Spectator's Journal

The Mean Old Gray Lady

Is it too late to say something good about the New York Times?

By From the March 2012 issue

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You know, there's quite a bit to like about the New York Times, and…

Hold it, hold it! Hush just a minute. And lay down, if you'd be so kind, the bung starters and overripe tomatoes. I come in peace, with a serious point to make: about 21st century journalism; indeed, about 21st century America and my apprehensions for it. The accelerating corruption of the Times, and of American liberalism, which the Times exemplifies, is at the heart of the point I would make.

The Times, which I began reading regularly in the late 1960s and still subscribe to ($15.40 a week), causes me regularly to wonder at prospects of ever achieving anything that resembles national cohesion. I have come to think 21st century liberals seek anything but cohesion. Subjugation is, I believe, their agenda. This I believe on account of what seems to have come over their principal organ of opinion and interpretation, the once-gray, now flamboyantly pink, lavender, and chartreuse Times. Oh, my.

I take the risk of affixing my name to these considerations, knowing as I do the disdain in which the Times is held by, well, non-liberals. A commenter on the Poynter Institute website, "pointdan," notes that "anyone who reads or subscribes to the New York Times should be indicted for treason." I will just have to take my chances, with or without an ACLU attorney.

Here goes. And remember what I said about the tomatoes.

Within the four or five or more daily sections of the New York Times lives a newspaper expertly packaged and informatively written, often rich in content, often highly enjoyable. I make this claim not only as a daily reader but as one who toiled for daily newspapers from 1964 to 2001. The Times has a good sports section; its arts and entertainment section, for all the generally "progressive" tilt of some staff members, keeps me abreast of the museum scene and the Metropolitan Opera; my wife drinks in Bill Cunningham's street scene photos in the Style section; the Business section is rich and informative; I learn a lot from the Science section; the political coverage, not all of it testy and liberal, is broad; still broader is the international coverage; the Books tab brings to my attention books I need to know about (save for the paper's sniffy disdain regarding conservative publishers—a disdain my own publisher, Roger Kimball of Encounter, rewarded a couple of years ago by announcing he wasn't going to send the Times any more books to ignore—so there!). Over all, the writing is clear and literate, despite 50-word lead sentences that would benefit from editorial pruning shears.

The trouble is, the Times of the present day doesn't like me. It purrs in my hands for a while, then suddenly bites and claws. At bottom, the Times despises and distrusts conservatives, without much attempt to understand them. This bothers, as you might imagine, one who pays $15 a week for the right to be clawed.

The Times' famous liberalism—which no one inside or outside the paper disputes, and which I used to put up with as the price of entry—has gone rancid: indeed, much like liberalism in general, which has become despotic, high-handed, and smoothly patronizing.

Two kinds of modern liberalism deleteriously affect the Times. They are political liberalism and cultural liberalism. I will take them up in that order.

Once upon a time, for all the commitment of the Times' staff and owners (the Sulzberger family in the latter case) to liberalism of the Northeastern variety, I recall a less strident approach. There was much less meanness than has become the norm for the Times. While reading the Times, you could root for Goldwater, Reagan, the contras, and supply-side tax cuts without hearing behind you the tread of the boys with butterfly nets, alerted to your manias by astute Times reporters and ready to haul you away for examination. The Times editorial page was likelier to shake a reproving finger at you for believing in free market processes and traditional values than it was to aim a flamethrower your way. In the early Sixties, doing M.A. research on FDR and his opponents, I made as it were the acquaintance of the Times' Arthur Krock, a conservative Democrat who flourished before and after the Second World War. We got along famously. No salivating big government guy was Arthur Krock, whose volume of memoirs I subsequently bought and consumed. Nor was the tenor of commentary by other Times writers what you would call acerbic.

With changing Times, the Times grew edgier and more critical of Republicans, but even Scotty Reston and Tom Wicker—yes, Wicker, the arch-liberal—went down without bicarbonate of soda. Anyway, no orthodoxy of which I was aware made it incumbent on conservatives to salute Richard Nixon with cuckoo-clock regularity.

