Commentary Magazine


Topic: public editor

Was It Time or Bias that Caused the Media to Slant the Story?

Since Daniel Okrent left the post, the men who have served as the public editor of the New York Times haven’t caused much trouble for the journalists they are supposed to be monitoring. That has certainly been true of Arthur Brisbane, the latest to sit in that seat. However, when confronted with a colossal case of journalistic malpractice, even a Brisbane can’t ignore it. Thus, Brisbane was forced to address the fact that, like much of the mainstream media, the Times‘s coverage of the Arizona tragedy led with and assumed that the shooting was the result of conservative incitement, which would lead to serious political repercussions.

Unfortunately, