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June 4, 2003

Gray Lady defended. Libertarian pundit Virginia Postrel remarks on habitual conservative and libertarian slagging of the New York Times:
First of all, the Times is full of smart, conscientious, hard-working people who don’t deserve to be bashed every day because sundry bloggers don’t like their bosses. Second, this incessant sniping is coming from people who don’t do reporting and rely every day on the reporting of the people they’re trashing. Third, even the Times’s annoying political bias is as much a function of its readers as it is of its editors, possibly more so. In my experience, the editors are far more open-minded and thoughtful than the readers who write them letters. Finally, the Times would be a disaster if it were full of writers like me, because I despise trying to get sources to tell me things they don’t want me (or the public) to know, and I’m not especially good at it. I love learning new stuff, but I consider even easy reporting, like the stuff I do for D Magazine, to be a time-consuming pain—too much waiting by the phone, too many dead ends. That’s why I got out of the newspaper business at an early age. The blogosphere is full of commentators, because commentary is easy and quick, and media commentary is the easiest and quickest of all.
Good points all, especially the last. Actual reporting is work, lots of it. There’s plenty to be said for the flash and sparkle of weblog punditry, or, alternately, for the Fleet Street approach to journalism. (Nick Denton periodically makes that case; most recently, here.) But it’s hard to believe that, among the ills that afflict us, one of the greatest is excessive media devotion to verifiability and documentable fact. That the Times has a complex, decades-old bureaucratic culture devoted to that sort of slogging is an accomplishment of civilization, not a menace to it—even when and if that bureaucratic culture fails. Most iterations of “{foo}pundit” don’t even try. That’s their glory, but it’s also why we need institutions like the Times. [08:58 AM]
Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Gray Lady defended.:

roy edroso ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2003, 09:23 AM:

The one subject on which the foo-pundits are reliably and totally full of shit is journalism.

Nine-tenths of them seem never to have done any reporting. More amazingly, nearly all of them think that leaving a freelancer's name off a byline is the same thing as fabricating a story -- as if Mrs. & Mrs. America's world would be rocked if they knew Joe Blow had help on a story from Joe Schmoe.

If the Bragg fallout shows anything, it's that a lot of these new, don't-label-me pundits (like the famous one who likes to say he's a Whig) are basically following the same agenda as Republican operatives from the time of Spiro Agnew.

Glen Engel-Cox ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2003, 10:11 AM:

On the other hand, it's the idea that the Times has a "complex, decades-old bureaucratic culture devoted" to just-the-facts that makes the current pile-on what it is, much the same way that everyone piled on William Bennett. That is, the Times has been shown in the Jayson Blair episode to be no better than any other newspaper, even with their decades of experience.

However, the Blair incident will linger--at least in the minds of those at the Times--and will force the Times to live up to that tradition that has been neglected in the last couple of years.

I agree that it's too bad such renewed carefulness won't be reflected in op-ed columns, either in the Times or online.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2003, 10:28 AM:

"the Times has been shown in the Jayson Blair episode to be no better than any other newspaper"

Glen, if you're claiming that "not as good as they think they are" is the same thing as "no better than anyone else," you're probably writing too fast.

Indeed, I would be happy to defend the proposition that the Times, Jayson Blair and all (and for that matter, disgraceful coziness with the right-wing attack machine and all), is in fact a significantly better newspaper than the the Daily Mail. Or the Toronto Sun. Or the Hamstead and Highgate Express.

Daniel Hatch ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2003, 11:10 AM:

As a journalist, a newspaper editor, and a former writer for The New York Times, I feel uniquely qualified to comment on this issue.

It is the height of hypocrisy for the Times and everyone else to make a huge deal out of Jayson Blair and ignore Jeff Gerth (whose false stories about Whitewater contributed to a lost decade of public discourse) and Frank Bruni (whose coverage of the Bush 200 campaign helped us get into the current nightmare), both of whom have done more to tarnish the Times reputation than anything that Blair ever did.

Those who continue to believe in the myth of a "liberal" New York Times are working entirely on the inertia of the recently passed century, and not on a critical reading of the news.

