Why are American newspapers in decline, the circulation plummeting, their reputations in tatters, and their editorial decisions the subject of denunciation?
The decision by New York Times and Los Angeles Times to publish on June 23 the details of the Swift program --details which in the opinion of most serious counterterrorism experts, will help terrorists elude capture—is only the most recent of a long series of press catastrophes that dog the print industry. Disgust at that decision was at least in part cumulative, a widely shared shudder at the self-proclaimed importance of the media generally and the big newspapers specifically. The little people just aren’t buying it anymore –both figuratively and literally, if whispers of the Los Angeles Times’ circulation numbers are to be believed.
There are plenty of pieces denouncing the MSM elites, and I have written my share.
But few try and figure out what went wrong. I visited Columbia School of Journalism in the fall to probe, and came away with some answers written up in the Weekly Standard.
That investigation looked at the future of MSM, not at its present.
How did the big papers go off the rails? After the repeated attempts
The papers don’t have any. Or rather, that which they have is weak: weak minded and weak willed, prone to aggressiveness followed by obsequiousness. Erratic. Impulsive and self-destructive.
Where does such leadership come from? An examination of the leadership lineage of the four major dailies that are widely and correctly understood to be very left of center in this country –the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times—reveals that much of the dysfunction of these newsrooms may fairly be traced to inbreeding among their elites.
The cloistered word of big papers breeds its own peculiar type of leader, always selected from within the world of the big papers, always carrying forward to the top the same assumptions of importance and privilege, the same world view and indeed the same unusual combination of arrogance and limited experience that defines big journalism. Here are the brief histories of the top leadership posts at the big four:
The New York Times:
Bill Keller (2003 to present): A 1970 graduate of Pomona College, Keller was on the student paper there and immediately went into journalism as a reporter for Portland’s The Oregonian. After stints with The Congressional Quarterly and the Dallas Times Herald, Keller joined the New York Times in 1984 and has been there since. He spent nearly a decade in the Moscow bureau, before returning to New York in 1995 as the paper’s foreign editor. Passed over for executive editor when Howell Raines was promoted to that post in 2002, Keller became an op-ed columnist and senior writer for the paper, and was selected to lead it when Raines left after the Jayson Blair scandal in 2003.
Howell Raines (2001 to 2003)
Raines grew up in Alabama, and is a 1964 graduate of Birmingham-Southern College. He joined the Birmingham Post-Herald the same year, but jumped to the local television station WBRC in 1965. In 1970 it was back to papers, via the Birmingham News, and in the same year, the Atlanta Constitution. In 1976 he migrated to the St. Petersburg Times, and in 1978 was recruited to the “big leagues” of journalism as he called it, and joined the New York Times. He spent the next 25 years as a Timesman, in jobs including Washington, D.C. bureau chief and national political correspondent. He was selected as Executive Editor in 2001, a week before 9/11. He lasted less than two years when the Jayson Blair scandal brought him down.
Joseph Lelyveld (1994 to 2001)
Lelyveld spent nearly 40 years at the New York Times, beginning as a copy editor. Lelyveld told graduates of the Columbia School of Journalism, from which he graduated, that he got into journalism “having discovered that I had too short an attention span for any respectable profession or form of scholarship.” After a stint in the Army, Lelyveld enlisted in the Times and never left until retirement.
Max Frankel (1986 to 1994)
Frankel was also a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, where he also spent his undergraduate years. Like his predecessor, Frankel began his 50 years working for the Times before he received his diploma from college. He never left the paper, and served on its Board after retirement from the newsroom.
A.M. Rosenthal (1977 to 1986)
Rosenthal took over the leadership of the paper after having spent 34 years climbing the internal ladder. Beginning in 1988, he combined his editor’s duties with column writing, and after leaving the paper (after 56 years) began a column for the New York Daily News. He was a 1943 graduate of City College, and had begun working for the Times as a campus correspondent even before graduation. Rosenthal was a foreign correspondent from 1954 to 1967, when he returned to New York and began a series of management jobs that took ten years to get him to the top of the paper.
