Politics & Policy

What the Public Editor Didn’t Say

"We're not really a newspaper," for starters.

Wednesday night to Monday morning is just a lost weekend to a drunk. To Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, it was something more: Enough time to stain further the paper’s already tarnished reputation — and more than enough time to realize that no reasonable explanation could be produced that would explain away the paper’s decision to run its front-page, 3,000-word hit on John McCain. For four days, everybody (not just the Media Research Center, we’re talking the Los Angeles Times and Slate, too) has pummeled Keller and his reporters. By now, it’s clear that it was a story that, according to the Washington Post’s media watcher, Howard Kurtz, is seen by a “rough consensus” of journalists as “fatally flawed.” (National Review Online’s editorial is here; Jonah Goldberg’s column on the mess is here.)

Sunday, the paper’s “public editor,” Clark Hoyt, weighed in on the controversy. I say “weighed” but his tread was positively catlike. Another missed opportunity, I suppose. But let me help. Here’s what the paper’s public editor didn’t say, but should have: “Get a grip! The function of the Times is not to print ‘news.’ It’s to provide like-minded readers with a comforting view of the world.”

If its purpose is to print “all the news,” then the Times, like all newspapers, is an old-fashioned product made obsolete by advances in technology. Therefore, what constitutes “news” at the Times is not only a moving target, it’s a series of different targets, depending on who the paper wants to take knock off. But that kind of bias surprises no one: The litany of “I-told-you-so” comments that follow every one of these gaffes by the Times is pointless. The Times no longer pretends to offer a chronicle of the day’s events. Its business has changed: It now provides brain cocoa for its dwindling band of readers by offering a daily validation of the assumptions shared by most of them. In doing so, of course, it also alienates more than half its potential market. If that’s a business plan, it’s a bad one (if the spiraling value of NYT stock is any indication — and of course it is). The most recent announcement of newsroom layoffs won’t be the last.

“Obviously, we’d never have printed this story if it had been about any leading Democrat.” As Kurtz points out, “When Gennifer Flowers held a news conference in 1992 to announce that she had carried on an affair with Bill Clinton, the New York Times devoted one paragraph of a news story to her charges.” Kathleen Willey fared little better. Juanita Broaddrick would have been happy to get that much coverage. The Clinton years, with its huge inventory of underreported misadventures, left the Times hopelessly discredited – not so much by what they printed, but by what they didn’t print.

“News is now a series of narratives — stories with good guys and bad guys. The purpose of our piece wasn’t to report ‘facts.’ It was to take a guy that we had proclaimed ‘good’ and make him ‘bad.’” Of course, the Times sets the agenda for the Left in America; what appears on its pages is echoed and amplified by the rest of the press. Its recent endorsement of McCain had left the paper in a tricky situation, and the hit piece was the way out. A new narrative was born. Thus, among many examples, the AP’s series of follow-up pieces about infidelity and dishonor, including this particularly odious piece of work by Libby Quaid (mercifully unsigned in the International Herald Tribune). The headline: “Cindy McCain joins coterie of political wives who stood by their men.” The lead:

Cindy McCain did not hesitate as she stepped toward the microphone, taking her place in the history of political wives who stood by their men in the face of rumored or alleged marital infidelity.

Quaid goes on to compare Cindy McCain with Lee Hart, Dina McGreevey, Suzanne Craig, Hillary Clinton, and other wives of men who had actually, and not allegedly, done them wrong. The Times’s slam of McCain doesn’t even rise to the level of rumor.

“Even if we didn’t have any substantiation for our claims, it’s in our interest to assume they’re true anyway.” Here’s Hoyt offering some heavily varnished truth:

The pity of it is that, without the sex, The Times was on to a good story. McCain, who was reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee in 1991 for exercising “poor judgment” by intervening with federal regulators on behalf of a corrupt savings and loan executive, recast himself as a crusader against special interests and the corrupting influence of money in politics. Yet he has continued to maintain complex relationships with lobbyists like Iseman, at whose request he wrote to the Federal Communications Commission to urge a speed-up on a decision affecting one of her clients.

Keating was 17 years ago. What’s new in this story that would merit a 3,000-word front-page story? What’s that “complex relationship” about? Is it unusual for elected officials to prod the bureaucracy on behalf of others? Hoyt’s assumption is one obviously shared by Keller and the four reporters responsible for the hit. In fact, it’s the same assumption that compelled the piece.

“This job of mine is pretty stupid.” The office of the “public editor” was invented to give some cover to the Times as it emerged from the calamitous editorship of Howell Raines. The idea was to give lip service to the myth of an objective press accountable to readers. The first public editor was Dan Okrent, who was straightforward and honest, giving Pinch a few sleepless night, no doubt. In his farewell column, Okrent said what everybody knew: The New York Times is a liberal newspaper.

Clark Hoyt is no Okrent. For him, the word “liberal” is just another baseless, right-wing allegation, as in “a conservative backlash against the ‘liberal’ New York Times.” Hoyt doesn’t yet understand what Okrent knew quite well: The problem at the Times isn’t bias, which is always acceptable. It’s hypocrisy. The Times claims to represent a set of journalistic ideals. But their daily practices show a blatant, if situational disregard for the standards of their profession — standards which certainly would have forbidden the appearance of the McCain story in the first place.

 – Denis Boyles is the author, most recently, of Superior, Nebraska. He teaches at The Brouzils Seminars.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...


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