A review of Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means for America, by William McGowan
Gray Lady Down is a valuable and rigorous book, a recitation of the convincing evidence of the New York Times's move to a countercultural and largely anti-American perspective across many fields, and of the deliberate destruction of numerous barriers between opinion and reporting in furtherance of that objective. This is an important development and it is impossible to deny that it is happening. Still, William McGowan's title and subtitle are somewhat misleading. The Times isn't exactly down, and the author, a former editor of the Washington Monthly and current media fellow at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, acknowledges that although a great many people are disillusioned with the paper, it remains influential and appears at the moment to be in a sustainable financial position. Although it has declined in circulation, profitability, and influence, the Times has not endured what could be called a fall, and Gray Lady Down doesn't much explore the consequences to the country as a whole of the changes at the newspaper anyway.
The author starts from the premise that the Abe Rosenthal era, 1977 to 1986, was a "golden age." These years came after the demise of the Herald Tribune and before Rupert Murdoch turned the Wall Street Journal into a general interest full-frontal competitor, and before the internet severely undermined the newspaper industry. As executive editor Rosenthal did his part to capitalize on these advantages. He maintained the distinction between opinion and facts, was a patriotic American with a conventional family life and tastes, and an honest, consistent, exacting, but very decent professional.
Rosenthal imposed his integrity and that of the publisher, Arthur O. (Punch) Sulzberger, on the paper, and also started bringing in new specialized sections and generally livening the Times up. There was, McGowan writes, "a ‘theology' of gravitas and objectivity" at the Times, despite what he also calls the "shrill liberalism of the editorial page." These were under the control of Sulzberger cousin John Oakes, a hard-line left-liberal who, among other things, supported outright U.S. capitulation in Vietnam from early on in that unhappy war. The author traces the inexorable devolution of almost all sections and departments of the Times as Rosenthal gave way to the much more leftish Max Frankel, and Punch Sulzberger handed over the position of publisher to his abrasive son, Arthur, Jr. (Pinch). The younger Sulzberger took over in 1992 and set about hiring and promoting minorities and encouraging aggressive advocacy by them. The power and influence of the Times was steadily put in the hands of bellicose advocates who were relieved of any obligation to distinguish between facts and opinions.
This movement reached flood tide with the engagement of Howell Raines as editorial page editor. As McGowan notes, "Under Raines, the editorial page assumed a caustic, take-no-prisoners tone"; as Slate commentator Timothy Noah wrote, Raines "routinely attempt[s] to hide simpleminded logic behind lapidary prose and promiscuous contempt." Opinion filled the news pages, as Sulzberger and Frankel encouraged columnists in their natural habit of "injecting their politics into reviews…, [increased] the amount of space devoted to news analysis and other forms of explanatory journalism; and [expanded] the importance of popular culture in the news mix." Frankel later lamented that the "diversity training" seminars sponsored by the paper were often "delivered by shameless charlatans." There were increasingly frequent disasters of false stories and breaches of integrity. In the Jayson Blair affair in 2003, a star reporter was shown to have fabricated and plagiarized scores of articles. In what would become a familiar pattern, young Sulzberger stood by Raines for a time, and then acknowledging that it was "a low point in the paper's 152-year history," sacked Raines and the managing editor, Gerald Boyd, the highest-ranking African-American in the Times's history.
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There were many similar fiascoes, including the Valerie Plame affair, in which reporter Judith Miller, who published supportive pieces about the administration's claims of WMD in Iraq, was first staunchly defended as she went to prison rather than reveal her source, and then abandoned. Late night comedian David Letterman said that the Times's slogan, "All the news that's fit to print" had been replaced by "We make it up." The Times went an astoundingly long way pretending that members of the Duke University lacrosse team were guilty beyond doubt of rape—a pre-trial media lynching—and then, with excruciating slowness and reluctance, acknowledging that there were problems with the case (a complete fraud by the prosecutor up for reelection).
There were relentless agitations against what was deemed the institutional racism that was responsible for almost all problems involving members of minorities, and against racial profiling, as if there were any question that almost all terrorist acts in America had been committed by people who were, and appeared to be, Muslims. Said one editor: "You see it again and again, the way the Times lumbers into trouble," by giving too much unsupervised liberty to reporters encouraged to put their own ideologies into their writings. Endless apologies were made for African-American leaders David Dinkins, Al Sharpton, Jeremiah Wright, and Barack Obama. The Times's description of Obama's relationship with his friend, the terrorist Bill Ayers, observed one critic, was "less an investigation than ‘an inoculation.'" Columnist Charles Blow, who routinely confects polls that may reflect the opinions of the Times newsroom but no one else, objectively described the Tea Partiers as driven by "rabid bigotry." Sanctuary laws, protecting illegal immigrants in municipalities where their numbers conferred political influence, were ignored or mocked in the Times, which constantly underestimates both the numbers and social costs of illegal immigrants.
