Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means for America, by William McGowan (Encounter, 288 pp., $25.95)
I’ve been blogging at my InstaPundit.com site for going on ten years, and — as with most bloggers of almost any political persuasion — one theme of my blogging has been the deteriorating quality of the New York Times’ news and editorial coverage, spiced occasionally with snarky comments on the deteriorating state of its finances.
A friend of mine who worked at the Times used to pepper me with angry e-mails about that blogging, but those petered out, and when I ran into him recently — now laid off — he remarked: “You know how bad you think management is at the Times? It’s ten times worse than you know.”
I thought of this conversation while I was reading William McGowan’s Gray Lady Down. Everyone — with the possible exception of Arthur Ochs “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr., who has presided over the Times’ decline — knows that the paper is in deep, serious trouble. But reading McGowan’s book serves to bring home the point that, even if you’ve been paying close attention, it’s actually ten times worse than you know.
The Times remains, even in its decline, an important American institution. But the Republic survived before Adolph Ochs established the “good, gray Times” as America’s single most important source of news and bien-pensant opinion, and it will surely survive even if the Times is gone or, like Newsweek, transformed beyond recognition. If the fall of the Times were merely another case of a family business squandered by the wastrels of latter generations, the tale would be sad, but not especially important.
The story of the Times — though it certainly is a story of a family business squandered by the wastrels of latter generations — is something far more serious. For as McGowan demonstrates, the attitudes, insecurities, and incompetences that led to the New York Times’ decline are unfortunately present among a large portion of America’s political class, and not solely on the left. It is the Times’ misfortune to be presided over by wastrels who do not appreciate the sacrifice and self-discipline that led to their position. For America as a whole to suffer a similar fate would be a tragedy.
In McGowan’s telling, the Times’ fall from grace is a recent one. Although conservatives have complained about the New York Times for decades, McGowan holds up the late-20th-century NYT as a place where journalism was separated from opinion, and where a decent regard for the opinions of America as a whole limited forays into ideology. But, in fact, the Times’ self-image as a source of more-or-less objective journalism was itself a marketing ploy dating back to the previous century.
Adolph Ochs — who got his start during Reconstruction as a “printer’s devil” at the pro-Republican Knoxville Chronicle, going on to buy the Chattanooga Times at the age of 19 — purchased the New York Times with borrowed money in 1896. The New York Times was in trouble, but Ochs pursued a strategy of brand differentiation. Where other papers were highly partisan, he emphasized straight reporting. At a time when other papers’ journalism was yellow, Ochs chose to make the Times’ journalism gray. He guessed that people would be interested in hearing the facts presented more or less straight, rather than through a partisan filter.
Ochs’s judgment was correct, and the Times recovered and then prospered. Though people still complained — and though there were stains upon its honor, as with Walter Duranty’s cover-up regarding Stalin’s mass murders — the New York Times gradually came to occupy a central position in American journalism. Among the political and educated classes, at least, its reporting was generally regarded as definitive, and its choice of headlines influenced (some would say “dictated”) coverage decisions at the major television networks, and at regional and local papers around the nation. Even conservatives who disdained the Times as liberal treated it, mostly, with respect.
As McGowan makes clear, maintaining this position took constant effort. Abe Rosenthal, who ran the paper from 1977 through 1986 (and whom McGowan regards as the Times’ best editor), warned that because of the staff’s overwhelmingly liberal political leanings, “you have to keep your hand on the tiller and steer to the right, or it’ll drift off to the left.” Rosenthal was also particularly concerned about keeping political opinions out of the culture sections and news reports — under his supervision, there were to be no “editorial needles.”
As McGowan tells it, the Times’ fall from grace began in earnest as Rosenthal retired, and as Pinch Sulzberger was hoisted aloft on “the golden ropes of nepotism.” Unlike his father, Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger Sr., Pinch was less concerned with balancing either the coverage or the books, and instead began to run the Times as a sort of upscale Village Voice: not a great news organization that tried to tell the truth as accurately as possible, but a snarky in-group publication that told its increasingly homogeneous audience things it wanted to hear. The difference between generations is summed up neatly in this anecdote:
Walking across Boston Common one day discussing the war, Punch asked Arthur Jr. which he would like to see get shot if an American soldier came across a North Vietnamese soldier in battle. Arthur Jr. defiantly answered that he would like the American to get shot because it was the other guy’s country. For Punch, the remark bordered on treason, and the two began shouting. Sulzberger Jr. later said that his father’s inquiry was the dumbest question he had ever heard in his life.
Fast-forward a few years and Pinch, now firmly ensconced — despite resistance from the board of directors — as publisher, cancels Rosenthal’s op-ed column, leaving Rosenthal feeling “betrayed and heartbroken.” Pinch wanted something new at the Times, and he got it, something that avoided the dumb questions of his father’s generation.
Pinch wanted edge, something with a New Leftish angle, and, above all, diversity. He told critics that if the Times was alienating older white-male readers, then “we’re doing something right.” He hired Howell Raines as editorial-page editor, a man suffering, McGowan writes, from “a lifelong sense of Southern guilt” and “a simplistic, perhaps even Manichean political vision.”
Raines wasn’t interested in nuance, and under his direction, the Times editorial pages became a vehicle for preaching more than for converting. Meanwhile, Pinch was allowing politics to seep into first culture, and then news coverage, all while pushing ever-greater efforts at “diversity” hiring onto the paper’s news divisions.
Much of McGowan’s book is the tale of what went wrong: From the Jayson Blair plagiarism-and-fraud scandal (brought about because Pinch’s “diversity” emphasis elevated an unqualified reporter to the top levels of the paper), to the Duke Lacrosse false rape charges, to Hurricane Katrina, the Plame scandal, and weapons of mass destruction, among many other disasters, McGowan piles up incident after incident demonstrating beyond dispute that the New York Times of today is very different from, and far inferior to, the New York Times of a generation ago. (It is also far less profitable, reduced most recently to being propped up by massive loans from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.)
As I read the book, this piling up of disaster stories sometimes felt like overkill, but it was not: McGowan deploys the sheer repetitiveness of the problems as a way of making clear that they are systemic ones, not just the result of a few bad actors or bad decisions. And there lies the most troubling aspect of McGowan’s book: The systemic problem goes beyond the Times.
Were it simply that Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr. is a bad manager and editor, the story here would be a simple one. But although he is certainly both, the Times’ problems seem to embody not just Pinch’s personal failings, but also the failings of a generation of American intellectual and political leaders.
If there is a single lesson to be taken from McGowan’s book, it is that the maintenance of great institutions takes constant effort and a considerable degree of self-denial: an ability to restrain one’s own short-term selfish impulses, and those of colleagues, in order to allow the institution to do its job. A second lesson is that those of Pinch’s generation, America’s own ’68ers, don’t care much for maintenance or self-denial.
Pinch’s political attitudes — from his simplistic Vietnam War stance, to his knee-jerk racial views, to his assumption that any out-group must be supported — are pretty much a caricature of the upper-class Sixties New Left. So is his cavalier attitude toward finances, and toward the views of those paying the bills. Those are, alas, also the attitudes of those currently in charge in Washington. In reading Gray Lady Down, I felt that I was reading, in miniature, the story of America under the present administration. Like the Times, we wonder what we will do when the loaned foreign billions run out, and like the Times, we wonder why the man at the top seems so unconcerned and aloof.
When I started reading McGowan’s book, I wondered who would turn the Times around. By the time I finished, I was wondering: Who will turn America around?
– Mr. Reynolds is Beauchamp Brogan Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee. He blogs at InstaPundit.com and hosts “InstaVision” on PJTV.com.