February 23rd, 2017

The “death” of the NY Times

This article by Lee Smith seems to be about two things that are loosely related. The first is the likelihood that, with the “Trump is Russia’s puppet” story, there’s no there there. But it’s the second I want to write about, the larger story of what Smith (or whoever wrote the article’s headline, “Wayne Barrett, Donald Trump, and the Death of the American Press”) refers to as the death of the American press.

It’s a long article, and I waded through it rather quickly. I must say that although that topic is one of intense interest to me, Smith’s article puzzles me. I have little doubt that Smith knows more about the inner workings of the press than I do, but what are we to make of paragraphs like this one?:

Trump adviser Steve Bannon calls the media the opposition party, but that’s misleading. Everyone knows that the press typically tilts left, and no one is surprised, for instance, that The New York Times has not endorsed a Republican candidate since 1956. But that’s not what we’re seeing now—rather, the media has become an instrument in a campaign of political warfare. What was once an American political institution and a central part of the public sphere became something more like state-owned media used to advance the ruling party’s agenda and bully the opposition into silence.

That leaves me scratching my head. Smith says that what Bannon says is “misleading.” But the rest of the paragraph seems to completely back up the stated Bannon thesis that the media is indeed the opposition party, and a rather vicious and unaplogetic one at that. So, how is Bannon misleading us?

What’s more, I have other problems with that paragraph of Smith’s. His statement “everyone knows that the press typically tilts left” is not just not literally true (of course, “everyone” doesn’t know any such thing), but I bet if I polled twenty acquaintances of mine on that subject, at least half and maybe even more of them would say that the Times is an objective purveyor of truth that doesn’t lean any particular way at all, and that it’s just that the dogged pursuit of truth and fairness happens to lead to backing the Democrat every time. After all, don’t they themselves do the same thing?

As I said, I have little doubt that Smith knows more about what the press thinks and how it works than I do. But I doubt he knows more about what the garden variety everyday liberal out there in the big wide world thinks than I do; we’re probably at least even on that. And not only does “everybody” not know what he says they know, but I would wager there’s a substantial number of people who would actively disagree with him.

Which brings us to something else about that paragraph. In that last sentence I quoted, Smith harks back to an earlier time when the media was “an American political institution and a central part of the public sphere.” Let’s take the example of the NY Times. I was raised thinking exactly what Smith says; I respected the Times greatly. But my later political transformation was fueled in part by the realization that, even back when I saw it that way, the Times had often been unworthy of that sort of respect. Perhaps they were more subtle in their cheerleading and bias, but that bias may have been all the more insidious for that. And they were already getting their facts wrong; we just had fewer ways to discover that.

I’ve written some of the details in my “a mind is a difficult thing to change” story, but right now I’ll just refer to some of them (in particular, MSM coverage of the Tet offensive). Smith rightly says that, with the advent of the internet and the plummeting of the ad revenue that used to be a major part of the financial underpinnings of the newspaper business, the MSM had to cut back drastically:

As the old Chinese saying has it, the first generation builds the business, the second generation expands it, and the third spends it all on Italian shoes, houses in the Hamptons, and divorces. For the most part, the people inheriting these media properties didn’t know what they were doing. It took The New York Times more than a decade to settle on billing consumers for its product—after giving it away, charging for it, giving it away again, then billing for “premium content,” etc. By then, it was too late. Entire papers went under, and even at places that survived, the costliest enterprises, like foreign bureaus and investigative teams, were cut. An entire generation’s worth of expertise, experience, and journalistic ethics evaporated into thin air.

Let’s take that last sentence first. I have two problems with it. The first is that, even in the golden olden days when those foreign bureaus and investigative teams were in place (say, during the Vietnam War), the papers were often getting the first draft of history wrong. An excellent example was the Tet Offensive (take a look at this book or this article summarizing the book), which the press got completely wrong, and that fake story greatly influenced subsequent events. Another turning point that occurred during the Vietnam years was the mixing of opinion journalism with straight reporting, a move I discussed in this two-part series on the role of Walter Cronkite.

I have some other quarrels with that paragraph of Smith’s. He seems to be saying that newspapers reacted to the challenge of the free content of the internet by giving their own content away too, but had they realized from the start that the way to survive was to charge for content, then perhaps they would have been financially okay. But earlier, he had emphasized the importance of classified ads in the earnings of newspapers. The internet did challenge newspapers by providing free content, but the importance of the classifieds was something the internet also helped to destroy, and how was charging for content supposed to get around that?

