What’s Going on At the New York Times?

Current Events

By Murray Friedman

Published December 03, 2004, issue of December 03, 2004.
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Here’s a test for you: What publication carried a lengthy article on its front page in April, describing how conservative critic David Horowitz seeks to end discrimination against conservative students and faculty at colleges and universities through creation of an academic bill of rights? Was it the New York Post? The New York Sun? Was it Commentary or The Weekly Standard?

No, it was The New York Times.

In the short time he has been in his new post, Executive Editor Bill Keller — who took over for Howell Raines after the infamous 2003 plagiarism scandal involving Jason Balir — has initiated a number of curious changes:

• The announcement earlier this year of the appointment of reporter David D. Kirkpatrick to cover “conservative forces” in politics, religion, law, business and the media.

• The naming of David Brooks, a neoconservative who had served previously as an editorial writer at The Wall Street Journal and wrote for the conservative Weekly Standard, as a regular columnist.

• The appointment of a public editor, Daniel Okrent.

• The naming of Sam Tanenhaus, who had worked previously for The Times and has written extensively for various conservative publications and authored a widely acclaimed and sympathetic biography of Whittaker Chambers, as the newspaper’s book review editor.

Is The New York Times becoming more conservative?

For years, critics have charged “the old gray lady” with hewing to a liberal line not only on its editorial pages, but in its news stories, as well. In his book last year, “Off With Their Heads” (Regan Books), political pollster Dick Morris argued that the newspapers’ opinion surveys have been constructed to elicit views favorable to the newspaper’s ideology through a system of weighted responses and slanted questions. This has been especially egregious, he reported, in the run up to the wars against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rarely has The Times deigned to answer these charges. Like the gentleman with the top hat and monocle who presides over the The New Yorker’s table of contents, it simply has stood aloof. I suspect the suggestion that it has become even slightly less partisan would be met with similar silence. Nevertheless, something interesting is indeed going on at the paper of record.

The newspaper’s liberal, activist slant is said to have been accelerated with the ascension of Arthur Sulzberger Jr. as publisher in l992, according to Alex S. Jones and Susan A. Tifft, authors of “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times.” During the 1960s and 1970s, The Times ascended to a unique position of prestige, due to its victorious confrontation over its publication of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal. The Times had “come to fulfill a new function,” veteran Times reporter Harrison Salisbury wrote in his book, “Without Fear or Favor” (NY Times Books, 1980). It had larger objectives that went beyond the slogan of its founder Adolph Ochs: “to report the news impartially without fear or favor.” It had become, Salisbury wrote “the fourth coequal branch of government.”

The younger Sulzberger was a product of the very era during which the paper acquired its gravitas: While at college he was arrested twice for civil disobedience, once for blocking the entrance to Raytheon Company. When young Sulzberger started out at the newspaper as a general assignment reporter in its Washington Bureau, he got into arguments with his Republican colleague Richard Burt, the bureau’s defense expert and conservative columnist William Safire over arms control issues. Unlike his father, Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, who tended to walk away from conflict, the younger Sulzberger (called “Pinch” by some, perhaps not so affectionately) reached out for it.

“I distrust the appearance of surface calm,” Sulzberger, Jr. told the paper’s biographers. “The ’60s were a time when society debated itself in very open and sometimes harsh ways, and in the end we wound up a better place for it.”

By l997, Sulzberger felt that The Times had lost some of its fire. He found the man to stoke it in Howell Raines, an outspoken Southern liberal with an imperial manner. He had attended college 20 blocks from where the four black children were killed in an infamous church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., and earned his degree the year the Civil Rights Act was passed.

“I lived through this great confrontation and didn’t participate fully because I wasn’t brave enough,” Raines is quoted as saying in the Jones and Tifft book. Recognition of his own “cowardice,” Tifft and Jones write, “made him unusually interested in the moral questions of public life, and he determined never again to shrink from declaring his beliefs.”

In June 2001, Raines was made executive editor of a newspaper that he himself saw as having become stale and complacent. But his own chutzpah — and, some would say, liberalism gone awry — helped precipitate its greatest scandal. In the spring of 2003, the Times was forced to acknowledge in a l4,000-word, front-page story that it had been duped. A young black reporter, Jayson Blair, had fabricated portions of more than three-dozen articles. Suspicions of Blair’s unreliability existed earlier, but given the paper’s affirmative-action culture, the staff was reluctant to air them. (Raines later admitted in The Atlantic Monthly that as a Southern liberal, he gave Blair “one chance too many.”) Raines resigned shortly thereafter.

Op-ed page columnist Bill Keller, who initiated the changes listed previously — including, most interestingly, the conservative “beat” — succeeded Raines.

Keller denies that Kirkpatrick’s appointment means any change in direction at The Times. Some conservatives suggest it doesn’t mean much anyway: “‘The conservative beat’ is simply a clever new addition to its… Bush-bashing features,” The Weekly Standard wrote.

But Kirkpatrick is, in fact, doing a credible job, and Brooks is a far cry from the legendarily liberal Anthony Lewis, now retired, whose space on the op-ed page he now occupies. (One column recently attacked leftist tendencies at elite universities, quoting conservative Harvard University Professor Harvey Mansfield’s complaint that he cannot place most of his students.) And in an interview with me before he assumed his new post, the new book review editor, Sam Tanenhaus, told me that Keller has “remarkably and boldly addressed the conservative ascendancy” in America. Tanenhaus said he wanted his book review section to address this as well. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to win all the time and are right,” he said, “but if you look into the last half-century of politics, the conservative presence was always stronger than intellectuals knew.”

Finally, on July 25, Daniel Okrent, the newly installed public editor, wrote an astonishing article titled “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” Not only did he answer his question affirmatively, but he also attacked The Times for being ritualistically liberal. “[O]n such issues as gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others,” he declared, “if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you’ve been reading the paper with your eyes closed.”

Columnists Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert and Nicholas D. Kristof remain the dominant voices at The Times, and the paper’s traditional arrogance seems as fierce as ever (in analyzing Bush’s victory, Herbert asked, ‘How do you make a rational political pitch to people who have put part of their brains on hold?)

Conservatives are particularly incensed at the paper’s coverage of the Iraq War; they are especially critical of its news columns and editorials insisting there were no connections between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein; while it has not been conclusively shown that Hussein colluded with al Qaeda in the September 11 attacks, many believe that abundant connections have been documented in government reports and other materials. As a result, many conservatives have simply stopped reading the paper.

This is unfortunate, because whatever you think of The Times, it is difficult to understand the world without its edification. The new developments hardly suggest that the paper has turned away from its staunch liberalism. But it does appear to be making an effort to achieve greater fairness and balance. And given its role in shaping American thought, this cannot help but be good for all of us.

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