'Ideological war' and the loss of credibility

Posted: Jul 17, 2003 12:00 AM

The New York Times has a new executive editor, Bill Keller. But at The Times the beat may go on - indications are that it will - until, good golly Miss Molly, the very hirer of Keller hires out elsewhere.

A 40-year history of regular - daily - reading of The Times speaks overwhelmingly to two points:

First, in terms of coverage The Times has been the most estimable newspaper in the world. It has been the newspaper of record for number of stories - with datelines war-torn, provincial and exotic - for length of stories and for extent of space given to those stories. As many outside the industry depend on particular news sources, so those within journalism long have depended on The Times as their fundamental source of news, including (in this case) the fundamental source of news for the commentary they write.

Second, in terms of the ideology present in its news columns The Times has been lopsidedly leftist and grows consistently and overtly more so. Anyone reading The Times for objectivity often has had to filter out the ideology on the way to finding the facts. The Times' depth of coverage has given it an objective cachet: "all the news that's fit to print"; if it's in The Times, it must be right. Yet the liberalism infusing the news columns has been obvious to anyone with his eyes (and mind) open.

In the past several years, during the regime of the recently departed Howell Raines, the leftism of the news columns became as "screamingly" obvious as the last concert by the Stones.

As editor of The Times' editorial page, Raines may have brightened that page's dishwater prose, but overall he made the opinion pages more aggressively leftist than ever - and perhaps tellingly he refused to rise above the conservative columnist tokenism that began with the lone conservative Arthur Krock and persists in the solitary William Safire.

(Though years before Raines The Times pioneered the concept of an op/ed page - that is, the page opposite the editorial page devoted to a multiplicity of opinion - The Times op/ed page remains unleavened by conservatism or even moderation except for Safire. Other leading op/ed pages, on the contrary, have added conservatives. Within the industry it's an open secret that in terms of intellect and writing, conservatives dominate those pages, while elsewhere in the mainline press they are practically shut out.)

When Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. moved Raines from the editorial page to oversight of the newsroom, the decision met none of the industry ululation that would have followed the naming of a conservative - a Safire, for instance. The decision received hosannas instead. Times news staffers have greeted the naming of Keller in large part with similar hosannas and sighs of relief for reasons clearly extending beyond their hope that Keller is a good manager to the shared sense that he is, ideologically, one of them.

Raines hardly initiated the ideologization of The Times news columns and newsroom culture. He merely speeded the trends begun decades earlier, perhaps under publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger - an individual who said proudly of his role in Times' newsroom policies and practices, "I play a very active role in these things. They don't go the other way if I don't want them to." The son - Arthur Sulzberger Jr. - continues that thinking, and named both Raines and Keller.

As things have developed at The Times, it has grown increasingly difficult not to share the view of Joseph Epstein, the estimable essayist who in the May 1994, Commentary lamented "yet another wave of radical changes at The Times" and worried that "the Good Gray Lady of American journalism has of late in various ways been greatly tarted up, the better, it seems, to whore after the young, the rich and the ignorant. One can practically hear, like the sound of mice behind the walls, the owners and editors of The New York Times madly scurrying about in the attempt to keep up with what they construe to be the spirit of the age." As a continuing reader of The Times "six days a week," Epstein wrote, "more and more ... I have begun to ask myself why, and also whether life would not be better without it."

Just so.

Under the Raines regnum we had, of course, (1) the Jayson Blair episode of ingratiation, fabrication - and advancement in the face of newsroom warnings; (2) bylines for Raines-favorite Rick Bragg on stories written largely by stringers from locations where Bragg hardly had been a presence; (3) and the news-column agitation for - among other things - homosexual rights and against the admissions polices of the Augusta National Golf Club.

Times reporter Chris Hedges gave a May commencement address at Rockford College in Illinois wherein he said:

"I want to speak to you today about war and empire. ... We are embarking on an occupation (in Iraq) that if history is any guide will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige and power and security. ... We have forfeited the goodwill, the empathy the world felt for us after 9/11; we have folded in on ourselves. ... We are far less secure today than we were before we bumbled into Iraq. We will pay for this, but what saddens me most is that those who will by and large pay the highest price are poor kids from Mississippi or Alabama or Texas who could not get a decent job or health insurance and joined the army because it was all we offered them."

Such ideological enterprises and trash have no business in the news columns or in the mouths of reporters whose presumed objectivity is the currency in which they trade. If The Times loses its objectivity it loses its credibility - and it becomes, as it has, incredible. This is what Raines wrought: Through (his words, last week on PBS) "ideological war," he destroyed the essence of The Times' reputation for objective, credible news.

Yet the problem was, and is, not so much Raines as the current publisher Sulzberger - and the solution lies with Sulzberger. In a perceptive piece last month, Washington Post columnist David Broder said this about the problem and the solution:

"The besetting sin of big-time journalism is arrogance - the belief in our own omniscience, that we know so much we don't have to listen to criticism. And 'The Times' as an institution leads the league in arrogance. ... (The Jayson Blair episode, including its aftermath, was) not an isolated example of institutional arrogance. It was arrogance of publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., to move Raines from editor of the editorial page, where he was a particularly acerbic critic of Republicans and conservatives, and put him in charge of 'The Times' news coverage"

Broder cited "another, not unrelated manifestation" of arrogance when Sulzberger recently forced The Post out of joint ownership of the International Herald Tribune "because he wanted the prestigious European franchise for himself." And Broder concluded:

"'The Times' has had its comeuppance (in Blair, Bragg, et al.). Its sins are symptomatic of the press' inflated self-importance. 'The Times' can lead the way back to trust - if its publisher will."

Raines may be out, but Sulzberger remains - and he insisted last week he "did not make a mistake" in appointing Raines. So it may be a long time before The Times' credibility will be restored in the only way it can - with the departure of Sulzberger himself. Which means many of us long may be left wondering, with Epstein, why we continue to read The Times every day, and "whether life would not be better without it."