James Reston (1968 to 1969)
The legendary “Scotty” Reston began his journalism career with the Springfield, Ohio Daily News and the AP in 1934, and joined the Times in its London bureau in 1939. Except for a three year leave of absence during World War II when Reston served in the U.S. Office of War Information, he never left the Times.
Turner Catledge (1964 to 1968)
Catledge joined the Times in 1929, and spent 35 years working towards the top. He never left the paper until his retirement.
The Washington Post
Leonard Downie, Jr. (1991 to present)
Downie joined the Washington Post as a summer intern in 1964, and except for a year’s leave for a fellowship to study urban problems in the U.S. and Europe, this Ohio State graduate has never not been in the employ of the Post.
Benjamin C. Bradlee (1965 to 1991)
Bradlee’s a 1942 graduate of Harvard. He joined the Post in 1948, but left in 1951 to become the assistant press attaché in the American embassy in Paris, and from there went on to work for a number of years at the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange. Hejoined Newsweek in 1953 and rejoined the Post later that decade. He became senior editor of the paper in 1961, “managing editor” in 1965, and “executive editor” in 1968.
The Boston Globe
Martin Baron (2001 to present)
Baron arrived at the Globe after a brief two years at the head of the Miami Herald. The 1976 graduate of Lehigh University had joined the Herald out of college, but left for the west coast and a series of jobs with the Los Angeles Times in 1979. He jumped to the New York Times in 1996 and spent three years there before heading to Florida.
Matthew V. Storin (1993 to 2001)
Storin began his journalism career at the Springfield Daily News in 1964, and moved to the Globe in 1969, where he was a White House correspondent and and reported extensively from Asia before joining management at the paper in 1982. Storin left the Globe for stints at U.S. News & World Report, the Chicago Sun Times, the Maine Times and the New York Daily News before taking the leadership of the Globe in 1993.
John S. Driscoll (1987 to 1993)
Driscoll has spent decades at the Globe and was a caretaker between the turbulence of the Janeway years and the arrival of Storin. Driscoll graduated from Northeastern University in 1957 and joined the paper after graduation, rising through its ranks in a variety of posts including managing editor of the Evening Globe.
Michael Janeway (1984 to 1986)
Janeway came to the Globe in the late ‘70s after many years at the Atlantic Monthly where he had risen to executive editor and to which he had come from Newsweek and before that Newsday. He headed the Sunday Globe prior to his elevation to the top job 1986. Janeway spent a year as a special assistant to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, from 1977 to 1978.
Thomas Winship (1965 to 1984)
After his 1945 graduation from Harvard, Winship joined the staff of the Washington Post. He joined the Globe in 1956 –his father was editor of the paper whom the younger Winship replaced in ‘65—and stayed until his retirement.
The Los Angeles Times
Dean Baquet (2005 to present)
Baquet joined the Los Angeles Times in 2000 after a decade with the New York Times. From 1984 to 1990 he had worked at the Chicago Tribune, and before that for the States-Item and Times-Picayune in New Orleans, where he began his journalism career after his 1978 graduation Columbia.
John Carroll (2000 to 2005)
Carroll is a 1963 graduate of Haverford College, and began his journalism career after a stint in the Army. Other than his time as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and a Visiting Journalist Fellow at Oxford, he has not been out of the newsroom, having spent 1972 to 1979 at the Philadelphia Inquirer, a dozen years at the Lexington, Kentucky Herald and Herald-Leader, and nearly a decade at the Baltimore Sun, where he was editor before joining the Times.
Michael Parks (1997 to 2000)
Parks began working for the Detroit News while still an undergraduate at Canada’s University of Windsor. After stints with the Time-Life News Service and the Suffolk News, he joined the Baltimore Sun in 1968. Parks jumped to the Los Angeles Times in 1990, and served as deputy foreign editor and managing editor before gaining the top post in 2000. He has extensive overseas reporting experience.
