Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 26, 2012

Stating the Obvious About NY Times Bias

Arthur Brisbane has often been too much of a fan of the New York Times to cause all that much trouble during his two-year tenure as its public editor. That comes through even in his swan song column published today. But give Brisbane credit for the ability to recognize the paper’s obvious liberal bias. That is praiseworthy but though the column is another benchmark in the confirmation of the Times’s ideological tilt, it is probably even more interesting that those who are in charge of the institution are still in a state of denial about it.

Even before copies of the paper with Brisbane’s column in it were delivered to newsstands, Times executive editor Jill Abramson was publicly disputing Brisbane’s unexceptionable statement to the media claiming that the paper’s coverage of issues was as “straight” as her predecessor Abe Rosenthal demanded of his staff in the past. If anything, Abramson’s claim tells us all we needed to know about the smug, self-satisfied culture of the Times that Brisbane wrote about. There is no hope of correcting the corrosive and all-pervasive liberal bias in the Grey Lady on her watch. Indeed, if Abramson’s comments about her expectations for Brisbane’s successor to Politico’s Dylan Byers are any indication, Times editors and reporters should expect even less guff from new public editor Margaret Sullivan than they got from Brisbane.

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Arthur Brisbane has often been too much of a fan of the New York Times to cause all that much trouble during his two-year tenure as its public editor. That comes through even in his swan song column published today. But give Brisbane credit for the ability to recognize the paper’s obvious liberal bias. That is praiseworthy but though the column is another benchmark in the confirmation of the Times’s ideological tilt, it is probably even more interesting that those who are in charge of the institution are still in a state of denial about it.

Even before copies of the paper with Brisbane’s column in it were delivered to newsstands, Times executive editor Jill Abramson was publicly disputing Brisbane’s unexceptionable statement to the media claiming that the paper’s coverage of issues was as “straight” as her predecessor Abe Rosenthal demanded of his staff in the past. If anything, Abramson’s claim tells us all we needed to know about the smug, self-satisfied culture of the Times that Brisbane wrote about. There is no hope of correcting the corrosive and all-pervasive liberal bias in the Grey Lady on her watch. Indeed, if Abramson’s comments about her expectations for Brisbane’s successor to Politico’s Dylan Byers are any indication, Times editors and reporters should expect even less guff from new public editor Margaret Sullivan than they got from Brisbane.

While lauding the professionalism of its staff and questioning whether its standards can withstand the gravitational pull of social media, the departing ombudsman was willing to face up to the reality of Times group-think about important issues:

As for humility, well, The Times is Lake Wobegon on steroids (everybody’s way above average). I don’t remember many autopsies in which, as we assembled over the body, anyone conceded that maybe this could have been done differently. …

I also noted two years ago that I had taken up the public editor duties believing “there is no conspiracy” and that The Times’s output was too vast and complex to be dictated by any Wizard of Oz-like individual or cabal. I still believe that, but also see that the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds — a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within.

When The Times covers a national presidential campaign, I have found that the lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so. Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.

This conclusion should come as no surprise to anyone who reads the paper. Conservatives may take exception to his contention that the Times’s political coverage is as fair as he states. I will concede that the paper has certainly not been quite as biased in 2012 as it was in 2008 when the historic candidacy of Barack Obama was treated in much the same way that he diagnosed the coverage of Occupy and other liberal causes. But that is to damn the paper with faint praise. Nevertheless, Brisbane has made an important point about the way liberal bias is about more than skewing the news to the advantage of the Democrats.

We can only hope that his successor will follow up on this insight and spend her time the paper trying to highlight the problem. However, the paper has said it plans “to shift the job’s focus toward more engagement with the reader online and through social media.” Presumably that means less time flaying the Times’s staff for its obvious failings and more time on mollifying and entertaining the paper’s core liberal readership. If so, the public editor post will become as irrelevant as Abramson’s lame denials of bias.