For more details, I refer you all to www.mediawhoresonline.com, www.dailyhowler.com, and books by Joe Conason, Gene Lyons, Eric Alterman, and others who have put much more coherent thought into their critiques than I have.

You should all know that there's a much broader debate about the state of journalism in America than would appear if you don't check in with those critical (in more than one sense) Web sites.

All that being said, I agree with Patrick that the New York Times is a significantly better paper than most. My own experience is that they are demanding and professional in the extreme. They certainly subjected me to the most withering editorial fire I've ever experienced -- and I was much the better for it.

Bill Altreuter ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2003, 11:59 AM:

(a) You've touched upon one of the main reasons I don't believe that blogging is journalism- it ain't reporting, which is legwork-- it's commentary, which is mostly mouthwork. There are occasional exceptions, but they are pretty rare. (2) If there is a better paper than the NYTimes out there, then it is the International Herald Tribune, which is basically the Times and the WashPost mushed together. The end result has good reporting, comprehensive coverage of national and international events, decent sports, and the funnies. Other than that, in English at least, there is the Christian Science Monitor, and then, maybe, the Times of London and the Globe and Mail. None of these, in my view, is particularly liberal, and all of them really ought to be read in conjunction with at least one other daily paper. This is, by the way, one of the glories of living in a major urban center, with a subway. In such a setting there are lots of newspapers available, and a built in part of the day to read them.

(iii) All that said, it is not necessarily a bad thing for the institution that is the NYTimes to get called out from time to time. Its mistakes tend to keep it working hard at keeping honest.

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2003, 12:58 PM:

I despise trying to get sources to tell me things they don92t want me (or the public) to know, and I92m not especially good at it.

Sigh. That was just as true for me during my short time as a reporter. Lots of fun, weird hours, lousy pay, and strange bosses. Wouldn't have missed it but won't repeat it.

John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2003, 01:03 PM:

Reporting can be very tedious. My brother is currently a business reporter for USA Today (in fact his story about Martha Stewart is on today's front page). Last week he did a big piece about shenanigans in a healthcare company. He spends a lot of time on the road and on the phone.

My own meager experience was legging it all over the greater Boston area for three years as a 'reporter' for a large government employees union newspaper, finding out who was getting screwed over by the state government and what our lawyers were doing to help.

The Times mess is more of a black eye for Raines than it is for the paper itself.

Glen ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2003, 02:24 PM:

Thanks for being polite there, Patrick. Yep, the fingers moved too fast while the brain was lagging. I'll take the reporting in the New York Times over Washington Times any day, although at least with the latter, there's no doubt about the bias.

Gene Lyons (full column posted here: http://hnn.us/articles/900.html#06040304) writes about this very thing today.

Barry ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2003, 03:12 PM:

Daniel, excellent post. And it is strange, isn't it, that alleged libertarians such as Instapundit don't mention Mr. Gerth when criticizing the NYT. Neither does Kaus, nor Sullivan.


Odd :)

Andrew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2003, 04:07 AM:

The London Times is actually a very bad paper at the moment, and has been for some time. The comment pages are still good, but the news has gone to hell (conflict of interest: I write mostly for the Guardian now; I worked on the Independent for ten years; all I do for the Times are obituaries and occasional silly opinions).

No British broadsheet paper takes as much trouble over facts as they all did fifteen years ago. This isn't just a culture shift. It's also a huge loss of staff. The Independent was an extreme example, but at one stage the Sunday paper was put out by a permanent staff of six, including the editor. As Patrick says, journalism is work, and real journalism is a lot of time-consuming work. The only two London broadsheets where you'll find old standards observed are the Guardian and the Telegraph. Both of them pay a lot of attention to accuracy on the news pages.

This doesn't mean that individual reports or reporters on other papers aren't reliable. But they are under much greater pressure to sex everything up from their newsdesks.

Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2003, 08:07 AM:

Yes, I'd love to see a few bloggers (present company excepted) be sitting in a bar on the Lower East Side at 1 a.m., having had a few beers and getting ready to call it a night--then get a sudden cell phone call and have to dash out to a hospital in Flatbush and spend hours there to get the lowdown on a shot cop. This just happened recently to a buddy of mine who freelances for the Times. He also has spent hours standing in the rain waiting for someone to walk out of their apartment, or all day at demonstrations chatting up people and getting hassled by cops...And he's just one of many...

dsquared ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2003, 08:42 AM:

I'll stand up to take a potshot at the NYT; it's terrible and much worse than the Ham & High. Everyone looks at the scandals of Blair, Wen Ho Lee, etc, as occasions on which the "culture" failed and one got through the net. But what about cases when the culture succeeded in its own terms, such as most obviously, that of Gary Webb?

For those who don't remember, Gary Webb was the guy who dug up evidence of cocaine smuggling by people connected to the Contras. For his pains, he was slandered all across the pages of every newspaper in America, with the NYT leading the charge.

This was done on the basis of off-the-record briefings by the CIA, who managed to plant enough official denials that the NYT et al. started accusing Webb of "sloppy reporting" because he hadn't reported counter-claims which he knew to be false. Then they started calling him a conspiracy theorist and gradually destroyed his career.

The NYT doesn't have a dedication to "the facts". It has a dedication to "those facts which official sources are prepared to confirm and no others". That's why it screwed Jason Leopold on the Thomas White memo which Krugman reported; the Ham & High would certainly not have ratted out their source, and they would not have built up a fairly trivial lifting of a few words of a story into a reason to walk away from a bombshell.

C'mon, if the USA had an entirely state-owned newspaper industry, what would be different? The NYT and its status as the self-appointed guardian of "news values" is a big part of that problem.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2003, 08:54 AM:

"If the USA had an entirely state-owned newspaper industry, what would be different?"

An interesting point, and not an easily-refuted one.

Barry ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2003, 09:09 AM:

The way that somebody put it during the Clinton scandals was 'welcome to the virtual one-party state'.

Uncomfortably close to the truth.

Barry ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2003, 09:09 AM:

I realized that I hadn't given props to Virginia, for her comments on the NYT.

So Virginia, consider yourself up by one 'prop' :)

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2003, 09:43 AM:

If the USA had an entirely state-owned newspaper industry, the NYT would never have smared Gary Webb, because the San Jose Mercury-News would never have published his story.

I do wonder how much damage the NYT has done (to itself, or us, or the state of American journalism) by being so cozy with its insider sources. If the Administration's calls for a UK-style Official Secrets Act succeed, we may find out -- once that relationship dries up, we'll know whether it was a benefit or a hazard.

I don't think it's fair to say the NYT doesn't have a dedication to the facts. Closer to the truth would be to say that they trust a different set of sources to provide those facts than, say, the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

(Boy, is it depressing not to be able to think of one honest-to-goodness left-wing daily, though, I must admit.)

Jeremy Osner ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2003, 10:19 AM:

Not "left-wing" but NY Newsday used to be at least reliably liberal; I have not read it in a few years though -- it is currently only available on Long Island and in Queens, where I no longer live.

Daniel Hatch ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2003, 10:39 AM:

It's not quite the same as a state-owned newspaper, but the best description of the NYT that I've heard is that "it's the way the ruling class of America communicates with itself."

Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2003, 11:41 AM:

Jeremy, check http://www.newsday.com. There. You have no excuse now.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2003, 11:54 AM:

Daniel, I thought that was the WSJ. :)

Amusing — the top headline at Newsday is now about Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd resigning. I heard it here first.

Duncan Lawie ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2003, 04:36 PM:

I'm glad to see that almost everyone here is perfectly happy to pass off the whole of the British press as third class whilst getting on with the important business of deciding which regional US paper is most important.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2003, 04:47 PM:

It's hard to see where that comes from. My only comment here about the "British press" was to remark that "there's plenty to be said" for the "Fleet Street approach to journalism." Which covers some, not all, of the British press.

Andrew Brown commented at some length a few posts back about general trends in the British press. Whether his comments were right or wrong, it would be hard to characterize them as "pass[ing] off the whole of the British press as third class."

We certainly don't subscribe to any such generalization. If anything, a lot of commenters seem to think this weblog refers to items in the British press altogether more than is reasonable.