There is no point in tracing the descent of the Times' editorial page into liberal miasma and incoherence. Suffice it to say the present page, presided over by Andrew Rosenthal, is a mess: about as comfortable to have around the house as a rabid Lab retriever.

The Times editorial page staff, and assorted Op-Ed columnists, don't just disagree with me. They hate me. I can tell. They speak in tones of contempt for conservatives and conservative ideas. The editorial and Op-Ed page's writers are perpetually angry. I don't mean just a little put out. I mean furious to see Americans entertain recherché notions, such as that government has limited competence to cure all human problems. Thus we found the 2012 New Hampshire primaries to have been "a journey into the dingy, cramped quarters of the right wing's economic policies." Current attempts to curb or modify public employee unions' collective bargaining rights are "shameful." Not just ill-advised, you understand—shameful.

Attempts last year by "extremist House members" to control federal spending amounted to "extortion." Ah, but "Republican obstructionism crumbles as leaders agree to extend the payroll tax cut." "The toxic effects of right-wing extremism in Washington" evidently fell short. And so it goes.

I yield to many in admiration for the Hon. Newton Leroy Gingrich, yet I find myself shaking my head at the Times' obsession with him as he battled for the GOP presidential nod. In Iowa Gingrich "served up a right-wing theology that would dismantle every social advance since the institution of child labor laws and eviscerate the judiciary that has protected civil rights for a half-century." Oh, and yes, "He is using McCarthyite tactics to smear judges." There's a blast from the past-"McCarthyite."

I don't know who writes this stuff. I do know who writes some of the snarky, claws-bare-and-extended stuff on the Op-Ed page: to wit, Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins (the latter a former Times editorial page editor). Don't expect from either of these babes anything like sober analysis. Analysis isn't their thing. Their thing is to aim stiletto-heeled kicks at conservative groins. Worst of the lot, over on the Op-Ed side, is Paul Krugman, the Nobel economics laureate whom frankly I had to give up reading, so ferocious, so ill-natured were (and are still, I guess) his attacks on conservatives and conservative economic ideas. The columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat supposedly come along on alternate days to massage conservative sensibilities. However, Brooks, a mild-mannered moderate, grooves on sociology more than politics and in any case isn't nearly as conservative as, say, Krugman is left-wing. This leaves young Douthat to tidy up the joint a little in his soft-spoken way. I do like to read him. I also so like new Op-Ed columnist Joe Nocera, not least because, unlike so many of the brethren, he refrains from shouting down opponents.

Then there's the Times' news coverage. I wouldn't say the Times deliberately slants the news against conservatives. I would suggest most Times reporters, being liberal (like reporters in general), lack a feel for who conservatives are, and what they might be thinking about, and why. With that caveat constantly in mind, I read the Times' political coverage to find out what's on liberals' minds. The quest can be interesting. I commend it, actually, to people who depend on Fox News to keep them abreast of developments.

I do take alarm at a recent query put to Times readers by the paper's ordinarily reasonable ombudsman, Arthur Brisbane, who was put up, it sounds like, to soliciting opinions on whether the Times should commission reporters to "correct" false—as it might seem to them—information they scribble down. Horsefeathers! It's not for reporters to sit in judgment on statements made to them. A good reporter doesn't argue back. He lets others do that. Mr. Brisbane, don't listen to lunatics who tell you reporters need to step inside the story and tell readers what's really going on. That ways lies destruction of credibility.

Now, concerning the Times' cultural liberalism. Times readers got a valuable tip as to the paper's disposition in that department when in January the Dining section published "Meatless in the Midwest: A Tale of Survival." It appeared that A. G. Sulzberger—that would be the son of the current publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., on assignment in the above said Midwest—shuns meat (including chicken stock) and is perforce always on the lookout for a good tofu joint. Ah, the privations that principle and taste buds can require! Now I don't want to beat up on young Sulzberger, whose piece was commendably good-natured and who has written some good stuff hitherto. I would suggest the unintentional irony in his disquisition: Heartland challenges East Coast guy; sort of like Bob Hope in The Paleface, abroad in the wild west with his Eastern attitudes and foibles.

The Times, which currently, and deliberately, views itself as a newspaper for the whole of America, manifests a certain standoffishness regarding the rest of America. The yokels are different from you and me, especially when "you" turn out to be a Texan, say, of altogether different cultural persuasion than the nice folks on Manhattan Island. The New York Times' cultural obsessions—gay rights and feminism—are constantly on display. When New York State was embroiled last year over the extension of marriage privileges to gays, the Times was reliably short with those who spoke up on the traditional marriage norm—one man, one woman, one union. The Times was all over the story: day after day, interviews, analysis, photos, editorial commentary. You might have thought it was the grandest event of the century. Similarly the Times speaks up on all occasions for the right of women to do, well, whatever it is women want to do, including abort their babies. The Republican contest in Iowa this year inspired the editorial staff to advise otherwise nonchalant voters that, "The assault on women's reproductive health is a central part of the Republican agenda." Bad boys—stop that! This minute!

What to do, what to do? As a practical matter, nothing, perhaps, save subscribe to the conservative and journalistically top-notch Wall Street Journal (which I do anyway, gratefully). And assess (as I do, regularly) the value of culling the bad parts of the Times in order to enjoy the good parts. I maintain my Times subscription for the nonce. But back to my original point, namely, that the Times exemplifies the accelerating corruption of American liberalism. No one expects the Times to be other than liberal. That is its culture. New York expects liberalism from its chief bearer of news. Liberalism it gets. Liberalism, nonetheless, of a more and more alarming variety: arrogant, indignant, angry, unbending, detached from reality, and from any sense of popular aspirations.

The liberalism of the 21st century appears to have shed any geniality, let alone tolerance, it may have boasted in the past. If the Times doesn't like me personally, neither does the American liberal establishment, which professes not to care what I think, wishing only to shove its nostrums and prescriptions down my throat. This renders the New York Times an ideal vehicle for the explication of liberal policy and ideals, including the splendor of Obamacare and the necessity of parting Americans from their love of gas-guzzling cars.

No political creed is innocent of certainty. "Credo"—"I believe"—is the etymological root in "creed." So shouldn't liberals be straightforward in the assertion of their ideals? Of course they should. However, the Times' compliance in this obligation—I say this as a newspaperman and onetime professor of journalism—would properly be hedged with acknowledgments of the duty to generate fruitful discussion of large issues. The New York Times' respect for free speech is boxed in, rather, with locally generated certainties. We're right! They're wrong! Can't any fool see this? The liberal establishment surely sees it, as the battle over Obamacare richly illustrates. Once the battle got going, the duty of government (according to the government) was to press ahead and do what needed doing irrespective of ill-founded and nattering objections. With the Times this was perfectly cool. "We" were right. "They" were deceived. That was all we needed to know.

An ancient tag has it that those whom God, or the gods, would destroy they first make mad. Not mad in the sense of "angry"-mad in the sense of "nuts." Anger can go with it, as any fair reading of the Times' editorial section makes clear, but intellectual imbalance is the larger part of the equation. I once knew the Times as unduly in love with Eastern-urban conceits but hardly hostile, for all that, to competing points of view: amused by such viewpoints, perhaps, but unwilling to laugh them out of court. I think many, not all by any means, of those who direct affairs at the New York Times just plain—how shall I put this?—aren't in touch with reality. On which showing they make appropriate spokesmen for the thought leaders and strategists of the modern liberal faith they labor—so far without fulfillment—to rear in our midst: large, cold, sneering, domineering.

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About the Author

William Murchison is a Dallas-based columnist for Creators Syndicate. His latest book is The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.