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IAEA Evidence Shows Israel, Not Obama, Talking Sense About Iran

The latest report being prepared by the International Atomic Energy Agency about Iran appears to be a sobering retort to those who have spent the summer trying to claim that Israel’s warnings about the need to act should be ignored. The report, which has not yet been released but whose contents have been leaked, says that Iran has installed hundreds of new centrifuges in recent months and is devoting its efforts to refining uranium to a level of greater than 20 percent, a sign that it is working on a nuclear bomb and not, as it disingenuously contends, on medical research. Of equal concern is that all of this new equipment has been installed in facilities near the holy city of Qum and buried so far under underground that they may be invulnerable to attack.

This evidence would mean the alarms being sounded in Israel in recent months were entirely justified. If the Iranians have dramatically increased their stockpile of refined uranium and are now transferring more of their work into hardened bunkers, they may be close to what Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak have called a “zone of immunity”: the point at which their program can no longer be halted by force. But rather than taking this as a sign that their complacent attitude toward Iran needs to be revised, the Obama administration remains in denial. Despite the obvious failure of the P5+1 talks and Iran’s determination to run out the clock on its nuclear program before the West acts, a White House spokesman said Friday there is still “time and space” for a diplomatic solution to the standoff. Indeed, as the New York Times noted, the administration seemed more intent on trying to undermine Israel’s stance on the nuclear peril than it was on actually doing anything about the problem.

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The latest report being prepared by the International Atomic Energy Agency about Iran appears to be a sobering retort to those who have spent the summer trying to claim that Israel’s warnings about the need to act should be ignored. The report, which has not yet been released but whose contents have been leaked, says that Iran has installed hundreds of new centrifuges in recent months and is devoting its efforts to refining uranium to a level of greater than 20 percent, a sign that it is working on a nuclear bomb and not, as it disingenuously contends, on medical research. Of equal concern is that all of this new equipment has been installed in facilities near the holy city of Qum and buried so far under underground that they may be invulnerable to attack.

This evidence would mean the alarms being sounded in Israel in recent months were entirely justified. If the Iranians have dramatically increased their stockpile of refined uranium and are now transferring more of their work into hardened bunkers, they may be close to what Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak have called a “zone of immunity”: the point at which their program can no longer be halted by force. But rather than taking this as a sign that their complacent attitude toward Iran needs to be revised, the Obama administration remains in denial. Despite the obvious failure of the P5+1 talks and Iran’s determination to run out the clock on its nuclear program before the West acts, a White House spokesman said Friday there is still “time and space” for a diplomatic solution to the standoff. Indeed, as the New York Times noted, the administration seemed more intent on trying to undermine Israel’s stance on the nuclear peril than it was on actually doing anything about the problem.

President Obama has pledged to stop Iran from going nuclear, but his priority throughout the last year has been to stop Israel from acting on its own to deal with the problem. No serious observer has any confidence that the sanctions on Iran that were belatedly adopted (and loosely enforced) by Washington will force the ayatollahs to back off on their nuclear plans. The P5+1 talks led by the European Union’s Catherine Ashton got nowhere despite several tries. Any revival of these negotiations would only serve Iran’s purposes as they string Western diplomats along while their centrifuges keep spinning.

But despite the evidence of Iran’s progress, the administration is doing its best to downplay the crisis. An “administration official” speaking without attribution to the New York Times  — the White House’s favorite outlet for leaks — confirmed the latest intelligence gleaned from the IAEA report but pooh-poohed it as “not a game changer.” The argument from the source was that a “breakout” that could convert the existing Iranian stockpile to weapons grade could be rapidly accomplished. But the source said the U.S. would find out about it and still have time to deal with it. The upshot of this statement was that the world should ignore Israel’s fears and trust President Obama to deal with the problem in his own good time.