Responsible conservative views of immigration control were described as "pest control," and Times columnist John Tierney rhetorically asked: "Are critics of [female circumcision], who call it female genital mutilation, justified in trying to outlaw it, or are they guilty of ignorance and cultural imperialism?" The Times went overboard supporting the Ground Zero mosque construction and has downplayed every prominent Muslim terrorist or clerical fraud incident, such as that of Fawaz Damra, the militant imam of Cleveland, who convinced the Times he was a patriotic and moderate American. The Times's enthusiasm for the counterculture spectacularly favored gays; one whose marriage was publicized in the Times said, "The love that dared not speak its name is now broadcasting."
The Times also has made it clear that it approves of almost nothing that has been done under the rubric of the War on Terror. After Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., apologized to a university convocation on behalf of his generation for leading the country into the dubious war, the Wall Street Journal editorialized: "A newspaper led by someone who speaks this way to college seniors has as a major goal not winning the war on terror but obstructing it." The war in Iraq, despite the excellent reporting of the military correspondents, shortly became a pretext for a severe debunking of the U.S. effort there, as McGowan writes,
all calculated to undercut the war's legitimacy, to make the United States seem incompetent and morally corrupt, to insist that Iraq was a quagmire similar to Vietnam, and to cast "the surge" of 2007 as a failure long after it was an acknowledged success. The Times has given short shrift to the heroism of our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and defamed their character by painting them mostly as killers of civilians and abusers of prisoners.
As McGowan explains, the Times's "journalistic lapses, failures and blunders…stem from a slavish devotion to the ideology of diversity, along with wishful thinking, naïvete, double standards, social distance, elite guilt, intellectual dishonesty, historical shallowness, and old-fashioned partisanship." This is what eminent conservative scholar James Piereson calls "punitive liberalism."
The Times looks through a radical-chic lens, [writes McGowan,] affirming marginal causes and communities…. [It] has embraced postmodernism with a vengeance, along with a deconstructionist cultural agenda that has spread through the paper like a computer virus…. There's also an element of curdled idealism in the perception that American society has been ungrateful for such things as the role of journalists in bringing down Nixon, ending the Vietnam War and reining in the CIA.
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These accumulated aperçus of the author are sharp and perceptive, though the New York Times does continue to report fairly and intelligently wherever its prejudices are not engaged, especially in foreign affairs, business, some cultural matters, and sports. And though it overindulges the counterculture, it cannot be said that its coverage of those areas where it does so is without merit. But apart from being annoying and disappointing to the average reasonable and moderate reader, the paper's attitudes make for bad corporate strategy. While sniffing and looking down its nose at Murdoch, News Corporation, Fox News, the New York Post, and now the Wall Street Journal, the Times is steadily boxing itself into a corner of unreliable and unrepresentative readers, whose loyalty would be useless anyway. Young Sulzberger was concerned to broaden the base of his readership by departing beyond the confines of prosperous straight white males, but in rubbing the nose of prosperous straight white males in features that most such readers would find dull or offensive or both, it has alienated its backbone readers and advertisers.
This book only lightly touches on the outright financial disasters of the young Sulzberger regime, especially the acquisition of the Boston Globe for $1.1 billion, which now has been written off entirely, the bungled move into a $600 million new building, and the pell-mell run into the arms of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, peddling him over-expensive junk bonds. TheTimes seems to be able to expand sales outside New York and to retain an upscale demographic, but is losing ground within greater New York and circulation beyond the area of interest of New York retail and classified advertisers is horribly expensive and unprofitable. It is facing its first deadly competitor in Murdoch since the current publisher's great-grandfather raised the Times up to preeminence in the New York quality newspaper field a hundred years ago. It has surrendered almost as much of the mainstream market to Murdoch as the original triopoly of television networks did to Murdoch's Fox News, and the Times has little defense against the depredations of the internet.
Yet it remains a great franchise, and wiser financial and editorial management would bring it through. The Times is correct to assail Murdoch—but because of his cynicism and ethics and tabloid vulgarity, not because of his ideology or because he is socially intolerant (he isn't). The Times is correct to be a reform newspaper, but not in a way that stridently offends the reasonable traditionalist majority. It should attack the broken-down justice system, the failing education system, the corruption of the special interest system. It does little of that and instead whines about the fate of largely unsympathetic figures, offends its natural clientele, and suffers from self-inflicted wounds.
But it is illustrative of its strength that it hasn't capsized completely. If the Sulzbergers can't find the way forward, someone else will, and will adapt the newspaper to technology and reacquaint it with its natural fold. Under no scenario has it actually fallen or is it down. The Times is beleaguered and diminished and even absurd in some respects. And there is the immense hypocrisy of its self-righteous pleasure in helping to destroy the Nixon Administration and produce a Communist Indochina with the massacres, the Killing Fields, and the Boat People. But the Times is still there, and the impact on the country of increased competition, albeit from Murdoch, is benign.