In fact, about the only one seemingly surprised that Times readers would respond with such vehemence was the man most responsible for the appointment: editorial page editor Andy Rosenthal. Noting that he had trouble understanding “this weird fear of opposing views,” Rosenthal observed in an interview that Kristol “is a serious, respected conservative intellectual—and somehow that’s a bad thing. How intolerant is that?” There’s something almost touching in the naivety behind those words. Can Rosenthal truly be so unaware of the character of his own core readership? Does he actually believe that they’re open to challenge, or even reasonable back-and-forth? Doesn’t he read his own paper’s letters page? “David Brooks can write the mildest column in the world,” Bernard Goldberg observes, “and the letters to the editor act like he’s Hitler.” Now, to their horror, letter-writers face the prospect of regularly waking up to a leading exemplar of a far more aggressive conservatism—a muscular supporter of the war who has characterized the Times itself as “irredeemable.”
According to The Nation’s Katha Pollitt, “What this hire demonstrates is how successfully the right has intimidated the mainstream media. Their constant demonizing of the New York Times as the tool of the liberal elite worked.” What the appointment really suggests, however, is a degree of desperation at the Times that only its worst enemies have wished on that venerable institution. Always remarkable for the arrogance with which it brushed aside criticism, the paper has long cast itself as the unimpeachable arbiter of reality; and no one has proven less inclined to admit error (or give conservatives a fair shake) than that determinedly leftist child of the sixties, publisher Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger. Yet after plummeting ad sales and circulation cut the stock price steeply enough to put even a family-controlled board on edge, Sulzberger was moved to do the hitherto unthinkable in a belated effort to broaden the paper’s appeal and reclaim its once-vaunted reputation for balance.
Will it work? Don’t count on it. Dramatic as the gesture is, it is as unlikely to impress those on the right hostile to the paper as it has those up in arms on the left. Perhaps the most amusing reaction to the news was posted by Web pundit Steve Boriss, who speculated that Kristol would serve as a Trojan horse for his Weekly Standard boss, Rupert Murdoch, weakening reader commitment to the Times and so helping Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal. “Murdoch may understand Times readers better than the Times does,” Boriss wrote, “recognizing it is contrary to human nature for audiences to enjoy columns written by those with whom they disagree. . . . for Times readers who can easily avoid daily exposure to conservative views, Bill Kristol will not only seem wrong, but also selfish, mean-spirited, and morally deficient.”
Kristol’s arrival may have a bigger impact on morale in-house, since in their political sensibilities Times staffers are pretty much a microcosm of the Upper West Side. Already there had been much newsroom grousing about the ideological transgressions of the gentlemanly Brooks and Book Review and now Week in Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, who has opened up the book coverage somewhat to conservative thought. As Brooks once wryly put it, “Being the house conservative at the New York Times is like being the chief rabbi in Mecca.”
The conservative website TheNoseOnYourFace.com offered an inspired take by imagining Sulzberger sending his staff a memo detailing the paper’s newly instituted “Neo-Con Sensitivity Training Program.” It read in part:
Like you and I, Bill Kristol puts his pants on one leg at a time—he’s just thinking about dead Iraqi babies, single malt Scotch, and his Haliburton dividends checks while he’s doing it. My point is that we should try to view him as just another staff member, and try to find common ground and mutual respect. Also, as a general rule, try to avoid startling him and limit direct eye contact to less than two seconds.
Mr. Kristol is a neo-con, as in neo-conservative. Your NCSTP training will offer a more in-depth explanation of the difference between a standard-grade conservative and neo-con, but for now, imagine the difference between a really bad case of the flu and full-blown AIDS.
Perhaps most telling in the response to Kristol’s hiring, almost no one seems to have taken it the way that Rosenthal hoped—as a chance to engage with an alternative point of view. In a liberal universe where the other side is wrong—evil—by definition, that’s simply not how things are done. Over and over on the Web, one found variations on the following: “I never read William Saphire [sic], and I never read David Brooks. I will take great pleasure in never reading Bill Kristol!”
Harry Stein is a contributing editor of City Journal and author of eight books. The New York Times Book Review called his recent memoir, How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy: (And Found Inner Peace), "a wickedly funny and moral book." He has also written for numerous publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Playboy, GQ, and Esquire, for which he created the "Ethics" column. He lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.