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A Week in the Death of the New York Times

How a once great paper overdosed on the Tucson massacre. 

By From the March 2011 issue

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After the horrific shooting spree, the editorial board of the New York Times offered a voice of reasoned circumspection: "In the aftermath of this unforgivable attack, it will be important to avoid drawing prejudicial conclusions...," the paper counseled.

Here's how the sentence continued: "...from the fact that Major Hasan is an American Muslim whose parents came from the Middle East."

That was in November 2009. The Times responded in precisely the opposite fashion to the Tucson Safeway massacre 14 months later. What was once known as the paper of record egged on its readers to draw invidious conclusions that were not only prejudicial but contrary to known fact. In doing so, the Times crossed a moral line and revealed itself to be a fundamentally corrupt institution.

On Saturday, January 8, a gunman shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords in the head at close range, gravely wounding the Arizona Democrat. He then opened fire on the crowd that had gathered for a "Congress on Your Corner" meet-and-greet, killing six, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.

By Monday, when the Times weighed in with an editorial, it was clear that suspect Jared Loughner was mentally ill and had no comprehensible political motive. The paper nonetheless seized on the crime as an occasion for partisan attack:

It is facile and mistaken to attribute this particular madman's act directly to Republicans or Tea Party members. But it is legitimate to hold Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media responsible for the gale of anger that has produced the vast majority of these threats, setting the nation on edge. Many on the right have exploited the arguments of division, reaping political power by demonizing immigrants, or welfare recipients, or bureaucrats. They seem to have persuaded many Americans that the government is not just misguided, but the enemy of the people....

Now, having seen first hand the horror of political violence, Arizona should lead the nation in quieting the voices of intolerance, demanding an end to the temptations of bloodshed, and imposing sensible controls on its instruments.

To describe the massacre as an act of "political violence" was, quite simply, a lie. It was as if, two days after the Columbine massacre, a conservative newspaper of the Times's stature had termed that atrocity an act of "educational violence" and used it as an occasion to denounce teachers unions. Such an editorial would be dishonest and indecent even if the arguments it made were meritorious.

The New York Times used a madman's act of wanton violence as an excuse to instigate a witch hunt against those it regarded as its domestic foes. "Instigate" is not too strong a word. One of the first to point an accusatory finger across the partisan aisle was the Times's star columnist, Paul Krugman. Less than two hours after the news of the shooting broke on Saturday, he opined on the paper's website: "We don't have proof yet that this was political, but the odds are that it was." He went on to explain why, in his mind, a centrist Democrat like Giffords would be a suitable target for a Tea Party assassin.

This was speculative fantasy, grossly irresponsible but perhaps forgivable had Krugman walked it back when the facts proved contrary to his prejudices. He did not. His Monday column evinced the same facts-be-damned attitude as the editorial did.

In that column, Krugman blamed the massacre on "eliminationist rhetoric," which he defined as "suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary." He rightly asserted that "there isn't any place" for such rhetoric. But he falsely claimed that it is "coming, overwhelmingly, from the right."

He provided exactly one example: Representative Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican, "urging constituents to be ‘armed and dangerous.' " Those words, although ill chosen, turned out in context to be far from eliminationist: Bachmann was urging her constituents to be "armed" with information about an energy bill that she opposed.

The evidence Krugman offered was insufficient to establish even the existence of "eliminationist rhetoric" on the right. To be sure, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Such rhetoric does exist, and Krugman was right to deplore it. But his assertion that it comes "overwhelmingly from the right" was at best willfully ignorant.

To take one example: Just this past October, then-Representative Paul Kanjorski, a Pennsylvania Democrat, told the Times-Tribune of Scranton: "That [Rick] Scott down there that's running for governor of Florida. Instead of running for governor of Florida, they ought to have him and shoot him. Put him against the wall and shoot him."

Kanjorski was defeated for reelection in November, but he turned up on January 11, the day after Krugman's "eliminationist rhetoric" column, on the op-ed page of-you guessed it-the New York Times, where he delivered a homily on civility:

It is incumbent on all Americans to create an atmosphere of civility and respect in which political discourse can flow freely, without fear of violent confrontation.

That is why the House speaker, John Boehner, spoke for everyone who has been in Congress when he said that an attack against one of us is an attack against all who serve. It is also an attack against all Americans.

