What’s Wrong with the New York Times?


It’s no secret that the “traditional news media” are in decline — viewership and readership are down sharply, and, as a generational issue, Armageddon lies dead ahead: the fact is that a large and growing number of people under the age of 30 don’t consult traditional media outlets at all.

The New York Times is the self-declared “paper of record,” and it is, as the right loves to point out, the supposed standard bearer of a supposed “liberal elite”.  And yet the Times is increasingly difficult to engage as a top-down authority in a world where news reporting is no longer merely a matter of professionals trained to provide the public with a healthy high-fibre diet of vetted stories and opinion.  There are real reasons for this, most of them editorial.  The “balance” that journalism is supposed to provide on stories of the day has devolved into ideological warfare in which, if X says one thing, then what Y says in response — no matter how crazy or irresponsible or demonstrably, factually wrong — is fair comment and deserving of equal consideration.  Fact-checking is secondary.  The passive reporting of what gets said is primary.  And the New York Times has only added to the problem in recent years when it should in fact have been combating it on all fronts.

The complicity of the Times in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq is an excellent place to start, and characterizing it requires just one name, Judith Miller, who took insider-access journalism to a disastrous history altering low. In one infamous instance, Dick Cheney’s office provided Miller with unreliable intelligence pertaining to Saddam Hussein’s supposed effort to produce nuclear weapons.  Miller duly published it in the Times on 7 September 2002, and Cheney then cited it the next day on Meet the Press as independent confirmation.  In this way a dubious leak from an anonymous self-serving source became news in the paper of record, which effectively legitimatized it.  It’s no wonder that progressive bloggers disdainfully refer to Washington insiders (whether politicians or journalists) as Villagers.  Miller, of course, was also subsequently implicated in the crazy Rube Goldberg machinations by which Cheney’s office outed CIA agent Valerie Plame as political payback to her husband, Joseph Wilson, for his effort to debunk these same shoddy allegations circulating out of Cheney’s office. 

The Times has never found its footing since the awfulness of the Miller affair and apparently still can’t make amends.  Eight years ago it was willing to publish bogus stories on non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but today can’t in its news pages bring itself to call the abuse the Bush administration inflicted upon detainees “torture“. It prefers instead placebos like “harsh” or “enhanced interrogation,” despite the fact that practices like waterboarding (”simulated drowning” in NYTspeak) are recognized in international law as torture and are therefore prosecutable as war crimes.  Not to call them war crimes is to give war criminals credible cover for their actions: “Some say waterboarding is torture, some say it isn’t.  It’s all debatable.”  But that is not the case.  Waterboarding is torture.  It is a war crime.  Those who are responsible for it should be prosecuted and punished.

If only it ended there.  But last year the Times hired a conservative columnist to replace Republican party operative Bill Kristol, the 29 year old Ross Douthat, who, judging by his mediocrity and meteoric rise, is a familiar example of the Peter Principle for the privileged and well-connected.  Week after week Douthat publishes columns that are a journalistic embarrassment for their intellectual shallowness and occasional incomprehensibility.  All are arguably notable for their ideology driven dishonesty.  What Douthat produces seems designed well in advance to mislead though omission, commission and casuistry.

Here’s a relatively innocuous but still maddening example from his column this week suggesting that the Tories in the current British election are following the example of American “conservatives”:

The Tories’ election manifesto, released early last week, promises “a sweeping redistribution of power” — from London to local institutions, and “from the state to citizens.” In one of the most centralized countries in the Western world, Cameron is championing a dramatic transfer of responsibility — for schools, hospitals, police forces — to local governments and communities. In a nation with a vast and creaking welfare state, he’s urging people to put more faith in voluntarism, charity and the beleaguered two-parent family. (This last plank has attracted the ire of none other than J. K. Rowling, who recently attacked the Tories for stigmatizing single motherhood.) His emphasis, again and again, has been on a smaller, leaner, less intrusive government — and in its place, a “big society” that can bear the burden currently shouldered by social workers and bureaucracies

How exactly does this resemble the nihilistic tax-cutting and record-deficit-spending — not to mention unconstitutionally intrusive and incompetentsuper-government of the Bush years and the Republican congressional majorities he enjoyed?  It’s difficult for someone in Douthat’s position to deny that the vast majority of American “conservatives” don’t believe in limited government, despite ritually chanted claims to the contrary (see, for example, the latest polling of Teabaggers when it comes to entitlements like Social Security and Medicare); but they do, on the evidence of their actions, believe in bad government because that’s the most efficient way to empty the treasury into the pockets of the already advantaged.  (Remember Bill Clinton’s trillions in savings siphoned away in tax cuts to the richest 5% of the population?) Today’s “conservatives” clearly hold that the American public shouldn’t be allowed affordable health care according to repugnant and antiquated social Darwinist principles, but that same public is nevertheless expected to refund the criminal negligence of the grifters of the financial class, as well as bankroll a never-ending war on terror.  It’s always guns, never butter — except for those who already have guns and a steady supply of butter, in which case it’s all gravy.  The cognitive dissonance here is so violent that it’s like the closing thirty minutes of just about any Sam Peckinpah movie.

To liken any of this to British Conservatism, whatever else may be said of it, is delusional at best.  It is, in any event, distressing that New York Times readers should have to put up with such nonsense.  If we really needed to encounter it, we’d only have to consult corporate neo-con organs like the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post with their increasingly Borg-like conformity of outlook. The point is that short-sheeting partisans like Douthat can be found everywhere in the right wing media house of mirrors.  While not a bellowing demagogue like Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity, Douthat is still an astonishingly graceless apologist for the-things-he-already-knows-to-be-unquestionably-true — he, for instance, recently apportioned blame for the Church’s latest sex abuse scandal to (you guessed it) liberalism.  And just the other day he invoked the Glenn Beck defense that the violently incendiary remarks that emanate from commentators on the right are merely “entertainment.” These are the marks of a person who perceives very narrowly, is given to irrational resentments that must be compulsively repeated, and can never admit to error.  Why then is he writing for the paper of record?

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