Michael: I’m basically with you. I am all for the New York Times hiring more conservatives, but I don’t think it would make much of a difference. Ross Douthat and David Brooks are both great columnists. Ross is more conservative than Safire was and both Douthat and Brooks are at least as reasonable. Personally, I think both are better columnists than Safire was as well, though that might be a matter of taste. (I’d be delighted to debate Safire’s strengths and weaknesses, as I see them, if you want).
And, yes, it would be great fun to have a smart conservative bombthrower at the Times, and it would speak well of management if they followed your advice (personally, I think the Times page could best use a right-leaning libertarian like Tim Carney or Michael Moynihan, but those guys shouldn’t hold their breath, I’m sorry to say).
But the days of William Safire are simply over at the Times. The Gray Lady simply doesn’t have the cultural heft she once did. That’s particularly true of the op-ed page, but it’s also true of the business in general. The era of the Olympian columnist is drawing to a close. On the right, after George Will and Charles Krauthammer leave the scene (which will hopefully be many decades from now), I sincerely doubt anybody will fill their shoes. Not because there are no potential worthies (and certainly not because I wouldn’t want the job), but simply because those days are behind us.
For instance, I don’t think Ross Douthat has failed to shine across the land because he lacks sufficient candlepower intellectually or stylistically. I think his lantern doesn’t shine as far because the Times is no longer at such an illustrious elevation that everyone can see it over the horizon.
The Great Leveling that has come with the Internet has simply lowered the Times’s perches, particularly for conservatives (or shall we say non-liberals). The Times has long been the place for establishment liberals to get their marching orders, but I don’t think that has ever been more true than today. For starters, there was a time when many conservatives simply felt they had to read the Times to be informed, just as there was a time when conservatives felt they had to watch the network news broadcasts. Those days are over. And I would bet that if the Times hired any plausible conservative to replace Frank Rich, it wouldn’t lead to a single new subscriber to the Times, outside of friends and family. The one possible exception would be Mark Steyn, who could actually make me read theater criticism, something Frank Rich couldn’t possibly do.
Obviously, the Times still has significant influence, but it blew it. Since the advent of the Internet, it has doubled-down on its Times-ness at precisely the time it should have changed its market strategy. While the news consumer had an ever growing menu of choices, it convinced itself that as the self-proclaimed “newspaper of record,” it didn’t have to change. Indeed, they thought they were so awesome that their awesomeness would drive their business model (remember the pay wall few bothered to scale?). If anything, it became even more the newspaper of Frank Rich, Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, and Maureen Dowd, and as a result, only that shrinking segment of the country that likes their stuff remained committed to the paper. They thought they were investing in what is best about the Times when in fact they were becoming ever more obviously a niche product.
I simply think it’s too late for the Times. They might survive. In fact, I sincerely hope they survive. But they are part of the chorus now and much less of a star solo performer. Throwing a third non-liberal columnist into the mix wouldn’t rebrand the paper, it would only rebrand the columnist.