Where do I begin? In a week when it became increasingly obvious that the President, the Vice President, the Defense Secretary, the Secretary of State and virtually all their underlings had deliberately misled Congress, the United Nations, the American people and the people of the world about the reasons the United States and Britain invaded Iraq, and when the Federal Communications Commission delivered a potentially crippling blow to media-based democracy and ideological diversity, the biggest story in America is the resignation of the two top editors of the New York Times.
It’s not as if the departure of Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd from the newspaper of record is not significant. Obviously, it is. But as with any media frenzy, one has to ask whose agendas are being served by the obsessive overkill.
After wading through the hundreds of thousands of words that have been devoted to Times analysis since Jayson Blair became the black face du jour (joining the company of the other entertainers, athletes, liars and criminals so frequently chosen to represent black America on the cover of Time and Newsweek), I’d summarize the accepted storyline as follows.
(1) Howell Raines was a guilt-ridden Southern liberal who cut the psychopathic Blair break after break because Raines’s commitment to affirmative action was so strong it overrode his news judgment.
(2) Because Raines was also an insular tyrant who brooked no criticism–“Caligula,” in the words of one staffer–the dysfunctional aspects of the Times newsroom could not be corrected. Hence Blair’s obvious fabrications went uncorrected while many of the paper’s most talented reporters departed for less traumatic pastures.
(3) Rick Bragg’s dishonest reporting method was of a piece with Raines’s indulgence of Blair. Like Blair, Bragg was a member of Raines’s coterie. This meant he could get away with almost anything as long as no one complained too publicly or too powerfully. When Bragg decided to go down in flames by smearing all his colleagues as just as lazy and dishonest as he was–and Raines did not defend his own newsroom against this calumny–the peasants moved into open revolt.
(4) The existence of Jim Romenesko’s Media News site and Howard Kurtz’s Washington Post column–together with frequent web-only updates by Newsweek‘s Seth Mnookin–allowed Times reporters to give voice to their anger and frustration with such speed and force that the Sulzbergers could no longer ignore it. Raines and Boyd had a constituency of one, and they eventually lost it. End of story.
All of the above is fairly accurate, but only in the broad strokes. Just as important are the plots that the agreed-upon narrative decides to ignore, exploit or assimilate. Take for instance the problem alleged to lie at its center: affirmative action.
It’s a rather tortured path to argue, as a few people have, that the myriad indulgences visited upon Jayson Blair were unrelated to the Times‘s aggressive pursuit of “diversity” in its newsroom. The Times is justly proud of this pursuit, and Raines himself admitted that he, “as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave [Blair] one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the sniper team.”
To be an honest defender of affirmative action, one must face up to its failures. As Rick Hertzberg observed in The New Yorker, “Affirmative action is strong medicine, and, as with any strong medicine, no great distance separates the therapeutic dose from the toxic one. It demands close monitoring of its institutional side effects.” One of its frequent side effects is the creation of a culture of resentment among those who do not fall into any of its categories. If The Nation, in the name of diversity, gave my column to a less qualified woman or minority writer, I’d be pretty goddamn resentful. This kind of affirmative-action fallout is predictable and probably unavoidable.
But what is the alternative? Do we really want to live in a world like that of the 1950s, when, according to an industrywide survey reported by Eric Boehlert in Salon, “just thirty-eight blacks were working among the nation’s 75,000 newsroom employees”? I’d hazard a guess that the number of Asians, Latinos and other minorities didn’t make it into double digits and that the total number of minorities in top executive positions hovered near zero.
The problem with Raines’s version of affirmative action is not only the patronizing and ultimately self-defeating manner in which he treated the undeserving Blair but also the degree to which he indulged his chosen white cronies, like Bragg, with similar special treatment. Just as conservatives never mention that people like George W. Bush are the beneficiaries of affirmative action for lazy white sons of rich legacy parents, they seem unwilling to admit that race is only one place where people catch extra, unearned breaks. Bragg’s byline bespoke a particular brand of braggadocio-cum-bullshit in story after story, thanks to an affirmative-action program that does not speak its name.
But skittishness about affirmative action does not begin to explain the degree of Schadenfreude on display over Raines’s resignation. The legendary Times arrogance played a major role as well. “It ain’t bragging if you really done it,” Raines boasted when the paper copped its unprecedented seven Pulitzers in 2002. Perhaps, but it ain’t nice neither, and people resent it. It’s no secret that a significant amount of the media attention focused on the Times is coming from journalists envious of their more accomplished and admired competitors. Excuse me, but pot/kettle anyone? It’s a bit audacious, after all, for Howard Kurtz to ask a guest on CNN’s Reliable Sources, “Isn’t there an insular culture at the Times that maybe contributed to the fact that these mistakes were brushed off and warning signs were missed, is something in the water there?” when Kurtz is allowed to keep his perch at CNN–which represents a clear conflict of interest with his duties on the media beat of the Washington Post–only because of that paper’s “insular culture.” Nowhere else in respectable journalism is a beat reporter invited to take a paycheck from the people about whom he reports.