Yet how can the president be trusted on the issue if his whole focus seems to be on kicking the can down road until after the presidential election in November? It is one thing to accuse the Israelis of alarmism or of trying to exert pressure on Obama to pledge to act. But if the Iranians are able to compile enough refined uranium and store it in places that can’t be attacked, a U.S. policy rooted in a predisposition to delay action is a formula that is certain to fail.

Time is running out not only on the countdown to the day when Iran will be able to quickly assemble a bomb but until the point where it will no longer be possible to use force to prevent them from doing so. Four years of Obama policies toward Iran have shown the administration to be willing to do nothing but talk about the need to avert this danger. The latest information from the IAEA is more proof that despite the media campaign orchestrated from the White House intended to undermine Israel’s appeals, it is Jerusalem, and not Washington, that is talking sense about Iran.

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Don’t Count on a Convention Bounce

One of the standing assumptions of most political pundits is that each party will emerge from its national convention these next two weeks with a “bump” in the poll numbers for their candidates. Gallup reports that the post convention fluctuations in its survey numbers give candidates a typical bounce of about five percentage points. Given the close nature of the current presidential contest and the fact that he has been trailing President Obama all year, Mitt Romney would certainly be happy with that kind of boost. It would be enough to put him into the lead at a time when he needs a momentum change.

But while pundits are also cautioning both the candidates and their supporters to remember that convention bounces tend to flatten out by the time the voters have their say in November, there are good reasons to believe the traditional bump may not be as strong in 2012 as it has been in the past.

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One of the standing assumptions of most political pundits is that each party will emerge from its national convention these next two weeks with a “bump” in the poll numbers for their candidates. Gallup reports that the post convention fluctuations in its survey numbers give candidates a typical bounce of about five percentage points. Given the close nature of the current presidential contest and the fact that he has been trailing President Obama all year, Mitt Romney would certainly be happy with that kind of boost. It would be enough to put him into the lead at a time when he needs a momentum change.

But while pundits are also cautioning both the candidates and their supporters to remember that convention bounces tend to flatten out by the time the voters have their say in November, there are good reasons to believe the traditional bump may not be as strong in 2012 as it has been in the past.

The willingness of Democrats to junk tradition and step up their attacks during their opponents’ convention may be another indication of the administration’s determination to adopt any tactic or smear if it will help the president’s re-election. But it could be a stroke of strategic genius if it alters the monochromatic nature of the political conversation during a convention week and neuters Romney’s bounce. Hurricane Isaac, especially if it turns out to be worse than expected, could also divert the country from the Romney pep rally and diminish its significance. Just as important is the possibility that viewership for the scripted infomercials staged by both parties won’t generate as much interest as in the past and therefore mean a smaller impact on the polls.

Any bounce, no matter how small, that leaves Romney in the lead rather than trailing Obama, as he has all year, would be crucial. Though Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate energized Republicans and demonstrated a willingness to emphasize the differences between the parties, the last month was bookended by problems. The media-driven claim that his foreign trip was undermined by gaffes both real (the Olympics) and imaginary (Palestinian culture) didn’t help him. Even worse, the week before the convention was marred by the Todd Akin fiasco, a gift to the Democrats that may keep on giving all fall. If two weeks from now, Romney has evened the small gap between himself and the president or taken a tiny lead, it will have been a major achievement and could put him on track for a November victory.

But if the media spends the coming week devoting a lot of attention to Democratic guerilla warfare in Tampa, it could alter the traditional equation that produces convention bounces. Traditionally, the opposition stays quiet during their rivals’ convention week, allowing each side to portray their candidate and party without too much contradiction. But if the Democratic plan to trash courtesy succeeds, it cannot but help depress the bounce. Even if the GOP retaliates the following week in Charlotte — a trick that won’t be as easy without the cooperation of the mainstream media that the Democrats may receive in Tampa — the result will still be to Romney’s disadvantage.

The hurricane may be another piece of bad luck for the Republicans. The cancellation of the first night of the convention isn’t catastrophic but if Isaac inflicts terrible damage on Florida, it will be true disaster for the GOP since it will mean the party won’t have a monopoly on the media in the coming days.

