Publisher’s Note: National Review is bringing out Here, There & Everywhere: Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger. You may order the book here. It has eight chapters — and we are making one piece per chapter available on NRO. We are doing this every Tuesday — hence, “Tuesdays with Jay”! The chapters are Society, Politics, People, The World, Cuba and China, Golf, Music, and Personal. For last week’s piece, drawn from Society, go here. And this week’s piece is from Politics, originally published in the National Review of March 22, 2004.
Last fall, President Bush caused something of a scandal when he made an admission to Fox News’s Brit Hume: He is not much of a newspaper-reader or TV-watcher; he prefers to get his news from his staff, with no opinion mixed in. For many people, this revelation was further proof that our president is a dolt, too abnormal to serve in that job.
I have an even more shocking revelation: Many people in this country don’t read the New York Times, and by “people,” I don’t mean Ma and Pa, I mean major writers and journalists, plenty of whom live in Manhattan.
Mark Helprin, the novelist and essayist, does not live in Manhattan — he lives in Virginia — but he might still be expected to read the Times. He does not, however. And when certain people find this out, “they look at me as if I had just slaughtered Mary’s little lamb.” They are incredulous, and perhaps a little frightened. How can someone — especially on so high a level — function without the New York Times? Helprin manages, reading many newspapers and magazines — just not the “paper of record.” He stresses that one should never read anything out of habit; if reading becomes habitual rather than helpful, give it up.
Our colleague David Frum tells about the time he was working out on the treadmill, reading The Economist, as he had weekly for years. And “suddenly it hit me: I hate this magazine. I have hated it for a very long time.” He tossed that issue aside and never looked back. (Needless to say, he is still made aware of certain articles in The Economist: such as hostile reviews of his books.)
William F. Buckley Jr. once remarked — as a prelude to some complaint about the Times — that doing without that paper would be “like going about without arms and legs.” The Times is still the essential news habit of much of elite America (pardon the term). And, of course, this paper affects all of America’s media, whether individual Americans know it or not. “No one here in Duluth reads the New York Times,” I sometimes hear, “so why should I pay attention? Aren’t some of you guys obsessed?” But what our Minnesotan fails to appreciate is that everyone who supplies him his news — whether in print or over the air — does read the Times. And is profoundly influenced by it. The paper is in the bloodstream of this nation’s media.
Nevertheless, more and more public-affairs types are going without it, and they don’t feel ignorant. Moreover, they feel liberated. I have a friend who, many years ago, gave up reading anything about race. Anything at all. That was just a personal policy, formulated and stuck to. And he said that he found himself happier. So it is with many people who have gone Timesless. We are talking mainly about conservatives, of course, but their beef is not so much with the Times’s bias as with its partisanship (if you will accept the distinction). Oh, yes, and with its pretentiousness.
Many of these ex-Times readers can give you the exact year, or even the exact day, of their withdrawal. “Four years ago.” “Nine years ago.” “Last June.” Quite a few seem to have quit the paper in recent years, since 9/11, and since the Jayson Blair scandal (he was the con artist who was a rising star at the Times), and since former editor Howell Raines’s bizarre crusade against Augusta National Golf Club.
Michael Barone, the all-knowing Washington political journalist, stopped reading the Times in August 2002. (Like many ex-Times readers, however, he still sees the occasional article on the web, or checks in with a preferred columnist.) Barone finds that he is saving a lot of time. He also finds that he is on a surer news footing: Too many of the Times’s stories were questionable, “and I thought, ‘I have to go on television, I have to be accurate, and this isn’t helping.’”
Another writer reports that he read the Times regularly “from 1965 until July 26, 2001,” when a last-straw item appeared. “I do get pertinent articles on the Internet and see the occasional copy in a hotel, but the Times is out of my life after 36 years, and I find I have more time in the day without sacrificing important knowledge of the world.” This writer does miss the computer section, however — called “Circuits.” And the obituaries (those pages being the very last ones some of us would do without).