So while the clucking over the Times is understandable, much of it is unseemly, misplaced and, frankly, deeply suspect. The unapologetic (if inconsistent) liberalism of the Times editorial page and the paper’s decision to publish two of the most tough-minded pundits in the mainstream media, Paul Krugman and Frank Rich, is the actual target of much of the incoming fire. The right’s rap on the Times is not that its editorial pages are too liberal–that they can tolerate. It’s that its news pages are. Observe the emblematic sleight of hand here by the far-right Wall Street Journal editors: “As readers of the Times, however, our view is that what we have been seeing on its front page in recent years is less straightforward reporting and more advocacy journalism. In this sense, the scandal over Jayson Blair’s fabrications is symptomatic of a broader credibility problem that won’t vanish merely because Mr. Raines does.”
Note the logical incongruity: How, exactly, are Jayson Blair’s fabrications symptomatic of advocacy journalism? Just what was Blair “advocating,” besides himself? The Journal editors do not, indeed cannot, say. But no matter; a sword is a sword and Blair, Bragg, Boyd and Raines provided a handy one. The fact is that liberals could fill books with complaints about the Times‘s willingness to compromise its highest journalistic standards in pursuit of stories that gladden conservative hearts. For those who deem the Times news pages to be in league with the left–even loosely defined–how to explain the following:
§ The extreme sympathy offered Ken Starr in his Torquemada-like pursuit of Bill Clinton, not only on Raines’s editorial page but up to and including a willingness to misguide its readers in the news pages, by reporting that Starr spokesman Charles Bakaly had “declined to discuss” the investigation with the Times, when Judge Norma Johnson later deduced that he had been “the direct source, or at least a confirming source,” for much of the information found in the Times articles.
§ The hysterical reporting on Wen Ho Lee, which, its own editors admitted, “adopted the sense of alarm that was contained in official reports.”
§ The assignment of the love-struck Frank Bruni to cover George W. Bush during campaign 2000 (and his early presidency), paired with Katharine Seelye’s hostile coverage of Al Gore.
§ More recently, the simmering scandal following Judith Miller’s reporting on the Iraq war. Miller has consistently beaten the WMD drum for the Administration, although her pro-Administration scoops always evaporate into thin air. The Times went out on a journalistic limb for Miller when, in a front-page story, it allowed her to report the belief of an unnamed “Iraqi scientist,” to whom she’d never spoken, who corroborated the Administration view–in a story that the Pentagon vetted before publication. This story never panned out either, as we all know, but there have been no corrections and no apologies. Meanwhile, we learn from a series of purloined e-mails printed in the Washington Post that Miller’s source for “most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper,” in the words of Miller’s e-mail, was none other than Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, the neocons’ candidate for Big Man on (the Iraqi) Campus. (Patrick Tyler, another Raines crony, even hired Chalabi’s niece, Sarah Khalil, to channel supplies to reporters in Iraq.)
The point here is not that the Times is a tool of the right rather than the left. It is a tool too often of power, and power in this country resides with the right. But the paper is unquestionably less obeisant to the extremist forces ensconced in the White House and dominating much of the media than just about any other major journalistic institution we have left. The Washington Post and the Times are two of the last great family-controlled media corporations, but the former, in recent years, has become so embedded in the city’s ruling establishment that one can no longer tell where official pronouncements end and its editorial pages begin. (During the brief Harken Oil flap of summer 2002, for instance, the Post editorial page warned that Congress should not let Harken “distract” members from corporate reform. But Congress, as any freshman poli-sci text will explain, is set up to discuss more than one issue at a time. That’s why it has committees. What the editors were really saying is, Leave Bush alone, everyone–he’s our guy.)
The news pages of the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, Newsday and others offer up some first-rate enterprising reporting on those in power, but none of them enjoy the professional influence that the Times does to decide what’s news. The rest of the pack–in thrall to ratings and corporate profit targets–rarely care enough to ask themselves, as Harold Evans has noted, whether they are even in the journalism business anymore. For CBSNBCABCAOLCNNMSNBCFOX, freedom really is just another word for nothing left to lose.
And here we reach the heart of the conservative complaint about the Times: not the crusaders in its editorial pages or even the alleged advocacy of its news pages but its genuine editorial independence. For all its many flaws, the Times is still driven by a dedication to the principles of journalism. When, last year, the paper reported on dissension among the military, the Republican establishment and Congressional conservatives over Bush’s willingness to rush this country into war (based on what we now know to have been false premises), the Times was not enlisting in the antiwar movement, as the Krauthammers, Kristols and Murdoch minions moaned. It was, almost alone in America, reporting the news.
Powerful people and institutions have a strong self-interest in resisting journalistic inspection and the public accountability it can inspire. But their resistance weakens the democratic bond between the powerful and the powerless that can prevent unchecked corruption where it matters most. Irresponsible attacks by the right on just about all tough-minded, independent reporting come at the cost of the very information citizens need to understand the political, social and economic context of their world. The ability of the Times to report honestly on the forces that govern our lives–and, by doing so, to help set the agenda for the rest of the media–is one of the few institutional obstacles in the path of those who misuse their power. And that’s why, for all its flaws, the Times must be defended. We have, alas, seen the alternative.