Politics & Policy

TUESDAYS WITH JAY: Going Timesless

Who dares give up the 'newspaper of record'?

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).

A number of writers and editors feel they need to look at the Times just to know what the Gray Lady is up to. Says one major New York editor, “I read it for the same reason you had to look at intelligence reports on Germany in World War II.” A noted Washington-based political journalist says, “I consider reading it an odious professional duty.” He complains not just about the news and editorial pages. (The radical journalist George Seldes, in one of his books, had a chapter called “How to Read the Editorial Pages.” It consisted of one word: “Don’t.”) No, “it’s the arts pages and the food pages and the headlines and the captions — it’s every nook and cranny of that paper.”

It will probably not surprise his critics that Rush Limbaugh doesn’t read the Times; he hasn’t “for a couple of years.” First, “there is no longer enough difference between the editorial pages and the news pages, particularly the front page.” Second, “I found myself questioning the accuracy of the paper based on my own knowledge. I too often wondered, ‘Hmmm—is that true?’” Third, “the New York Times is just one of many nearly identical components of the mainstream media. The point is, I know what I’m going to see or hear anywhere in the mainstream media. They are all a giant cliché now. I know them like I know my whole naked body, not just the back of my hand.”

What about the fear that, if you don’t read the Times, you’ll miss out on some “national conversation”? Among the scoffers is Peter Kirsanow, a Bush-appointed member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission: “I’ve gone long, blissful stretches without reading the Times and have found that during such periods I remain as well informed as when I read it regularly — but without the residual anger, anxiety, and irritability. Since reading the Times is not mandatory where I live — in the mid-Atlantic states — even among the elites — I’m not viewed as illiterate simply because my conversation for the day hasn’t been directed by R. W. Apple or Maureen Dowd.”

Speaking of the sticks: Sometime in the mid-1990s, the Times wrote a blistering editorial about Jesse Helms. The senator’s new, eager press secretary quickly drafted a letter to the editor, and took it in to the senator. Helms, of course, had not seen the editorial. He glanced at the letter and said, “That’s nice, son. Do whatever you want with it. But understand something: I don’t care what the New York Times says about me, and no one I care about cares what the New York Times says about me.” Therein lay some of the senator’s power.

Aside from bias, partisanship, pomposity, or other defects, some just find the paper dull. The southern (and decidedly un-dull) writer Dave Shiflett says, “I still read the Times, but not like I used to. It’s simply a bore most days, despite its evangelical political mission, which should at least liven up its prose. No such luck. A dull evangelist is easy to ignore, especially when there are so many vibrant news sources available. There’s simply nothing special about the Times, or at least special enough to warrant a wade through what is, on a daily basis, the flattest selection of prose published anywhere outside the State Department.”

Hilton Kramer, editor of The New Criterion — and for 17 years a top critic at the Times — once made a quip about Max Frankel, editor of the Times from 1986 to 1994: “He gave New Yorkers their Sundays back” — so dull (in this view) had that behemoth become.

The proliferation of media has lessened the importance of the Times; so have the newspaper’s mistakes (which include too great a kinship with the Democratic National Committee). To be sure, there are some unmissable individuals in the paper, such as John F. Burns in Iraq. But, seemingly every day, journalists and others are discovering that they don’t have to consume the whole deal.

A final story. Michael Ledeen, the foreign-policy analyst, hasn’t read the Times in years — but when young, he did read a columnist named John Crosby in the New York Herald Tribune. Crosby did not like radio. He wrote that one of his great pleasures in life was to look at the radio schedule every morning and then realize, throughout the day, what he was missing. For example, he’d be in the park with his granddaughter and say, “Becky, guess what we’re not listening to on the radio now! Isn’t that great!” Says Ledeen, “I feel the same way about the New York Times. When someone says, ‘Did you see such and such in the Times today?’ I can always smile and say no.”

And yet some of us can’t wean ourselves away, and may never. Lou Cannon, the veteran journalist associated with the Washington Post, says, “My view of the Times is that it is what it is, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” So true of this great paper, and of much of life.

#JAYBOOK#

Here’s what the novelist Mark Helprin has to say:

“Like all great reporters and essayists, Nordlinger seizes upon the essential details that give a story life in the present and years after. What is most striking about these essays is not their integrity, fearlessness, wit, superb craftsmanship, and the long view they reveal, but that Nordlinger is a man in full. When he writes, ‘For me, the personal transcends the national, historical, and political,’ you know immediately how his portrait of our age has transcended contemporary affairs to read like history. And though always written in pursuit of the enduring and the true, his pieces are so dense in fact and sparkling anecdote that to read them is like opening one present after another. A good man is hard to find: You have found him.”

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