Except, perhaps, Governor Scott of Florida. Later in the week, Kanjorski explained away his October remarks by telling the Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice that "only fruitcakes" would take it literally. Had Kanjorski been a Republican and Scott a Democrat, Krugman surely would have been a fruitcake.

Left-wing eliminationist rhetoric has occasionally made its way into the pages of the Times itself. One of the paper's columnists wrote in December 2009: "A message to progressives: By all means, hang Senator Joe Lieberman in effigy." That was Paul Krugman.

A March 2010 profile of Krugman in the New Yorker featured this related detail:

Once Obama won the primary, Krugman supported him. Obviously, any Democrat was better than John McCain.

"I was nervous until they finally called it on Election Night," Krugman says. "We had an Election Night party at our house, thirty or forty people."

"The econ department, the finance department, the Woodrow Wilson school," [Robin] Wells [Krugman's wife] says. "They were all very nervous, so they were grateful we were having the party, because they didn't want to be alone. We had two or three TVs set up and we had a little portable outside fire pit and we let people throw in an effigy or whatever they wanted to get rid of for the past eight years."

"One of our Italian colleagues threw in an effigy of Berlusconi."

Burning an effigy, like burning an American flag, is constitutionally protected symbolic speech. It is also about as eliminationist as speech can get, short of a true threat or incitement. To Krugman, it is a fun party activity. It is shockingly hypocritical for such a man to deliver a pious lecture about the dangers of eliminationist rhetoric.

The Times was far from alone in responding to the Tucson massacre with false accusations and inflammatory innuendoes against its foes. But it was one of the first and the most determined, and it is the most authoritative voice of the left-liberal media, or what used to be called the "mainstream" media.

What accounts for this descent into madness? The key lies in this passage from the Times editorial: "But it is legitimate to hold Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media responsible..."

Particularly their supporters in the media. This echoed a comment House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer had made on CBS's Face the Nation the day after the shootings:

One of the things that you and I have discussed, Bob [Schieffer, the host], when-when you and I grew up, we grew up listening to a set of three major news outlets-NBC, ABC and, of course, CBS. Most of the people like Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid, Huntley-Brinkley-and they saw their job as to inform us of the facts and we would make a conclusion. Far too many broadcasts now and so many outlets have the intent of inciting-of inciting people to opposition, to anger, to thinking the other side is less than moral.

The campaign of vilification against the right, led by the New York Times, is really about competition in the media industry-not commercial competition but competition for authority.

When septuagenarians Schieffer and Hoyer were young men, the New York Times had unrivaled authority to set the media's agenda, with the news divisions of the three major TV networks following its lead. This authority brought with it considerable power to define the limits of political discourse. The past three decades have seen a proliferation of alternative mass-media outlets, most notably talk radio and Fox News Channel, which do not follow the Times's lead and which frequently answer back.

Its authority dwindling, the New York Times resorted to authoritarian tactics-defaming its competitors in the hope of tearing them down. But it didn't work. A series of surveys in the days after the crime found a solid majority disbelieved the "uncivil rhetoric" narrative. The most telling result was from USA Today:

Most Americans reject the idea that inflammatory political language by conservatives should be part of the debate about the forces behind the Arizona shooting that left six people dead and a congresswoman in critical condition, a USA Today/Gallup Poll finds.

A 53% majority of those surveyed call that analysis mostly an attempt to use the tragedy to make conservatives look bad. About a third, 35%, say it is a legitimate point about how dangerous language can be.

Barely a third of Americans thought the New York Times position was even legitimate. Rather than revive its moribund authority, the Times had proved itself unworthy of it.

"Liberalism is dead," wrote R. Emmett Tyrrell, the editor of this magazine, in a column four days after the Tucson shootings:

This hitherto unthinkable effort to blame the unhinged act of a lunatic on the language of the right without respect to the often more inflammatory language of the left is a cry from the grave. Rigor mortis has set in, comrades.

I think this is an overstatement, albeit a stylish one. While the liberal media showed themselves to be in the grip of a consuming moral sickness, liberal politicians seemed largely immune.

