To anyone paying attention, it ought to be obvious that the conservative caricature of the New York Times as a hotbed of liberal agitation is just too good to be true. Even though employees of the Times, like most urban professionals, are likely social liberals, this is offset by their commitment to objectivity and professionalism, coupled with a similar–though largely unremarked-upon–class bias toward a relatively conservative, business-friendly outlook on economic issues. (Wishing to offer advertisers a friendly environment does not lead in the direction of economic populism either.) Add to this its reporters’ and editors’ establishment-bred inability to disbelieve Bush Administration lies, no matter how frequently or brazenly offered, and the Times news pages frequently end up tilting rightward.
What lies behind the right-wing attacks, aside from a certain fanaticism among the assailants, is what Weekly Standard senior writer Matt Labash termed the right’s “cottage industry” or “great little racket,” in which “the conservative media like to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective…. It’s a great way to have your cake and eat it, too.”
Under relentless pressure from the Limbaughs, O’Reillys and Scarboroughs of the world–as well as the right-wing blogosphere, the Murdoch empire, the Republican National Committee, etc.–the machers who run the Times are concerned that their brand of reality-based reporting is increasingly out of step with faith-based red America. Op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote that the paper suffers from a “failure to hire more red state evangelicals.” A recent “credibility” committee formed in the wake of the Blair and WMD scandals somehow resulted in a meeting, written up by Todd Gitlin in The American Prospect, in which one editor suggested an affirmative-action program for conservatives. And following the committee’s report, executive editor Bill Keller sent the staff a memo urging reporters and editors to “stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation.”
Even before the committee was convened, however, some reporters and editors had started taking matters into their own hands. But instead of “stretching” toward conservatives, they started stabbing at liberals–launching a fusillade of furious (and largely gratuitous) attacks on these apparently alien creatures. It’s almost as if a secret Times directive had agreed to release reporters from typical standards of evidence if it would help to shake the paper’s dreaded “liberal” label. Some examples:
§ On the news pages, then-political reporter now op-ed columnist John Tierney told of stationing himself outside the storied Upper West Side food store Zabar’s during the GOP convention to ask shoppers–presumably liberal by location–if they had “re-examined their conscience” (for what, he did not explain).
§ In the magazine, Michael Ignatieff complained of “the withdrawal of American liberalism from the defense and promotion of freedom overseas,” as well as the alleged conquest of “the Democratic Party’s heart” by “the Michael Moore-style left.”
§ In the Book Review, Slate editor Jacob Weisberg complained that author Graydon Carter offered a “free pass” to “Michael Moore, Joe Conason, Eric Alterman, Sidney Blumenthal,” which “calls into question his choice of targets like Thomas Friedman, Andrew Sullivan and my colleague Mickey Kaus, shrewder commentators with whom he simply disagrees.” Weisberg’s review also deemed MSNBC’s prewar cancellation of Phil Donahue’s liberal talk show–its highest-rated program at the time–a matter of economics, not politics, despite well-publicized internal NBC memos indicating otherwise.
§ On the op-ed page, Thomas Friedman, sounding like a mind-reading Joe McCarthy, explained, “Liberals don’t want to talk about Iraq because…deep down [they] don’t want the Bush team to succeed.”
§ In one op-ed column Nicholas Kristof explained, “These days, the biggest risk may come from the small but growing contingent on the left that wants to bring our troops home now.” In another, he complained of the “liberal tendency in America to blame ourselves for Africa’s problems.”
§ In a forthcoming Book Review essay, conservative jurist Richard Posner spends more than 4,600 words beating the antiliberal drum (again attacking yours truly).
What all these examples have in common is the absence of evidence for their accusations, much less a response from those under attack. Friedman, for instance, comes pretty close to accusing liberals of rooting for the enemy yet can’t be bothered to name a single person to whom this heinous charge applies. Ditto Kristof. Did he lack space to name one liberal who blames America for Africa’s woes? And why were Weisberg’s more conservative writers so much “shrewder” than we liberals? Moreover, just what do the publications of three careful journalists, who write heavily footnoted works of reporting and scholarship, have do to with the entertaining agitprop of Michael Moore? In the words of Ricky Ricardo, “Splain, please.” Meanwhile, Posner bases his argument on inaccurate data and discredited works by the likes of Bernard Goldberg and L. Brent Bozell, never once defining what he means by “liberal newspaper or television news channel.”
Some of these charges are almost comical. How could it possibly be, pace Kristof, that liberals are the “biggest risk” to US policy in Iraq or indeed to anything, anywhere? We don’t even control The New Republic anymore, much less Bush’s National Security Council, the Pentagon or the CIA. Tierney described the Upper West Side as “the neighborhood that has called itself ‘the conscience of the nation.'” This is not only false but theoretically impossible. Neighborhoods do not call themselves anything. They lack the power of speech, for starters.
So why do such baseless attacks on liberals make it through the Times editorial process? Did we put Jayson Blair’s fictions on the front page? Did we instruct Judith Miller to channel Cheney and Chalabi in her WMD reporting? As a liberal, I have no doubt we’re guilty…of something.