My colleague Brent Baker has a theory to which I subscribe: A political scandal has registered real traction in the public conversation only when it becomes a topic for the late night TV talk show hosts. That being the case, the Gray Lady's in big trouble. From David Letterman's opening monologue Wednesday night: "You have SARS, Mad Cow Disease, the Orange Alert. The news is so bad the New York Times doesn't have to make it up."
The New York Times prides itself on producing the news. Unfortunately, these days, it can't help being the news. Twice this week its reporters' behavior has made headlines nationally.
First there is the matter of Jayson Blair, the disgraced former Times reporter who was fired for fraud and plagiarism but who won't leave the limelight because apparently he's enjoying it too much.
According to the Associated Press, Blair has given an interview to the New York Observer in which he "couldn't stop laughing" at the consternation he's caused his former employer. Apparently he's very proud that he "fooled some of the most brilliant people in journalism" with his brand of reporting, which, according to Times' after-the-fact fact-checkers, contained fraud, plagiarism and inaccuracies in 36 of the 73 stories he filed over a seven-month period.
This fellow is so unashamed of his performance he wants to do what comes naturally these days to professional charlatans. Newsweek reports he's hired a literary agent to peddle his story in search of book and movie deals.
Arrogant. That's the one word that jumps from the page. But then others come to mind. Obnoxious. Ingrate. Punk.
What was it in the drinking water at the Times that produced this kind of haughty attitude? Whatever it is, it's now affected another Times reporter who this week also made news headlines.
According to the Rockford (Illinois) Register Star, "Times reporter Chris Hedges was booed off the stage Saturday at Rockford College's graduation because he gave an antiwar speech." But just as so many media reports are misleading when they say Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks was "critical of" President Bush -- she insulted President Bush -- so, too, is it a bit inaccurate to label Hedges' screed as simply "antiwar."
Judge just the opening for yourself: "I want to speak to you today about war and empire … (W)e are embarking on an occupation that if history is any guide will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige and power and security … (As) our empire expands we become pariahs, tyrants to others weaker than ourselves… We have forfeited the goodwill, the empathy the world felt for us after 9-11 … (W)e are part now of a dubious troika in the war against terror with Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon, two leaders who do not shrink in Palestine or Chechnya from carrying out acts of gratuitous and senseless violence."
If that can be defined as simply "antiwar," then bin Laden is anti-skyscraper.
"This is a war of liberation in Iraq," Hedges droned on, "but it is a war now of liberation of Iraqis from American occupation." This isn't the 1960s, Jane Fonda's not around; there's no talk of Amerika, and this isn't Vietnam.
Yet this New York Times reporter's thinking is firmly rooted in that worldview. Last October, Hedges was interviewed on the Bill-Moyers-funded leftist Web site TomPaine.com and said this of that era: "The defeat in Vietnam made us a better nation and a better people … We were forced to accept very unpleasant truths about ourselves -- our own capacity for evil. I think that that process, especially during the Reagan years, began to disintegrate."
No, this man isn't just "antiwar." In a very real way he opposes the American ideal -- condemning her "evil" while celebrating her defeat in the hopes that by rejecting our American identity we could become … better.
How saddened he must be by America's youth, who booed him off the stage and who obviously aren't buying his radicalism. How tone deaf he must be not to realize the degree to which he was offending his audience. "I didn't expect that," he said. "How can you expect to have anyone climb on the stage and turn your mike off?"
And what of the Gray Lady herself? Times Watch.org director Clay Waters points out this delicious irony: On Monday, May 19, the paper carried a captioned photograph of graduates walking out of a St. Joseph's University commencement to protest a speech by Sen. Rick Santorum, but has yet to say a thing about its own reporter being gonged. "All the news that's fit to print" my eye.