American newspapers began dying years ago, not because of the sins of journalists but because of seismic shifts in reader demographics, technology, and patterns of ownership that all but displaced the great press lords and family trusts. Even when the latter still run newspapers (the Sulzbergers New York Times, the Grahams Washington Post, the Murdochs Wall Street Journal), theyve internalized the bureaucratic bottom-line mindset of the new media conglomerates that bought out the Chandlers of the Los Angeles Times and the Bancrofts of the WSJ.
Gray Lady Down:
What the Decline and
Fall of the New York Times
Means for America
by William McGowan
Encounter Books, 276 pp.
With little concern for journalism as a civic craft, the new owners are transforming what used to be known as the public into an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of consumer audiences, assembled on whatever ideological, religious, erotic, or nihilist pretexts might draw eyeballs and, with them, advertisers. As new publishers and editors dumb the news down or tart it up in pursuit of maximum profit, they may just be making their newspapers deserve to die the deaths they were already dying. What, then, should be the public obligations of todays news organizations? And can media conglomerates be induced to care about them? Journalist William McGowan claims to have thought deeply about these questions, so I went looking for answers in his recent book, Gray Lady Down.
But instead of walking us through the near-cataclysmic upheavals that have compromised the Times and, by implication, other papers, McGowan argues that the most destructive force in American journalism is the moralistic worldview of Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. According to McGowan, Sulzberger has debased the papers high standards by trying to propagate the views of a politically correct, elitist subculture that has lost touch with the American people as well as with market imperatives. McGowan acknowledges that times are tough for all newspapers, and that some of Sulzbergers business moves failed not because they were ideologically motivated but because they were dumb. In his telling, however, the Times is failing mainly because Sulzberger feels driven to make the newspapers profit seeking compatible with his peculiarly liberal, rich, preppie, Manhattanite, and slightly guilt-ridden moralism.
McGowan isnt always wrong to charge that Sulzbergers biases have compromised the Times coverage of race, foreign policy, and immigration. (I made similar arguments in my book Liberal Racism: How Fixating on Race Subverts the American Dream.) He may be right that Sulzbergers strategy is turning off more readers than its attracting and that its weakening the papers professional public stature. But more alarming to him, what he calls the Timesslavish devotion to the ideology of diversity may keep certain facts and people from being reported on. He reprises as examples Times reporters subpar coverage of the Duke lacrosse team rape case and their months of under-reporting (amid Times columnists and editorialists relentless denigrations) of the surge in Iraq even when it was succeeding. McGowan slams the paper for its Obamamania during the 2008 campaign. And he argues that Times editors fell so completely for their former reporter Judith Millers rightward-tacking fabrications about Saddam Husseins weaponry only because they wanted to offset the papers liberal excesses.
Reading McGowan, one would think that the Times is alone in undermining journalistic standards: he never acknowledges that media conglomerates such as Murdoch news outlets are just as guilty of subverting the standards he accuses the Times of betraying. And because of this, McGowans criticisms of the Times are without context.
Certainly the Times has managed to misconstrue its subjects and miss the real story. In a 1998 discussion paper for Harvards Shorenstein Center on the Press, I approvingly quoted McGowans observation that assimilating immigrants into a shared American civic-republican identity can be liberating if its pursued by authorities who join a reformers passion for social improvement with a nationalists insistence on assimilation. That the Times underreported this is unfortunate, but it was the papers failure to grasp that most immigrants are themselves hungry for this kind of assimilation that was the real disservice.
But McGowan doesnt stop there, complaining that when Sami al-Arian, a Palestinian-born professor of computer science, was dismissed by the University of South Florida and indicted by the federal government for helping to fund a terrorist organization through his involvement in a charity, the Times went to bat for himand not just on the editorial pages. In one news story, he tells us, reporter Neil MacFarquhar, ignoring all prior court evidence, said that al-Arian was nothing more sinister than an outspoken Palestinian activist who was being unjustly punished.
But MacFarquhar never said that. He did say, following the standard he-said/she-said reporters convention, the following:
The Justice Department and some independent terrorism investigators have long accused Mr. Al-Arian of being the main North America organizer for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which the United States has designated a terrorist organization. Mr. Al-Arians supporters, though, say that he is nothing more sinister than an outspoken Palestinian activist, and that the Justice Department has tried to exploit the post-September 11 mood in the United States.
At the Times, claims McGowan, pressure has steadily increased to erase the distinction between legal and illegal immigration. The Times rarely uses the term illegal alien. A 2004 story headlined 160 Migrants Seized at Upscale Arizona Home was obviously about illegal immigrants being smuggled into the country, but the headline refused to say so. Really? While McGowan claims that facts are airbrushed out of the record, Pravda-like, at the Times, here he himself airbrushes out the fact that this story opened by noting that border agents found a posh house packed with people, 136 of whom they arrestedall of them illegal immigrants from Latin America.
In the end McGowan seems driven more by his own mostly conservative passions concerning race, sexuality, immigration, and law enforcement than any poor reportage the Times may be guilty of. Writing, for instance, about immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, McGowan observes that they may be a model minority for their above-average incomes and levels of education, but their impaired sense of social equality and their ethnocentric exclusivity are problems that they should not import into their new country. One wonders what Dinesh DSouza, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Reihan Salamstars of the right-wing media allmight think.
In his 2002 book, Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism, McGowan argued (somewhat persuasively) that the Times hadnt always covered racial politics very intelligently or fairly. Now hes keen to show that in 2008 the paper abandoned all objectivity to crusade for Barack Obama because hes black. Writing with the telltale vagueness of a journalist trying to gin up a controversy, McGowan tells us that while many praised Obamas speech on race in Philadelphia in 2008, others described [it] as subject-changing in trying to deflect attention from Pastor Jeremiah Wright. Obamas public invocations of his white relatives and his restraint in the face of racial provocations have clearly elevated the national conversation about race, but they dont seem to have dented McGowans ire at either the president or the Times coverage of him.
McGowan also flays Sulzbergers handpicked liberal op-ed columnists. Every liberal Times columnist shows up more than once in this book, and always in a bad light: Paul Krugman is mentioned eight times, Bob Herbert seven, Nicholas Kristof four. McGowan fails to mention that Sulzberger has also hand-picked conservatives David Brooks, William Kristol, and Ross Douthat as op-ed page columnists, and conservative spin-meisters such as Tobin Harshaw (of the Times Opinionator), who orchestrates much of the online commentary. Brooks appears only once in Gray Lady Down, as one of the two house conservatives, but poor Ross Douthat doesnt even rate a mention. Bill Kristol, who wrote a column twice a week for a year for the Times (which McGowan doesnt tell his readers) also pops up just onceto declare, from his perch at the Weekly Standard, that the Times is part of an axis of appeasement.
Reporting like this isnt in error; either its dishonest or it reflects a blockage in McGowans thinking thats unnerving in a would-be arbiter of good journalism. Still, his conclusion affirmswith an eloquence uncharacteristic of the rest of the bookthat
[o]ur civic culture needs a common narrative and a national forum that is free of cantan honest broker of hard news and detached analysis, where the editorial pages are not spread like invisible ink between the lines of its news and cultural reviews. As our political system grows more polarized, and political parties play harder toward their base, it is even more important that we have news organizations whose honest reporting can form a DMZ between opposing forces trapped in their own information cocoons.
Amen. Unfortunately, Gray Lady Down never breaks out of its own ideological cocoon long enough to stop compounding the problem.
If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.