smart. Finally there will be politics and culture.
New York is the cultural center of our country. Lipsky, in an earlier life, edited the Forward. For generations it was the leading Jewish paper in the country. Under Lipsky it did many things well, but two departments stand out in my mind. It reported politics and culture with a high and liberated intelligence. The voice of the New York Sun will be unlike the gentle moo-mooing of journalism’s bovine herd.
Having disposed of that vexed question — will the Sun be conservative or liberal — I move on to an even more troubled question, to wit, why another newspaper in this age of broadcast news? Simply stated, print is more muscular than broadcast media. It arrests the attention and penetrates the mind more deeply. Moreover, print can always be more independent than radio or television journalism, even if it is the journalism of such a large corporation as the New York Times. Print employs more journalists and gives them more space to work in. A broadcast studio gives the talking (and smiling and cooing) head a few minutes for each “piece.” A news story in print can go on for several thousand words. It is more difficult to edit out meaning, as broadcast media’s sonorous lilts so often do; and several thousand words in print make a deeper impression on the audience than five minutes of mediocre acting– which is what television often is.
Print is a sturdier tool for informing or launching ideas, political awareness, and reform. Broadcast media are ephemeral. There is much noise. In television, there are pictures. Then broadcast media pass on. The attention span of the broadcast audience is childishly transitory. Print digs deeper. Its product is left around the house longer. It is filed in libraries, nearby. Its reporters are on the prowl inveterately. The only equipment they need is pen and pad.
No great reform movement and no blockbuster story has ever been launched and sustained by broadcast media. Newspapers produced muckrakers and the fall of presidents. The Clinton scandals were covered by The American Spectator, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, and sporadically other print media. Broadcast media failed even to report whole stories and accounted for very few. At this writing I cannot think of one significant Clinton scandal broken by television.
In brief, broadcast journalism is light drama; print journalism is history’s early edition, and, at its best, a herald’s call to civic action. American print journalism has fallen into the pudgy hands of monopolists. Without competition in city after city, local newspapers have become dull and lazy. In New York there is a lively tabloid competition but no competition between broadsheets. Now the New York Sun will create competition. That the Sun‘s rival is the behemoth New York Times is no cause to worry. I handled Rich without violence; Lipsky will handle the Times with no bodily injury ensuing.