It was significant, indeed, that The New York Times chose for the first time in 95 years to publish a front-page editorial Saturday, and that the paper’s editors used that editorial to address the “national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency.”
In the aftermath of the San Bernardino massacre, the Times acknowledged that “Law enforcement and intelligence agencies are searching for motivations, including the vital question of how the murderers might have been connected to international terrorism. That is right and proper.” “But,” the paper added, “motives do not matter to the dead in California, nor did they in Colorado, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia, Connecticut and far too many other places. The attention and anger of Americans should also be directed at the elected leaders whose job is to keep us safe but who place a higher premium on the money and political power of an industry dedicated to profiting from the unfettered spread of ever more powerful firearms.”
The point the Times addresses is a valid one. But if you want to see an illustration of how to direct anger, consider the front page of the sober national newspaper’s feisty rival, the New York Daily News.
The Daily News has, for months, been crusading against gun violence in general and the National Rifle Association in particular. But it was after the San Bernardino shootings that the Daily News delivered its most powerful punch.
God Isn’t Fixing This, shouted the street-smart tabloid’s headline. It was surrounded by screenshots of tweets from three Republican presidential candidates—Texas Senator Ted Cruz, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul—as well as House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin. The tweets responded to the latest incident of mass gun violence—14 dead, 21 wounded in San Bernardino, California—with “our prayers,” “your prayers” and “thoughts and prayers.”
A subhead on the bottom of the front page explained that, “as the latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge, continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.”
Apologists for the NRA and the politicians who do the gun lobby’s bidding were, of course, were quick to decry the Daily News, claiming that the newspaper was engaging in “prayer shaming.”
In fact, the Daily News, which despite a shift toward digital platforms remains one of the 10 largest-circulation dailies in the United States, was engaging in political shaming—calling out prominent Republicans who conveniently forgot that faith is supposed to be manifested in deeds.
The Daily News was not objecting to prayer. It was objecting to powerful political players who could move to enact sensible guns laws—three US senators and the speaker of the House—but instead simply bemoan mass shootings that this year has taken place with such grim regularity that reports of new death tolls now arrive more steadily than the old body counts from Vietnam.
Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy summed things up when he said, “Many of my colleagues are covering over their cowardice and their fealty to the gun lobby by tweeting out sympathies.”
Religious leaders and writers have noticed, as well.
The evangelical author Jim Wallis wrote on Thursday, “The epidemic of gun violence in America has become the new normal. We can’t just blame it on the brokenness of the world, pray for peace, and move on, worried that anything more will be seen as politicizing tragedy. What is tragic is that those who have the ability to DO something about this crisis refuse to offer more than simplistic sentiments on Twitter before getting caught in a circular argument about our rights as Americans.”
The founder and president of the national faith-based organization Sojourners explained, “‘Thoughts and prayers’ are not solutions for the 30,000 people who will be killed by a gun this year—we need sensible gun safety legislation now.”
This is a point that the Daily News has been trying to make for some time.
Thursday’s headline, one of the most provocative produced by a major daily newspaper in recent years, was the latest in a series of front-page challenges posed by the Daily News to the National Rifle Association and its political allies. On November 18, the Daily News headline read “NRA’s Sick Jihad” and noted that “Over 2,000 suspects on terror watch list have legally bought firearms in the U.S. because gun nuts are blocking law that would end this madness.” Another Daily News headline, from November 23, made the point another way: with an image of a well-armed NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre Jr., the headline: “Nowhere to Hide, Jihadi Wayne,” and an argument for passage of the federal “Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act” that is being blocked by lobbyists for the gun industry.
On Friday and Saturday, the Daily News carried forward the front-page campaigning, featuring more images of “Jihadi Wayne” as part of an effort to deliver a message about the role of guns in domestic and international terrorism. “It becomes clearer with each revelation about the San Bernardino massacre that America has made itself a soft, wide target for murderers, including Islamist radicals, which is what it increasingly appears the two killers in this case were,” read the newspaper’s editorial Saturday. “Murder here is easy to commit—because weapons and ammunition that tear at human flesh are easily obtainable. And once murder is committed, it is far harder to solve than it should be—because the devices that are repositories for incriminating evidence are increasingly beyond the reach of law enforcement.”
Folks can agree or disagree with the points being made by Daily News editors and headline writers. They can argue about the effectiveness of particular gun laws, or about whether gun laws are the point at all. They can say the focus should be not on guns but on the motivations of the shooters—domestic terrorism or international terrorism or a blend of both. They can claim that the paper jumped to judgement before all the facts were known. They can complain that a newspaper that sells papers is just trying to “sell papers.” They can even portray the paper’s current crusade as just another example of “liberal media bias”—even if the Daily News, which backed Mitt Romney for president in 2012, is actually tough to pigeonhole ideologically.
But no one should miss the significance of what the Daily News is doing: It is renewing and advancing an old American newspaper tradition of calling out powerful interests and cynical politicians that editors believe are causing harm to a city, a state, a nation.
Newspaper used to do this all the time—back in the days when Americans read them a lot more than is now the case. American newspapers began as campaigning publications, with passionate points of view and a determination to speak truth to power. Colonial papers published Tom Paine’s calls for revolution, while Benjamin Franklin Bache’s Philadelphia Aurora ripped John Adams for abandoning the “Spirit of 1776.” Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune championed social democracy and inspired the formation of a radical Republican Party. When the print press was in its heyday, the Chicago Evening Post’s Finley Peter Dunne observed, “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Of course, many newspapers have gotten the equation wrong, using their presses to promote the interests of the powerful and the cynical. Presidents from Thomas Jefferson to Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton all objected to the coverage of their presidencies, but so too did critics of those presidencies.
When newspapers publish headlines that shake things up, that unsettle and provoke, they are choosing to matter. The problem with too many newspapers for too long has been that, with their drab recounting of talking points and steady deference to the powerful, they have not mattered enough. And not mattering, especially in a new media age, is deadly for publications that still straddle the divide between print and digital platforms.
The Daily News has already taken hits for its headlines. And it will take some more. That’s what happens when a free press actually uses the power of the press, when newspapers refuse to be stenography services for elites and instead provoke senators and the speaker of the House. So be it. This is precisely what Jefferson, a fierce and frequent critic of newspapers, was talking about when he wrote: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”