The New York Times Is The Problem
Patient Zero In Media Malfunction
“What happened to the New York Times?” is a phrase that you hear all too often from liberals, lamenting the way in which the “paper of record” covers a dizzying array of issues of national and international import. It always sounds like a strange question to me, because the idea is that something new has happened to knock the Times off of what was a good path before.
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I’ve been writing about media and politics for over 22 years now (I launched my blog back in 2000) and the Times has been a problem since long before that. Like with so many of the issues plaguing us, this isn’t new.
I focus a lot on the Times when I’m doing media criticism/complaining because despite the vast growth of media over the last few decades, there still isn’t any institution in media like it.
The Times sets the agenda and tone for much of the rest of the media, prioritizing and highlighting ideas, people, and storylines in a way that is echoed over and over again in one form or another.
To compare it to the person who starts the transmission of an infection in a pandemic, the Times is patient zero.
Take for instance the Iraq War. By the time the George W. Bush administration had decided to launch a war of choice in Iraq, Fox News was already up and operating for seven years, a reliable and proven outlet for Republican propaganda and disinformation. But when the administration decided to convince the public that Saddam Hussein was a threat requiring invasion and occupation, they didn’t go to Fox. They went to the Times.
“U.S. SAYS HUSSEIN INTENSIFIES QUEST FOR A-BOMB PARTS,” screamed the front page of the world’s most influential news outlet in a piece written by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon. The reporting dovetailed perfectly with the Bush administration’s reasoning behind it’s war agitation, stressing the purported post-9/11 threat of a nuclear Iraq.
We now know it was all a lie, fed to the Times by Iraqi dissidents propped up by the Bush team. But the impact of the key Times placement had the effect the right hoped for. How could you oppose war, they argued, it was as clear as day that Saddam was a threat — right there on the front page of the most important newspaper in the world.
It’s a pattern we’ve seen over and over again. From platforming the Whitewater attacks on President Bill Clinton, amplifying half-baked attacks on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and by endlessly hanging out in diners to speak to people who love Donald Trump and airbrushing literal Nazis, the Times has done it all.
The paper has also created an insular culture of journalism where its star reporters are held up like high school prom queens and kings, to be defended by their journalistic allies no matter how egregious their work may be. No criticism, not even sober-minded criticism backed up by objective data or good faith, can be accepted as they collectively circle the wagons in the Times’ defense. I have personally compared it to the police blue wall of silence or the mafia code of omerta in how all-consuming the Times defenses are.
Yes, Fox News is more openly partisan and fraudulent than the Times. That is the point of Fox News. But the Times is more dangerous simply because it is so well respected and often cited.
The paper does produce some good reporting on many issues and it has resources to produce that work that is unparalleled. But that good reporting does not offset the damaging work. Reports on the true contents of Donald Trump’s tax returns, for instance, ran alongside gossipy nonsensical work that turned his disastrous presidency into an entertaining story later packaged into a bestselling book — multiple such books.
What liberals must do is cease being surprised at what the Times has become, and to understand that its behavior is part of a pattern. It isn’t necessary or helpful to spin the Times’ problems into conspiratorial theories or to criticize the paper with misogynistic allegations, but there needs to be forceful good-faith criticism of what the paper keeps doing.
It is absolutely possible — and necessary — to support a free and open press, but there is no need to constantly defer to the New York Times because they occasionally do good work (the same goes for every other outlet, like the Washington Post, CNN, Associated Press, etc.)
I don’t believe in Trump-style demagoguery, deriding every unfriendly story as “fake news” and the work of “the enemy of the people,” but at the same time it is useless to operate from a position of weakness, begging the Times to “do better.” Unfortunately they have repeatedly shown a disinterest in doing better and while they are responsive to abusive conservative criticism, they have been institutionally dismissive of critiques from anything left of center.
This requires a change in tone and approach. Discard the idea that the Times wants to do the right thing but just got waylaid or thrown off mission. They produce what they want to produce, and they do so because it is influential and brings in revenue (nobody ever got fired for a negative Hillary Clinton story, for instance).
While I am skeptical that outside criticism will ever truly produce any introspection and correction from the Times, it is worth making these critiques anyway because to let the paper’s preferred narratives flourish unchallenged does a disservice to the public good.
We can’t just ignore it when they’ve done the wrong thing. It won’t just go away if they are blocked or dismissed. That approach to media has been tried by liberals for decades and what we have to show for it is a bigger mess now than ever before.
The New York Times is the problem, and we have to keep pointing that out no matter what.
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