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

McGowan also flays Sulzberger’s handpicked liberal op-ed columnists. Every liberal Times columnist shows up more than once in this book, and always in a bad light: Paul Krugman is mentioned eight times, Bob Herbert seven, Nicholas Kristof four. McGowan fails to mention that Sulzberger has also hand-picked conservatives David Brooks, William Kristol, and Ross Douthat as op-ed page columnists, and conservative spin-meisters such as Tobin Harshaw (of the Times’ Opinionator), who orchestrates much of the online commentary. Brooks appears only once in Gray Lady Down, as “one of the two house conservatives,” but poor Ross Douthat doesn’t even rate a mention. Bill Kristol, who wrote a column twice a week for a year for the Times (which McGowan doesn’t tell his readers) also pops up just once—to declare, from his perch at the Weekly Standard, that the Times is part of an “axis of appeasement.”

Reporting like this isn’t in error; either it’s dishonest or it reflects a blockage in McGowan’s thinking that’s unnerving in a would-be arbiter of good journalism. Still, his conclusion affirms—with an eloquence uncharacteristic of the rest of the book—that

[o]ur civic culture needs a common narrative and a national forum that is free of cant—an honest broker of hard news and detached analysis, where the editorial pages are not spread like invisible ink between the lines of its news and cultural reviews. As our political system grows more polarized, and political parties play harder toward their base, it is even more important that we have news organizations whose honest reporting can form a DMZ between opposing forces trapped in their own information cocoons.

Amen. Unfortunately, Gray Lady Down never breaks out of its own ideological cocoon long enough to stop compounding the problem.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

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.