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All the Banality That’s Fit to Print

I rarely read editorials by the New York Times anymore, not because they’re liberal (Michael Kinsley is liberal and worth reading) but because they’re banal. I was reminded of this when I actually did read a recent Times editorial, in this case one titled “The Republicans’ Benghazi Obsession.”

The editorial is worth referencing only to make a broader point, which is the dangers that can happen to journalists when they begin to view themselves as on a team rather than as individuals dedicated to unearthing truth (the role of reporters) or deepening the public’s understanding of issues (the role of commentators). I spoke about this issue during the last few minutes of my interview on NPR’s program On Point.

What often happens is ideology trumps detached judgment. So in the case of the Times, a cover-up by the Obama administration is characterized as nothing more than a GOP obsession. A false account of a lethal attack on an American diplomatic outpost given by the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, the U.N. ambassador, and the president’s press secretary? Not a problem. Because the point isn’t to find out the truth, let alone speak “truth to power.” It’s to be a fierce advocate for a fixed ideology. 

The mindset is transparent: One’s “team” is under attack and it must be defended at all costs. The editorial writers for the Times, for example, are not engaged in a journalistic enterprise. They are engaged in an ideological one. Their role isn’t to enlighten the public; it’s to be a weapon in a partisan war.

This isn’t a crime. And I’d certainly grant you that good arguments can be made by partisans. My point is that readers simply need to understand that the Times has a self-selected role to play: use facts–and if necessary manipulate facts–in order to serve their client (the Obama administration) and their cause (liberalism). So if the same events had occurred during the presidency of George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan instead of Barack Obama, they would trigger a feeding frenzy. But because this cover-up is occurring under a liberal president, the offenses need to be systematically ignored or underplayed–or better yet, turned on Republicans.

Now this phenomenon isn’t confined merely to those on the left. Both sides engage in it. And the truth is that none of us is perfectly detached and capable of viewing things from Olympian heights. We all bring to events certain biases, a particular cast of mind, a certain angle at which we view things. The question, I think, is where we find ourselves on the continuum, how willing we are to hold our own side to account, and the degree to which people can trust our interpretation of events. How much do we attempt to push back, if at all, against our ideological predilections in order to ascertain the reality of things? 

The English essayist William Hazlitt once said of Burke that he “enriched every subject to which he applied himself, and new subjects were only the occasions of calling forth fresh powers of mind which had not been before exerted.”

In this regard, as in so many other regards, the Times is thoroughly un-Burkean. Its editorial writers produce polemics rather than reasoned arguments–and they do so in the most hackneyed way imaginable. To be rigidly dogmatic is bad enough; to be shallow and boring in the process mightily compounds the error.


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