Long live the New York Times

Posted: May 21, 2003 12:00 AM

This is going to be a curiously perverse column: A defense of The New York Times by the conservative editorial page editor of the Washington Times. As a conservative, Republican political operative for almost two decades in Washington, through the 1980s and 1990s, I grew to loathe the liberal editorials, op/eds and partisan analysis pieces in The New York Times. I resented the powerful effect those articles had on the news judgments of broadcast network news (CBS, ABC, NBC), as well as on the rest of the news businesses around the country and across the world.

But even then, I deeply appreciated the depth, quality and comprehensiveness of The New York Times news reporting. Whether I was writing a speech for President Reagan, or otherwise publicly asserting facts about the news of the day, I was always confident that if I read it in the New York Times, it was as accurate as daily news journalism could make it. I cannot recall ever having that confidence misplaced. There are many good news organizations (and many more bad ones). Other newspapers may surpass The New York Times in some aspects of their coverage. But that statement remains as true today as it was 20 years ago, as it was 50 years ago.

With the advent of the Internet, cable news and niche news services, the amount of available assertions of facts has expanded by several magnitudes. But whether any of those millions of asserted facts that are born every day are true and accurate, one cannot know from these new sources. A benchmark of objective reality remains the province of a limited number of long-tested and proven sources of accuracy. The New York Times has been at the pinnacle of that small group of reliable sources. I hope it remains there, because such a status of reliability cannot be built in a day or a year -- or perhaps even in a generation or two. Such quality is the product not only of sustained, large financial investment, but of a tradition of its employees built up over the decades -- and now over the centuries. It is the imbued news consciences of thousands of Times men and women that has consistently produced such quality. Individuals with a deserved sense of pride that they write for the finest newspaper in the world have, over the centuries, made the extra effort that has produced the news we have all relied on. Once destroyed, it will not soon be replaced. There simply will be a gap in the fabric of objective, comprehensive news sources. Conservatives as well as liberals would be the worse for it.

I don't write this to minimize the damage caused by the Jayson Blair incident. The response of New York Times management seems dangerously similar to the response of the Catholic Church hierarchy to their recent scandals. To merely fire the aberrant priest or reporter (and ceremoniously to lash themselves) is to miss the centrality of the scandal. It was the system of management that sheltered such an aberration for so long a time that is the true scandal. And the persistence of such a management system could lead not just to a continuing scandal, but to the downfall of the institution.

Moreover, just as the Catholic Church's scandal brought forth longtime haters of the church to opportunely pile on when the Church was vulnerable, The New York Times' current agony has brought out similar longtime foes to thrash the paper when she is down. Many of them are ill-motivated and should stop before they do irreparable harm. I have heard of phony charges of plagiarism being made against renowned New York Times reporters (whose careful work over the years I am personally familiar with) by low-life news outlets seeking an ill-deserved moment in the media sun. The public should be skeptical of such charges when they stumble across them. The scrutiny under which the New York Times news reporters currently suffer may yield a very few more aberrations (under microscopic observation, few of us in any line of work -- plumber, politician, soldier or doctor -- could be shown to have performed without error all the time). But, my guess is there will be few, if any, such further cases.

New York Times news reporters -- the proud hunters of objective facts -- should continue to stand tall. And their management should clean out the stables immediately -- even if they must sweep themselves out -- for the good of a great and needed institution.