Shelby Coffee III (1989 to 1997)
Coffee joined the Washington Post shortly after graduation from the University of Virginia in 1968, and spent 17 years at the paper, beginning as a sports writer, and including time as editor of the Style section, deputy managing editor and assistant managing editor for national news. From there Coffee became editor of U.S. News & World Report in 1985 at the age of 38, but lasted there only nine months before taking the top job at the Dallas Times Herald in 1986. He joined the Times less than a year later, and won the top job in part through an essay contest among in-house staff.
William F. Thomas (1971 to 1989)
Thomas graduated from Northwestern University’s graduate school of journalism in 1951. (and from Northwestern in 1950) and joined the Times in 1962 after beginning his career at the Buffalo Evening News, the Sierra Madre News, and the Mirror News. His rise at Spring Street coincided with the transition at the paper from Norman to Otis Chandler, and the latter’s influence so profound that it really makes no sense to look at editorial leadership prior to Thomas. What matters prior to Otis Chandler’s retirement in 1980 is only Otis himself, a pure newspaperman from the time he joined his father’s paper in 1953 and began his fabled seven year “executive training” program as a pressroom apprentice on the graveyard shift and culminating in his 1960 appointment as publisher.
These 18 brief biographical snapshots --limited to one aspect of what must be fascinating lives—we see hundreds of years of newspaper experience. Do the math and you will see close to 650 years spent in newsrooms from the time these various men –and they are all men, and all but one Anglo—took their first job until the end of their job as leader of one of the bigs.
There is not a single graduate degree among them outside of journalism, and only a handful of years spent doing anything other than reporting and editing. A few passed through a magazine for a time, and a fellowship breaks the monotony of the resume uniformity (as does Janeway’s stint as the side of Cyrus Vance, and Bradlee’s and Reston’s brief passage through a government job.)
What can be said about such uniformity at the top of the liberal-left newspapers.
First, that the leaders of these institutions have been thoroughly inculcated with the creed of newspapermen: They are important. They are privileged. They can be objective. They have the country’s best interests at heart.
Second, that it is very unlikely that there is anyone in the inner circles of these papers with the experience to judge national security issues. Many of these editors are well-traveled, of course, and some have reported from close up on war and carnage. Many have also covered government at its senior most levels.
But big balances in frequent flier accounts or knowledge of the hideaways of Moscow or Paris does not translate into real experience with the issues that drive governments, and certainly has nothing at all to do with terrorism or its prevention. Travel writing, yes, but time as a war correspondent doesn’t provide even the military experience of the rawest lieutenant or insight into counterterrorism of a one year trainee at the FBI.
In newsrooms, however, such resumes take on added significance and the admiration of peers as the closest thing to real experience in the world, a sort of faux power. It is certainly understandable if veteran journalists begin to think of themselves as experienced in other than, well, asking questions and writing down answers. Don’t they tell most of the stories at the bar?
Then there is the weird distance between reporters and editors and the real world of business. Why can’t editors seem to figure out how to sell more papers in this new era of the internet and blogs? Why are so many so tone deaf, so apparently oblivious to the barriers they erect to readership, so resolute in their refusal to adapt their papers at least in small part to center-right readers disgusted with a uniform diet not just of lefty propaganda, but ill-informed lefty propaganda at that?
Perhaps because they don’t have to. They have never had to. They grew up in the age of, if not monopoly, at least aristocracy. The Los Angeles Times could take a plunge off the left’s high dive because, after all, what alternative was there? The New York Times had a decade or more of seed corn to consume before it would feel the effects of inbreeding.
But mostly the collapse is the result of the echo-chamber in which all of these “leaders” have been nurtured and in which they have risen. You don’t get to be a high priest in the state religion if you aren’t very good at mouthing the creed. Mouthed enough times and the creed becomes internalized. The big editors at the big papers are party men, through and through. They have become what they routinely denounce: hyper partisans, not of the GOP or the Democratic Party (though their world view inclines them decidedly towards the latter) but of the partisan press, so fully and completely indoctrinated that they don’t even recognize their lock step marching and predictable decision making.
This inbred caste is simply incapable of saving the papers they proclaim to love because they can’t begin to even make out what the problem is.
Where diversity is genuinely needed –intellectual diversity, life experience diversity—it will never arrive: Behind the big bosses’ desks at the largest papers.