The Jayson Blair story points to a serious problem alright, but not to a solution. I think I have a solution.
It’s no secret that a great many of us no longer trust the New York Times. The paper has always had a liberal flavor, of course. Yet in the past, the Times’s news coverage maintained sufficient balance and integrity that it could justly be deemed the “newspaper of record.” That is no longer true. In many ways, the New York Times remains an excellent paper, yet I deeply mistrust what I read there. I know the paper has a liberal agenda, particularly on social issues, but on other matters as well. So far more than in previous years, I read everything in the Times with a jaundiced eye. I used to read the Times religiously every morning, and subscribed to it alone. Nowadays, I subscribe to the Washington Post as well, and usually read the Post first.
Therein lies the solution. The Washington Post
needs to go national. Right now, the Post
gives away its content for free on the web. This is supposed to be a great experiment that will someday, somehow make money. It doesn’t make money, and it won’t. Of course, the free Washington Post
on the web is an inestimable boon to those of us who live on the Internet. But that won’t stop the Post
from being able to expand to a home-delivery paper in the rest of the country.
Oddly, despite its pervasiveness on the web, the owners of the Post still think of their paper as local. It isn’t. But this antiquated notion that the Post is a local paper has dampened the business sense of the Post, and risks allowing a major cultural and financial opportunity to be lost. We need the Washington Post to become a national paper that helps keep the Times honest by giving it real competition.
When it comes to actually doing something about the shattered credibility of the New York Times, the Jayson Blair scandal may seem like the straw that will break the camel’s back. Don’t believe it. Even if Howell Raines goes, the Times will continue to crusade, under the guise of news coverage, for liberal social and political causes. That’s because the paper’s owner, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., likes it that way. Sulzberger wants to retain only as much of the Times’s reputation for fairness as is necessary to disguise his paper’s politicization. Sulzberger Jr.’s accession to power is what has destroyed the credibility of the Times. So as long as Sulzberger remains in place — and so long as the Times remains unchallenged in the marketplace — the problem will persist.
Of course, the Washington Post is also liberal on many social and political issues. It can and should be criticized for its biases. Nonetheless, on the whole, the Post’s news coverage is a great deal fairer than what we get in the Times. And the Post is generally more balanced on its op-ed and editorial pages as well. So if the Post were to go national, chances are, it would represent a genuine alternative to the New York Times.
Only the Washington Post is in a position to quickly give the Times competition at the national level. The way to begin is for the Post to set up a printing plant and distribution network in the northeast, and perhaps the Midwest as well. If that experiment goes well, the Post could move to distribute nationally. For now, the Post is sufficiently international in scope to provide plausible competition for the Times. In the long term, if this plan is successful financially, the Post could bolster its stable of international reporters.
It’s certainly possible that the left-leaning bias of both the Post and the Times would, in the end, make for very little difference between the two papers. Right now, however, the Post is fair enough to all sides to make a difference. And once the two papers were in real competition, an interesting dynamic might develop. Fearing competition from the Post, the Times might be forced to tack back to the center. Or, the two papers might start to diverge even more than they already have, each one filling its own niche. The Times might become even freer with its leftward political-cultural biases than it already is, while the Post might find a reason to open itself even more than it now does to both conservative and liberal perspectives.
In other words, our national newspaper problem might be solved by that old-fashioned idea — still fresh and powerful — of competition. To the owners of the Washington Post I say, your country needs you. And there’s profit in it as well. If you print it, we will buy.
— Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.