Criticizing the Times

A sometime-reader and NY Times devotee takes issue with all the criticism of the paper lately, asking “Of all things to complain about in this world………….. why this paper? On the whole it does not deserve it.”

Yes, it does, and here’s why: Because of its out-sized influence, an influence its lackluster performance and too-often demonstrated cowardice in the face of official heat show it no longer deserves.

Let me put it this way: Could Junior could have gotten away with all the Orwellian lies, obfuscations, and pervasive stonewalling he’s been perpetrating on this country if our two national papers had been holding his feet to the fire instead of aiding and abetting him? If a real investigative reporter had been looking at Chalabi’s bogus reports instead of Judith “The Mouthpiece” Miller (who, I remind you, said–in what the interviewer called a “mouth-dropping” moment–that it wasn’t her job to question Admin statements), do you think there would have been a war in Iraq?

The answer to the first is No and to the second, Maybe not. Because that’s how much power the NYT has. Everybody follows its lead. The San Jose Mercury News may do more accurate reporting, but the rest of the media isn’t following it around like a puppy-dog. The Knight-Ridder chain may be doing a better job covering national news honestly, but the rest of the media isn’t panting to see what it prints every day before going with a story.

The rest of the media looks to the WaPo and the NYT, and when they cave in, everybody else caves right along with them. Influence that massive carries great responsibilities with it, responsibilities which the NYT used to revel in. It doesn’t any more. Management decisions over the last 15 yrs or so have been taken largely without that responsibility in mind, deliberately so. They have made the same kinds of changes local papers make and for the same reasons: increasing profits, beating the competition (which the NYT brass improbably seems to believe isn’t WaPo but USA Today), and beefing up local and regional coverage at the expense of national and international reporting. “People don’t care about international news,” they say, “and we’re in business so we have to give the people what they want.”

Sound familiar? It’s the same rationalization television networks have used to cut the budgets of news divisions to the bone and eliminate whole international bureaus. NYT management has been treating the Times like it was just another paper. In the process, they have damn near succeeded in making it just another paper. It was a deliberate choice on their part, and they’re now paying the price for ignoring the responsibilities that come with their lofty position.

And the storm of criticism over the last couple of years is finally having some effect. Some of its national and international reporting has improved–there’s a bit more depth and a bit less kowtowing to power. That should be acknowledged and encouraged. But it has a long way to go. Too much of the writing is still indifferent or childish, and the editing is still hackneyed. But the slide to the bottom seems to have been arrested for the moment, and we can always hope the improvements will continue.

The NYT management needs to understand that the NYT isn’t “just another paper”; it is THE paper nationally and it has responsibilities other papers don’t. If the criticism serves to remind them of that, then it’s serving its purpose.

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