On Political Books

May/June 2011 Misreading the New York Times

There's plenty to criticize about America's newspaper of record. So why do conservatives make up reasons that don't exist?

By Jim Sleeper

Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means for America
by William McGowan
Encounter Books, 276 pp.

American newspapers began dying years ago, not because of the sins of journalists but because of seismic shifts in reader demographics, technology, and patterns of ownership that all but displaced the great press lords and family trusts. Even when the latter still run newspapers (the Sulzbergers’ New York Times, the Grahams’ Washington Post, the Murdochs’ Wall Street Journal), they’ve internalized the bureaucratic bottom-line mindset of the new media conglomerates that bought out the Chandlers of the Los Angeles Times and the Bancrofts of the WSJ.

With little concern for journalism as a civic craft, the new owners are transforming what used to be known as “the public” into an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of consumer audiences, assembled on whatever ideological, religious, erotic, or nihilist pretexts might draw eyeballs and, with them, advertisers. As new publishers and editors dumb the news down or tart it up in pursuit of maximum profit, they may just be making their newspapers deserve to die the deaths they were already dying. What, then, should be the public obligations of today’s news organizations? And can media conglomerates be induced to care about them? Journalist William McGowan claims to have thought deeply about these questions, so I went looking for answers in his recent book, Gray Lady Down.

But instead of walking us through the near-cataclysmic upheavals that have compromised the Times and, by implication, other papers, McGowan argues that the most destructive force in American journalism is the moralistic worldview of Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. According to McGowan, Sulzberger has debased the paper’s high standards by trying to propagate the views of a politically correct, elitist subculture that has lost touch with “the American people” as well as with market imperatives. McGowan acknowledges that times are tough for all newspapers, and that some of Sulzberger’s business moves failed not because they were ideologically motivated but because they were dumb. In his telling, however, the Times is failing mainly because Sulzberger feels driven to make the newspaper’s profit seeking compatible with his peculiarly liberal, rich, preppie, Manhattanite, and slightly guilt-ridden moralism.

McGowan isn’t always wrong to charge that Sulzberger’s biases have compromised the Times coverage of race, foreign policy, and immigration. (I made similar arguments in my book Liberal Racism: How Fixating on Race Subverts the American Dream.) He may be right that Sulzberger’s strategy is turning off more readers than it’s attracting and that it’s weakening the paper’s professional public stature. But more alarming to him, what he calls the Times’“slavish devotion to the ideology of diversity” may keep certain facts and people from being reported on. He reprises as examples Times reporters’ subpar coverage of the Duke lacrosse team “rape” case and their months of under-reporting (amid Times columnists’ and editorialists’ relentless denigrations) of the “surge” in Iraq even when it was succeeding. McGowan slams the paper for its “Obamamania” during the 2008 campaign. And he argues that Times editors fell so completely for their former reporter Judith Miller’s rightward-tacking fabrications about Saddam Hussein’s weaponry only because they wanted to offset the paper’s liberal excesses.

Reading McGowan, one would think that the Times is alone in undermining journalistic standards: he never acknowledges that media conglomerates such as Murdoch news outlets are just as guilty of subverting the standards he accuses the Times of betraying. And because of this, McGowan’s criticisms of the Times are without context.

Certainly the Times has managed to misconstrue its subjects and miss the real story. In a 1998 discussion paper for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, I approvingly quoted McGowan’s observation that assimilating immigrants into a shared American civic-republican identity can be liberating if it’s pursued by authorities who join “a reformer’s passion for social improvement with a nationalist’s insistence on assimilation.” That the Times underreported this is unfortunate, but it was the paper’s failure to grasp that most immigrants are themselves hungry for this kind of assimilation that was the real disservice.

But McGowan doesn’t stop there, complaining that when Sami al-Arian, a Palestinian-born professor of computer science, was dismissed by the University of South Florida and indicted by the federal government for helping to fund a terrorist organization through his involvement in a charity, “the Times went to bat” for him—and not just on the editorial pages. In one news story, he tells us, reporter “Neil MacFarquhar, ignoring all prior court evidence, said that al-Arian was ‘nothing more sinister than an outspoken Palestinian activist’ who was being unjustly punished.”

But MacFarquhar never said that. He did say, following the standard he-said/she-said reporter’s convention, the following:

The Justice Department and some independent terrorism investigators have long accused Mr. Al-Arian of being the main North America organizer for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, … which the United States has designated a terrorist organization. Mr. Al-Arian’s supporters, though, say that he is nothing more sinister than an outspoken Palestinian activist, and that the Justice Department has tried to exploit the post-September 11 mood in the United States.

At the Times, claims McGowan, “pressure has steadily increased to erase the distinction between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ immigration.… The Times rarely uses the term ‘illegal alien.’ A 2004 story headlined ‘160 Migrants Seized at Upscale Arizona Home’ was obviously about illegal immigrants being smuggled into the country, but the headline refused to say so.” Really? While McGowan claims that facts “are airbrushed out of the record, Pravda-like,” at the Times, here he himself airbrushes out the fact that this story opened by noting that border agents found a posh house packed with people, 136 of whom they arrested—“all of them illegal immigrants” from Latin America.

In the end McGowan seems driven more by his own mostly conservative passions concerning race, sexuality, immigration, and law enforcement than any poor reportage the Times may be guilty of. Writing, for instance, about immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, McGowan observes that they “may be a model minority for their above-average incomes and levels of education, but their impaired sense of social equality and their ethnocentric exclusivity are problems that they should not import into their new country.” One wonders what Dinesh D’Souza, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Reihan Salam—stars of the right-wing media all—might think.

In his 2002 book, Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism, McGowan argued (somewhat persuasively) that the Times hadn’t always covered racial politics very intelligently or fairly. Now he’s keen to show that in 2008 the paper abandoned all objectivity to crusade for Barack Obama because he’s black. Writing with the telltale vagueness of a journalist trying to gin up a controversy, McGowan tells us that while many praised Obama’s speech on race in Philadelphia in 2008, “others described [it] as ‘subject-changing’ in trying to deflect attention from Pastor Jeremiah Wright.” Obama’s public invocations of his white relatives and his restraint in the face of racial provocations have clearly elevated the national conversation about race, but they don’t seem to have dented McGowan’s ire at either the president or the Times coverage of him.

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale, teaches seminars there on “Global Journalism, National Identities” and “Journalism, Liberalism, and Democracy.”


  • Daniel Buck on May 16, 2011 8:14 PM:

    Good analysis.

    E.B. White, some decades ago, made reference to complaint similar to McGowan's, though in this case it was made by the distinctly left-leaning Henry Wallace.

    White: Wallace "keeps saying that you can't learn the truth from newspapers. We agree. You can't learn the truth from newspapers. You can, however, buy at any newsstand a ten-cent assortment of biased and unbiased facts and fancies and reports and opinions, and from them you are allowed to try to assemble something that is a reasonable facsimile of the truth."

    I assemble my reasonable facsimile of the truth by reading the New York, Times, Wall Street Journal, and just about any other periodical I can lay my hands (or my clicker) on, including, obviously, the Washington Monthly.