What’s more (to the best of my recollection, anyway), those “foreign bureaus and investigative teams” were actually greatly reduced by the time I got on the scene as a blogger twelve years ago. It seems to me that the Times’ back-and-forth experiments with charging for content and then not charging for it were conducted after they’d already cut way back and hired a bunch of youngsters.

I think that the MSM has indeed died—at least in my eyes, and the eyes of most people on the right. But I know a lot of people (liberals rather than leftists) who still read the Times every day and trust that they are getting the truth. I also think the Times’ demise, or illness, or whatever you want to call it, was very long in coming, and that its state was unnoticed by many people prior to the internet. The internet not only challenged the Times and its fellows by offering an alternative way to advertise and to obtain content on the right, but in addition it provided easy access to things such as full transcripts of speeches to which the Times might have been referring and quoting in a misleading and/or truncated way.

Not everyone availed themselves of these sources. But for those who did, their respect for what we now call the MSM plummeted.

18 Responses to “The “death” of the NY Times

  1. Griffin Says:

    I think sometimes people look back at the press with rose colored glasses. They seem to think that the so called ink stained wretches were straight down the middle when in many cases they weren’t at all but we just didn’t totally realize it. I give you Walter Cronkite for an example. He was a crazy left liberal but how many people realized it at the time and I’m pretty sure it affected how and what he reported.

    As to the accuracy of the press in this way they have always been suspect also. Read up on the NYT reporting of the Kitty Genovese murder and the mistakes that were willfully made which have had long reaching impacts in perception and even scholarly study all stemming from that misreported incident. And don’t even get me started on the shoddy reporting going back further than that.

    If anything the press may be more accurate now because there are more people to call them on their inaccuracies and biases.

  2. parker Says:

    The NYT and the msm in general are not dead, but they keep digging the hole that will marginalize them more and more as the alternative on line sites, both on the right and the left, eclipse them.

  3. Griffin Says:

    Also to the NYT foreign bureaus I would give you Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty. Now there was a hard hitting speak the truth journalist for ya!

    They have always been bad.

  4. F Says:

    I was close friends with NYTimes bureau chiefs in several African countries. They were excellent journalists and it showed in their work.

    Alas, those bureaux are now closed.

    But there will always be a place for print newspapers as long as people keep parakeets.

  5. Sam L. Says:

    The NYT (and WaPo, and alphabets) are dead to me.

  6. DNW Says:

    The New York Times was, and still is (more or less) qualitatively different from other more run of the mill newspapers.

    The only other paper I can think of off the top of my head that was somewhat like it – years ago – was the L.A. Times. Though residents of Boston or Chicago might disagree, and argue that papers in those towns had the same Olympian tone, intellectual posture, and massive Sunday supplements.

    But even in the Midwest, it was the NYT that one sought out on Sunday or considered for home delivery, and not the Chicago Tribune.

    Even my conservative father, now quite elderly, found the Times weekend edition interesting reading. Though more and more the arts features are simply too ugly and perverse to peruse.

    And with the Times’ not too distant in the past commitment to disregard standards of objectivity in order to defeat Trump in the recent election, one might well argue that it deserves to die … at least as anything more than a flimsy Democrat Party broadsheet.

    As it is, all that arrives for home delivery now is a much diminished Sunday paper. From 7 days a week, down to the Sunday and 3 weekdays editions; and now, most recently it’s down to a slim version of the Sunday NYTimes we all remember from a mere 3 or 4 years ago.

    Too bad there was not a middle of the road paper like it. The WSJ for instance only has on average three or four articles worthy of journalistic comparison per edition … in my opinion, of course.

  7. Yancey Ward Says:

    Too many news media organizations lie on the left- it is a simple matter of economics that they can’t all survive drawing on the same half of the political divide, and even worse for them is that they end up trying to survive on the farthest left of the Left further dividing their revenue streams.

    A commenter on Althouse a few days ago made the tongue in cheek observation that FoxNews succeeded because Roger Ailes identified a “niche market” that was half the country.

  8. T Says:


    My interpretation of Smith’s paragraph is that he says the MSM tilts left, but is in Pravda-like service to the government. Smith’s implication is that the MSM serves the government regardless of which political party is in power. He calls Bannon wrong in labeling the MSM the opposition because Smith implies that the Pravda-like press is now in the service of Bannon (i.e., the Trump-Bannon state).