True, a few Democratic officeholders joined the Times-led chorus of defamation. The most notable was Tucson's sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who perhaps wished to distract attention from questions about how his office had handled previous contacts with the suspect. By and large, however, liberal politicians behaved far more decently than their supporters in the media.

A case in point is Newsweek's Jonathan Alter. On the Monday after the shooting, he penned a column titled "Can Obama Turn Tragedy Into Triumph?" It was jaw-droppingly tasteless:

Conservatives like to argue that these are isolated incidents carried out by lunatics and therefore carry no big lessons (unless the perpetrator is Muslim, in which case it's terrorism); liberals view them as opportunities to address various social ills. Obama is in the latter category and should act accordingly. "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," Rahm Emanuel famously said in 2008. The same goes for a shooting spree that gravely wounds a beloved congresswoman.

To say that this is deeply cynical falls short of capturing what makes it so shocking. Dick Morris published a column the same day titled "There Are No Politics in Murder." Morris was right, of course, but his sanctimony grated on anyone who remembered that he had been the mastermind of Bill Clinton's effort to capitalize politically on the Oklahoma City bombing.

But Morris is savvy enough to try to look like a decent man. Alter seems to lack any sense of decency. What's more, that wasn't even the creepiest passage from his piece. Here is its conclusion:

Sad to say, if Giffords had died, she would have been mourned and soon the conversation would have moved on. But Giffords lives, thank God, which offers other possibilities. We won't know for weeks or months whether she can function in public. If she can, she will prove a powerful referee of the boundaries of public discourse-more influential, perhaps, than the president himself.

A woman lay in the hospital, gravely wounded in a brutal attack, and Alter was happy she was alive because he had an idea of how to put her to use furthering a political agenda. "Thank God" she lived, he said, because he had the rest of her life planned out for her. This is such an obscenity that Newsweek should be delivered in a plain brown wrapper.

Rahm Emanuel, a man known for petty indecencies, was asked the next day about Alter's gross one. A stricken-looking Emanuel, a candidate for mayor of Chicago, said: "First of all, what I said was: Never allow a good crisis to go to waste when it's an opportunity to do things that you had never considered or that you didn't think were possible. That's not intended for this moment, or [sic] does it apply to this moment."

Then on Wednesday, President Obama weighed in with a speech in Tucson in which he flatly rejected the New York Times's narrative:

If, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy-it did not-but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.

The Times's response, in an editorial the following morning, could hardly have been weaker:

It was important that Mr. Obama transcend the debate about whose partisanship has been excessive and whose words have sown the most division and dread. This page and many others have identified those voices and called on them to stop demonizing their political opponents.

The newspaper that seized upon a horrific crime to demonize its political opponents-and to demonize "particularly" those in the media who do not share its worldview and reject its presumption of moral authority-was now applauding the president for being able to "transcend" the "debate" that it initiated with its own yellow journalism.

Pinch Sulzberger, the Times scion who became publisher in 1992, is said to be a fan of "putting the moose on the table," a management-consulting gimmick. Like the elephant in the living room and the hippopotamus at the water cooler, the moose is an ungainly animal that serves as a metaphor for an uncomfortable and unacknowledged truth. During the Jayson Blair scandal in 2003, it was reported that Sulzberger carries around a stuffed moose and literally puts it on tables to encourage honesty among his company's executives.

The weekend after the shooting, the metaphorical moose was very much off the table in the pages of the Times. Writer after writer weighed in on what had happened without mentioning their own newspaper's scurrilous acts of journalistic fraud. Charles Blow, a junior columnist, titled his Saturday column on January 15 "The Tucson Witch Hunt":

Immediately after the news broke, the air became thick with conjecture, speculation and innuendo. There was a giddy, almost punch-drunk excitement on the left. The prophecy had been fulfilled: "words have consequences." And now, the right's rhetorical chickens had finally come home to roost.

The dots were too close and the temptation to connect them too strong....Within hours of the shooting, there was a full-fledged witch hunt to link the shooter to the right.

In a way it was a brave piece for a Times man, and a liberal one at that, to write. But Blow's narrative was a peculiar one: The news broke. The air became thick. There was an excitement. The prophecy had been fulfilled. The dots were close. The temptation was strong. There was a witch hunt.