Maybe Duncan Lawie is having a low blood sugar day.

Duncan Lawie ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2003, 05:07 PM:

Perhaps I should have had that chocolate after desert! I read

'flash and sparkle of weblog punditry, or, alternately, for the Fleet Street approach'

as implying Fleet Street was sparkle without substance. I shall quietly slope off to bed now.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2003, 05:12 PM:

No, I meant to indicate that there were two separate entities for which good things could be said.

Signed, Could Use Some Chocolate About Now Himself

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2003, 07:41 PM:

For what it’s worth, my favorite news source is still The Economist, even if it is a fair bit to my right. (On the other hand, a Tory business associate of my father’s once tried to get him to stop buying ad space in “that Commie rag” — so there’s obviously still some room to maneuver on that side.)

Among the things I appreciate about it are the fact that it has no bylines — the magazine as a whole stands behind every story — and the way that it quaintly still refers to itself as a “newspaper”.

Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2003, 07:52 AM:

Dear Editor97

I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, 93If you see it in The Times, it might possibly be true.94 Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia O92Hanlon

Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2003, 08:35 AM:

ps: I am also sending this to NPR, CNN, and Electrolite for confirmation. I'm sure you understand.

V.O.

rea ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2003, 11:08 AM:

"If the USA had an entirely state-owned newspaper industry, what would be different?"

Actually, things would be quite a bit different, if you think about it. Right now, the press acts like it was state-owned, but that's simply because the right is in power. In 2000 and before, of course, the press was hardly acting as the servant of Clinton and Gore. Maybe the better question is, "If the USA had an entirely Scaife-owned newspaper industry, what would be different?"

Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2003, 11:28 AM:
Third, even the Times's annoying political bias is as much a function of its readers as it is of its editors, possibly more so. In my experience, the editors are far more open-minded and thoughtful than the readers who write them letters.

Let's see if I understand this correctly. Because I read the Times, I am responsible for its egregious publication of Whitewater fabrications or its decades-long misrepresentation of the situation in the West Bank?

Somehow I don't think so.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2003, 04:16 PM:

Obviously you don’t understand how the free market works. They wouldn’t be selling it to you if it wasn’t what you wanted.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2003, 04:17 PM:

(Okay, strictly speaking, that should be “selling it to us” and “what we wanted”.)

Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2003, 05:02 PM:

Dear Ms. O'Hanlon,

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Our market research department tells us that 83% of our subscribers either believe in Santa or would like to believe in him, and given such overwhelming approval ratings, we, the editorial staff at the Times, have to agree that he exists. More than that, we believe that he has a lucrative annual contract with the Coca-Cola company, one of our main advertisers, and we don't want to displease them, let alone Macy's, who take out multiple full-page ads during the holiday season. Indeed, Santa stuffs our stockings with advertising contracts every Christmas, so how could we not believe in him? We believe in anyone who does that, no matter how many people (like that nasty Michael Moore) say they're fictional or imaginary.

So yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Just like there is a President.

Sincerely,

The Editors, NYT

Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2003, 05:58 PM:

Today I saw the headlines on the New York tabloids, coming in their virtual pants over the Times falling to only a moderate number of levels above them. Today I have little appetite for Times bashing.

Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2003, 01:03 PM:

Right, Arthur. When one's competition is the Post and the Daily News, it's actually forgivable to come to believe that one is God's gift to journalism.

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2003, 11:57 PM:

"C'mon, if the USA had an entirely state-owned newspaper industry, what would be different?"

Well, for one thing, they wouldn't have published this
editorial saying that maybe--just maybe--that the army uniform the emperor wore to Iraq is a bit filmy.

The country-club Republicans, I think, have begun to realize that the radicals they've allied themselves with are a bit out of hand. Which I think identifies the editorial position of the NYT--it is that of a conservative elite. I do not love such, but I will take them to Rupert Murdoch's or Richard Melon Scaife any day.

Avedon ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2003, 06:44 AM:

For the record, The Washington Post no longer has a stake in The International Herald Tribune, and IHT content now comes wholly from the NYT and the distinct IHT contributors.