    If Smith really believes that, especially after the MSM behavior of the past four months, I have several bridges to sell him, but then again, neither Progressives nor the Times have ever been noted for being firmly rooted in reality.

  9. T Says:

    “I think sometimes people look back at the press with rose colored glasses.” [Griffen @ 2:21]

    No question about it. In fact, the press was always partisan and less-than-objective. It was always more about selling stories than reporting them accurately or at all; that’s why “if it bleeds, it leads!” Many newspapers began as mouthpieces for political parties and a few even today still have xxx-Democrat or xxx-Republican in their name.

  10. Richard Aubrey Says:

    I used to do some heavy-duty checking of one thing or another before the internet. Getting, say, a complete transcript was a lot of work for an ordinary person. Took time.
    Some things that interested me I knew about already, that being normal, so I could object based on less research.
    Still, it was a laborious process, but the result was the same as today; don’t trust them.

  11. Alan F Says:

    I see that “T” already commented on my additional complaint about Lee Smith’s:

    “What was once an American political institution and a central part of the public sphere became something more like state-owned media used to advance the ruling party’s agenda and bully the opposition into silence.”

    Just in the 21st Century, the MSC harshly criticized Bush’s efforts and praised Democrat efforts regardless of whether the Democrats were in power.

  12. Montage Says:

    Do you really think conservatives are reading or listening to full speeches by Trump and then fact checking them? Are any right wing sites doing that? I don’t believe so.

    And so what happens is the things that might be misleading or outright lies are ignored by conservative sites and media but highlighted by liberal sites and media.

    The same thing happened with Obama’s speeches, only the reverse. The key is to find a news media that is as close to unbiased [of our political spectrum] as you can get. That is not easy.

  13. chuck Says:

    I first noticed the failings of the NY Times during the Kosovo War, 1998. They didn’t put any reporters on the ground because, IIRC, it was too dangerous. Primitive as the news resources on the net were at that time, I could read the British and French papers online and that is where I went, they did much better. Or at least they had more people closer to the fighting, I won’t vouch for the accuracy of the reporting. The NY Times still had the best science section around at that time (IMHO), but the people responsible for that have since retired or moved on.

  14. J.J. Says:

    Prior to WWII most newspapers (and some radio stations – no TV then) advertised their political leanings. And they pushed the political line they favored. Most cities of any size had two papers with opposing political viewpoints. Knowing that, people could read their stories with an understanding of where the newspapers were coming from.

    During WWII party lines faded and we all backed the government of FDR and the war effort. Newspapers began to assume a more bipartisan line of thinking and reporting. When the TV networks came along they tried to do the same. They all told us they were objective and trying to be informative rather than pushing one point of view or other. However, that only lasted through WWII and the 1950s to early 60s. By the late 60s the MSM had moved back into partisan reporting but they still posed as objective. Indeed, the MSM today will tell you they try to be objective and inform the people rather than take sides. They only believe that because they live in a bubble where they know few conservatives and where conservative viewpoints are constantly derided. (10 – 1 liberals over conservatives at MSM outlets.)

    I would like to see all newspapers and TV networks admit their biases openly. At least it would be honest, like things used to be. Like Foxnews and conservative talk radio are now.

  15. Steve S Says:

    But I know a lot of people (liberals rather than leftists) who still read the Times every day and trust that they are getting the truth.

    I read the Houston Chronicle every day, and am under no illusions that I am getting the truth. But I do learn where my ungoodwrongthink is.

  16. ericfromnewyork Says:

    actually, the traditional old Chinese saying is pithier, and probably more germane: …and the grandchildren are beggars. (they go bankrupt)

  17. Sgt. Mom Says:

    Over the last fifteen years, my own hometown newspaper has been dying on the vine. The print issue has shriveled into something the size of a small tabloid, and once-separate sections have merged. There are a few pages of print ads, and some obituaries, for which I understand that now the newspapers ask for a substantial payment to include. I dropped my own subscription when I realized that the national and international content was stuff that I was reading online, and several days earlier. I believe their only hope is to cover local matters much more deeply, but I don’t know if the city and environs really generate enough daily to fill even the reduced number of pages.

  18. Ray Says:

    The media has always been in the tank with the democrats. I was in college when Nixon was running against Kennedy for the presidency. It was obvious the media loved Kennedy and loathed Nixon. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say the media worshiped Kennedy. Kennedy was from heaven and Nixon was from hell.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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