There was all kinds of stuff happening, but did anyone other than the right's rhetorical chickens actually do anything? Deep in the column, Blow got around to this vague assignment of responsibility:

Great. So the left overreacts and overreaches and it only accomplishes two things: fostering sympathy for its opponents and nurturing a false equivalence within the body politic. Well done, Democrats.

But it wasn't "the left" or "Democrats" that instigated the witch hunt. It was the New York Times.

Blow's colleague Frank Rich predictably clung to the "uncivil rhetoric" story, even while acknowledging repeatedly that it had nothing to do with the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. In the midst of his Sunday column came this bizarre passage:

Calls for civility will have no more lasting impact on the "tone" of American discourse now than they did after the J.F.K. assassination or Oklahoma City. Especially not in an era when technology allows all 300 million Americans a cost-free megaphone for unmediated rants.

This was schizophrenic, in the colloquial sense of the term if not the psychiatric one. The latter sentence, bemoaning "unmediated" free speech, implicitly mourned the Times's lost role as mediator in chief. But the preceding sentence, by suggesting that things would work out more or less as they did after 1963 and 1995, tried to deny the diminution of paper's authority. Rich went from denial to acceptance in the space of a single paragraph.

Most telling was the Sunday column from Arthur S. Brisbane, the Times ombudsman, who found two things to fault in the paper's coverage of the massacre.

The first was that for a brief period on the day of the shooting, the Times website, relying on information from CNN and NPR, had erroneously reported that Giffords was dead. Such errors, born of the intractable tension between timeliness and accuracy, are unfortunate but common. Brisbane quoted the paper's standards editor, Philip Corbett, who blamed the mistake on a supervisory lapse: "Everything should go through an editor. Ideally, it should go through two editors."

The second was that the paper "initially" focused its news coverage "on the political climate in Arizona and the nation":

I think the intense focus on political conflict-not just by The Times-detracted from what has emerged as the salient story line, that of a mentally ill individual with lawful access to a gun.

Whether covering the basic facts of a breaking story or identifying more complex themes, the takeaway is that time is often the enemy.

The paper's rush to judgment was indeed a serious mistake. Brisbane tried to downplay it by employing the everybody-does-it excuse: "The Times had a lot of company, as news organizations, commentators and political figures shouldered into an unruly scrum battling over whether the political environment was to blame," he wrote, adding that "journalism educators characterize this kind of framing as a storytelling habit."

People who aren't journalism educators or ombudsmen characterize it as political bias. And it's not necessarily the reporters who are biased. One of the paper's most widely criticized news stories, titled "Bloodshed Puts New Focus on Vitriol in Politics," was co-written by Kate Zernike. She is the author of Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America, which I happen to have reviewed for Commentary. My review began:

The author of Boiling Mad is a New York Times reporter, and the title suggests a hostile view of the Tea Party movement as a cauldron of undifferentiated rage. The book itself is a pleasant surprise. Kate Zernike has produced a largely fair and measured account of the populist rebellion against Barack Obama's aggressively liberal presidency.

Boiling Mad wasn't perfect, but it convinced me that Zernike is a fair and honest reporter. If her work in the Times is rife with bias, the mediation of her editors is to blame.

Brisbane's account of what went wrong ignored completely the Times's most important lapse. He forthrightly admitted the journalistic error of relaying exaggerated reports of Giffords's death. He acknowledged the journalistic sin of biased coverage, although he tried to obfuscate it with J-school jargon.

But he said not a word about the journalistic atrocity of attempting to advance the "uncivil rhetoric" narrative even after the facts of the case had proved it false. In so doing, the Times acted with reckless disregard for the truth, the legal standard for defamation of a public figure established in the landmark 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan. To be sure, the paper's malicious falsehoods are not legally actionable as libel. But that is only because in its attempts at character assassination, the Times used the low-precision weapons of innuendo, insinuation, and generalization, thereby shielding itself from the courtroom counterattack it might have faced had it dared to publish explicitly false statements of fact.

The moral degeneration of the New York Times is a study in the corrupting effects of power. Over the years, the men who run the paper came to view the preservation of their authority as agenda-setter or gatekeeper or "mediator" as their primary mission. On January 10, 2011, they made it clear that they are willing to go so far in the pursuit of that goal as to contravene the real purpose of journalism, which is to tell the truth. 

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About the Author

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.