A liberal Berkeley friend teases me. She claims I’ve given up reading the New York Times because it runs too many stories about black people. She’s trying to trigger me. We still can joke. Not every leftist I know can, but even she can’t help noticing the Times news tilt in the age of Trump.
Black suffering is a perennial Times weeper, yes, but it is nonstop injustice theater and intersectional theology that take me somewhere else. Fixated on a narrow set of injustices, the Times is telling me how to think and what to care about. Its front webpage shifts opinion to the top right, where hard news once led, and this change is wholly intentional. The range of unloaded news is shrinking.
Moreover, I must hate Donald J. Trump with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my mind, unconditionally. I must fear gun violence and never wonder why the Parkland high school students are oracular sources of authority. I must weep for unaccompanied minors at the border who turn out to be tough-assed felons on the run.
My friend is a realist, capable of changing her mind. So trying to craft a defense, I looked at the Times webpage closely on a recent, random day. At the top,
I confess, whenever I see these four words, I blank out, aphasic. These days, in mainstream media, what follows could be anything terrible or weird, reality-based or not. But Trump that day turned out to be only the amuse bouche. Other woes were more pressing,
A slow news day? A fluke? The next day I checked again the top of the news, to look at outright opinion instead,
Sweet God! So the horrors of the Trump administration are not ephemeral. They doom us to Hades and Hobbes. The impact is, well, forever.
A couple of days later, I noticed Times columnist Michelle Goldberg taking a break from the menace of White Privilege with an anguished cri de coeur,
Oh dear! Do serious people really think this way?
For generations, Times editors and reporters were sharp, capable, often self-important, usually liberal but honorable and patriotic, Arthur Schlesinger-style. (No need for hard-core Times haters to remind — for the thousandth time — that Walter Duranty softballed the Soviet Union long ago and far away.) The news was solid and non-partisan; editorial opinion was clearly defined. Most of these worthies have moved on, retired, or died.
Beginning with the odious Howell Raines, who took over as executive editor in 2001, their successors embrace message journalism and stealth propaganda. Their mission is to redeem a nation at fault. It’s a vocation, like the clergy. Readers participate in the sacred through gestures and incantations. They praise, give thanks, repent, and damn. When you hear, “I read it in the Times,” announced with religious elation, it’s best to say nothing.
The Times is a harsh goddess. When a threatening idea gets too close, its invisible ideological fence buzzes with warning. Like obedient dogs, Times readers wear their collars with pride. The collars keep them safe from the Forbidden Zone. Crime and the ruination of cities, for example, or Zionism and jihad; immigrants gaming goodwill and guilt; women trying to be men and ending up unhappy or crazy.
Buzz … buzz … jolt!
The Forbidden Zone is vast. Remember, white Baptists in Oklahoma are the threat. Flag, family, and faith are the problem.
Doesn’t dreck and sleaze warrant negative news campaigns? Shouldn’t Times culture editors and critics, as pillars of the establishment, condemn clickbait and media trash? Porn, video games, and tattoos? Aren’t these social carbuncles worth some hard investigation and critical analysis?
When good dogs stray into the Forbidden Zone, they get the voltage from the invisible fence. They get conditioned, and they stop crossing lines no one can see, including themselves. After they figure out cause-and-effect, they simply don’t go near the Forbidden Zone. Pretty soon they cease to wonder why Times culture critics are puffing dreck art and worthless music. They don’t ask if that ultra-hot black transgender artist is fourth-rate, or if trannies might be mentally ill.
At the Times, pockets of quality endure. The Times’s multiplier effect in mainstream media is staggering. The Times can still be up on world events, electronics, and business deals. It’s full of high-end travel tips and impossible recipes. But its socio-political and cultural coverage has grown liturgical. It offers one-stop shopping for ideological higher ground. (Higher Ground Productions is — really, actually — the irony-free name of the embryonic Obama-Netflix television venture.)
My Berkeley friend is no fool. She notices the “cultural decline that is rapidly consigning our artistic and philosophical inheritance to oblivion,” as conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton recently put it in a New York Times op-ed piece. (And note well where Scruton chose to publish his remarks.) She has eyes and lives close to Oakland — “Not a happy place,” Trump might tweet. She has a husband that a good-think Times reporter would call a gun nut. So the jury is out on her.
But liberals can’t jump the Times invisible fence unless they remember that there is a fence. Which leads to a final question: Would Times loyalists want to jump it if they could, or have they grown to prefer captivity to freedom?