Like most of those who regularly visit this site, I was taken aback when I read that The New York Times and The Washington Post were enlisting their readers to sift through the tens of thousands of e-mails sent by Sarah Palin in her capacity as Governor of the State of Alaska. Like them, I am amused that what has emerged from this overhyped investigation is a picture of a hard-working, relatively modest, decent young woman trying to do the right thing in a very demanding job. But there is something more to what the editors of the Times and Post have done that deserves extended comment.
I propose that we all step back from the event and ask ourselves what is the larger significance of this ridiculous event. It is, after all, unprecedented in recent times, and it bespeaks a certain desperation and, let me add, folly on the part of our most pretentious (if not distinguished) newspapers. Bear with me. It may take a paragraph or two to explain.
Some years ago – in December, 2002, to be precise – I published a piece in The National Interest entitled An Inky Wretch. Its subject was Marchamont Nedham, the world’s first renowned journalist. Nedham was a remarkable character, He started out in the 1640s, writing for, then editing a weekly newspaper supportive of England’s parliament in the English Civil War. He proved to be too radical for those whose side he was defending, and he was for a time thrown in the klink. When he was released, Nedham switched sides and wrote on behalf of Charles I, then, after his execution, for the deceased king’s eldest son, the prince of Wales: the man who, when crowned, would be known to the world as Charles II. Nedham was eventually arrested and once again jailed, and to secure his freedom he switched sides a second time and began writing on behalf of England’s regicide republic and, when times changed, on behalf of Oliver Cromwell.
What was striking about Nedham was not just his flexibility (which was in and of itself astonishing), but the fact that, no matter which side he was on, he dominated the formation of public opinion in England. In short, the man had talent – talent of a sort rarely seen – and he was always ready to defend his side. He was anything but nonpartisan. But – and here is the kicker – he understood how to make himself indispensable. I devoted four chapters to him in my book Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic. I could have done a whole lot more.
The piece for The National Interest I prefaced with a brief discussion of the current condition of The New York Times, which was, in my opinion, not good at all. I did not criticize the Gray Lady under the leadership of Howell Raines for being partisan. I denied the very “existence of a golden age” when the old dame “actually lived up to her motto: ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print.’ As I put it,
New Yorkers of a certain age have for decades rolled their eyes when they glanced at the upper left-hand corner of the Times’ front page. In its own bailiwick, the Times has never been above making the most of the peccadilloes of those to whom it is opposed, and over the years it has consistently relegated scandals involving its favorites to the back pages, if not to the executive editor’s circular file.
In any case, we should be neither surprised nor shocked to discover that what styles itself as a newspaper of record is and has always been partisan. After all, at its very inception, the newspaper was a product of fierce partisanship. Indeed, one must justly wonder whether serious journalism could be sustained in the absence of partisan strife. Our interest in knowing is quite often inspired by our inclination to take sides, and the desire to inform and the desire to instruct are virtually inseparable. That is why there is not now, never has been, and never will be a nonpartisan press.
The point of my preface was that “there is a difference . . . between competent and intelligent partisanship” of the sort exemplified by Nedham “and the less sustainable sort . . . lately seen at the Times.” I did not argue that it was “journalistic integrity or partisanship” that distinguished Nedham from Howell Raines. It was “a question of competence.” Raines was a buffoon.
Had a journal with the reputation of the New York Times existed in his day, and had he been given its command, Nedham would have had the wit to recognize its value. He would have taken care to preserve the franchise and would never have squandered an authority it had taken generations to accumulate. He was sly enough to be able to foresee that in abandoning the appearance of impartiality and in turning itself into the vehicle of a political sect, such a journal would be jettisoning its effectiveness as a partisan tool. The temptation for an abuse of trust attendant on the possession of a power seemingly unchecked is no doubt great – but, as Nedham would have understood, resisting that temptation is prerequisite for persuasion.
Soon after my piece was published, the Jayson Blair scandal took place; Howell Raines was fired; and Bill Keller became executive editor of the Times. He had been a good reporter. As executive editor, however, he has been an even greater disaster than Raines. In Raines’ case, this was a function of misplaced ambition. In Keller’s case, I suspect that it is a consequence of weakness. He is the sort of man who desperately wants to be liked by his peers, and, as a consequence, they hold him in contempt. The price at Pinch Sulzberger’s paper has been a complete abandonment of the pretense of impartiality.
There are numerous instances of this, but none is as astonishing as the decision to invite readers of the Times to go on a witch hunt against Sarah Palin. This was a public announcement that, as a newspaper, the Times is today nothing more than a partisan rag – fit to be read only by those in the grips of Palin Derangement Syndrome. It is one thing for an openly partisan paper that is partisan and nothing else – such as, say, Human Events – to invite its readers on such a hunt. That journal has no readers to speak of who are not Republicans and wants none. It is another thing for a newspaper of record to stoop to such shenanigans. It is a public confession – nay, a proud public profession – of bias in its coverage of the news. And it means that it soon will be reduced – and, in fact, wants to be reduced – to its partisan base.
Thirty or forty years ago, this never would have happened. The owners and managers of The New York Times had their prejudices, but they pretended that these were confined to the paper’s editorial pages. It was, as I have said, pretense. They discreetly engaged in news management. But pretense and discretion are fine things. Hypocrisy is, as La Rochefoucauld says, the tribute that vice pays to virtue. And the hypocritical utterances of the Timesman, which he halfway believed himself, served the larger purposes of the partisans on its staff very well – for it enabled them to reach out and persuade Americans who had not made up their minds. Step by step, the Times has been depriving itself of that capacity. Never, however, have its owners and editors gone as far as this. Never have they made a public confession and protestation of their bigotry – and, sad to say, they have taken The Washington Post (our New York Times wannabe) with them.
Events of this sort are generational. They are not likely to be reversed. When Bill Keller hands the baton to Jill Abramson in September and she becomes executive editor, the shift will be complete. The New York Times will really and fully have become Pravda-on-the-Hudson. Keller was actually a decent reporter. Abramson is best known as the co-author of Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas. Her notion of journalism is a drive-by shooting – and Pinch Sulzberger, the runt of the family litter? He is going to get what he asked for. In this world, nothing lasts – not even a newspaper that once pretended to offer “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Today’s New York Times has a lot in common with Anthony Weiner. What was once pretense is now pretentiousness, and we know that neither of them has any sense of shame. Soon they will both be gone.