Cleaning up the Times

Posted: Jun 10, 2003 12:00 AM

What Newsweek calls "the country's most admired journalistic institution" will benefit -- it has to, it must -- from its ongoing encounter with shame and disaster. American journalism stands to benefit every bit as much.

It was time The New York Times got taken down a peg or two or three. A distinguished newspaper had gone imperial on us. The Times stretched out its scepter, and behold, the Truth suddenly emerged, under a six-column head. Then came Jayson Blair, with his fabrications and plagiarisms, and also Rick Bragg, the correspondent who claimed credit for a story basically reported by an unpaid intern. Last week, executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald M. Boyd took the fall. The Times, to say the least, has some image repairs to make.

I note all these things sadly, as a daily reader of The New York Times for 34 years. There has always been much in the Times to value; there still is. Even if Pulitzer Prizes are hugely overrated as touchstones of value, many of those distributed in abundance to the Times have been deserved. I think of the thumbnail sketches of the Sept. 11 victims. These ran for months. Raines' idea? Boyd's? Whoever the progenitor, the sketches were wonderful and compelling.

The trouble with the present-day Times is smug liberalism. Whoops, Newsweek doesn't cotton to that imputation; it complains that "right-wing ideologues tried to make the Times' implosion a cautionary tale about affirmative action (Blair being African American) and perceived liberal bias."

Umm-hmm; see what I meant about American journalism standing to benefit from the Times' discomfiture? By validating smug, self-satisfied, disdainful liberalism as the approved American philosophy, the Times made it safe, if not inevitable, for publications like Newsweek to sneer at "right-wing ideologues." And for publications of even lesser accomplishments to do so. Times imitators are all over the place today.

Opinion dispensing is indispensable, not to mention fun. I should know, having formerly made my living thereby. The trouble with the Times' opinion dispensing is that it often slops over from the editorial page (smugly liberal) into the news columns (theoretically, but only theoretically, balanced). Stories seemingly get reported because they advance the agenda of smug liberalism. It happens not just with the political news but even with arts and "lifestyle" coverage.

The Times' commitment to political correctness, feminism, gay rights and big government stands out a mile -- so also its disdain for tax cuts and religious "fundamentalists." The Times still can't get used to the idea that it might have been better to attack Saddam Hussein than to leave him alone.

Editor Raines, an Alabama native, seemed bent on making the South over in his own image. The Times, in his heyday, was always good for a story or editorial on the scandal of displaying the Confederate flag. Another Raines obsession: the Augusta National Golf Club's unwillingness to let women join. Golly darn! Isn't that just too awful for words? The Times think so. Evidently, the rest of us should, also.

The general -- I didn't say universal -- liberalism of American journalism stems in part from professional interest in whatever is new and in part from the tide of skeptical, post-Watergate baby boomers that flooded newsrooms starting in the '70s. A third factor is the prestige of those publications -- e.g., The New York Times -- that seem to render smug liberalism as normal as bottled water.

No fair. I try to sell my university journalism students on a quaint notion -- that ideology should be barred sternly from news columns. I have a saying: As reporters, we're the readers' eyes and ears; we're not their brains.

The New York Times of Howell Raines and Jayson Blair would differ with that judgment. That Times, to the extent it remains intact and emotionally unencumbered, indeed deems itself our brains' trust. It knows what we need to know.

Except that it doesn't, really. Its wising up, so long needed, could be decades away. At least now the wising up has begun.