Newspapers in both the US and the UK went to cutting staff during the '80s - they went lean and mean like everyone else, and like everyone else, that means they lost quality. Some of them really did seem to think that you could replace editorial judgment with a spell-checker. Murdochization has not helped, in either country. Nor has the prevailing fashion that says youth is a more valuable trait than a proven track-record in accuracy and good writing.

For my money, the most accurate newspaper in Britain is the Financial Times. Unfortunately, they don't cover much ground. As ordinary daily broadsheets go, the Telegraph is probably the best for coverage of important news. The Guardian is more enjoyable, though.

The criticisms of the NYT for bias toward conservative or liberal positions are not the same kind of criticisms. The modern right, which is mostly whacky, hates the very idea of "objective" reporting - by which I do not mean they hate the mainstream press for claiming to be objective, but rather they hate the fact that they try to be objective by doing what you and I actually hope newspapers will do; check the facts; present what is, and not just the spin; get both sides and try to get to the truth. The claim by Fox that they are "fair and balanced" is an intentional spit in the face to those of us who really believe in trying to get the truth.

Newspapers in the United States have always been conservative, and are increasingly so as they become more corporatized and the advertising department bleeds into the news coverage more and more. This is a fact. It is simply blind to claim that this bias is not there; it always has been. I worked for a liberal newspaper in a liberal city and it was visible to me all the time I was there - you can see it in what gets left out.

But the NYT and the WashPost were the best of them for a very long time, and these days I'd say the WP has fallen too far to be in the same league. However, it was the NYT that started using Matt Drudge as "news"; they certainly have a lot to answer for, there, even leaving aside the problem of Gerth et al. mentioned above.

Until Gerth and Isikoff went insane, I would have said the big US dailies had it all over the British press. That's no longer true.

Yes, reporting is hard work, and yes, the NYT has a lot of good people doing that work well. Even during the insanity of the anti-Clinton offensive, the NYT was publishing intelligent, well-researched articles that closely examined the illegal and indefensible activities of Ken Starr, for example.

Nevertheless, it says something about the biases of the NYT that Gerth was allowed to get away with what he did. An able editor would have at least looked at the basics of the Whitewater story and then would not have failed to see that there was nothing in it. The NYT did not do this; Gerth was not sent off to write obituaries. If someone like me, who did not like Clinton, could figure out that something was wrong, surely any objective, unbiased editor could have seen the same thing. That the NYT's editors did not speaks to either incompetence or bias, or maybe both - but certainly not liberal bias. Their very willingness to even discuss impeachment over such a trivial matter certainly does not speak to a lack of conservative bias.

Avedon ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2003, 06:55 AM:

I've just had a look at the editorial Randolph mentions above. It is, of course, less than flattering to Bush. However, it falls far short of coming out and admitting that the administration - and not our intelligence agencies - is the heart of the problem. The objective fact is that our intelligence agencies were not the point of failure; anyone who is still unwilling to say this is demonstrating a bias toward protecting the White House. That's not objective, and it's not liberal.

CHip ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2003, 02:15 PM:

A personal opinion: the NYT lost its claim to quality the day it accepted Meese's statement that nothing happened at El Mozote (1982, IIRC). Checking the facts then could have saved some number of the thousands of lives taken by right-wing militaries and paramilitaries between then and the time Congress finally had so much evidence that it had to constrain official spending in Latin America.

It's still worth reading -- the alternatives (that I can get in the U.S. for a reasonable price) tend to be worse -- but it's been declining for some time. The failure to get the facts in this case may have been the cutbacks Avedon discusses, but it smells like a loss of objectivity.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2003, 10:48 PM:

Yes, the New York Post is the paper that makes me wish Aaron Burr had killed Alexander Hamilton earlier...

I've always thought it interesting that New York and Washington each have a Times and a Post, with the value of 'pretty respectable' and 'disgusting right-wing piece of iguana droppings' reversed with respect to each other.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2003, 10:55 PM:

The New York Post was a perfectly decent newspaper for many periods of its existence. Don't blame the sins of Rupert Murdoch on poor old Alexander Hamilton.

Who was himself a mixed bag -- but for all that, worth twenty Aaron Burrs.