But hovering above all of these factors is something that pundits and political junkies tend to forget: the conventions are no longer the greatest political show on earth and the public knows it. The party conventions were once great colorful dramas where real decisions were made both on the floor and in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms elsewhere. That changed a long time ago, but its impact on the public’s interest in them may be finally catching up to that reality because of the way the media has been transformed in the last two decades. The broadcast networks are limiting their coverage this year to three prime-time hours each and the parties should think themselves lucky to get that much. In 2008, the debut of Sarah Palin and the historical nature of Barack Obama’s acceptance of his party’s nomination riveted the nation but there will be no such drama this year.

As John noted on Friday, Romney’s acceptance speech will be more closely watched than Obama’s a week later, but the assumption that the whole nation will be riveted by it or any such address may not be justified anymore. All that may add up to a situation where the crucial question may not be how long the post convention bounce lasts but why it never happened. If so, it won’t be good news for Mitt Romney.

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Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012

Everyone old enough to have witnessed on television the moon landing on July 20, 1969, will never forget it. The next day the New York Times used, I believe for the first time, war type to announce the news. It has used that size type only a few times since (Nixon’s resignation, Clinton’s impeachment, 9/11).

I was 25 that year and watched the landing with my grandfather, who was then 87. Ever the historian, I was deeply aware of the changes he had seen in his lifetime. Born in 1881 into a world of gas light and horses, a world without movies or even amateur still photography, without telephones or phonographs (although both had been invented), it was a world where Chester Arthur was president and Queen Victoria’s reign had twenty years to run. Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon had been published only 16 years earlier and its astronauts had used a giant cannon to get to the moon (the g forces would have killed them instantly on take off). The back of the moon was the very epitome of the unknowable.

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Everyone old enough to have witnessed on television the moon landing on July 20, 1969, will never forget it. The next day the New York Times used, I believe for the first time, war type to announce the news. It has used that size type only a few times since (Nixon’s resignation, Clinton’s impeachment, 9/11).

I was 25 that year and watched the landing with my grandfather, who was then 87. Ever the historian, I was deeply aware of the changes he had seen in his lifetime. Born in 1881 into a world of gas light and horses, a world without movies or even amateur still photography, without telephones or phonographs (although both had been invented), it was a world where Chester Arthur was president and Queen Victoria’s reign had twenty years to run. Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon had been published only 16 years earlier and its astronauts had used a giant cannon to get to the moon (the g forces would have killed them instantly on take off). The back of the moon was the very epitome of the unknowable.

My grandfather had been 21 when the Wright Brothers first flew (although he wouldn’t have known it as it wasn’t reported in the papers), 45 when Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. He was 65 when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, 76 when Sputnik was launched. Now he was sitting in front of a color television (an inconceivable technology in 1881) watching a man climb down a ladder and set foot on the moon, a quarter of a million miles away.

Naturally I wondered what milestones I would have seen by the time I was 87. I’m not there yet, but Voyager, launched in 1976, has now reached the heliopause, the outermost edge of the solar system. Probes have visited every planet and another will reach Pluto (demoted from planethood a few years ago) in 2015. The moons of Saturn and Jupiter—mere dots of light in a telescope when I was growing up—have been observed up close and  Titan, Saturn’s big moon, has been landed on, revealing lakes of liquid methane and a thousand other wonders. Rovers are crisscrossing the surface of Mars, allowing us to be tourists on a planet that many serious people thought inhabited when my grandfather was growing up. The Hubble Space Telescope has revealed astonishing sights and the James Webb Telescope will reveal many more after it is launched.

The gods are very fickle in how they hand out historical immortality. The other eleven men who walked on the moon are just as brave, just as competent, as Neil Armstrong. But because he was the first, he will ever be the personification of this great era in human exploration we have lived through, one of the iconic Americans of the 20th century.

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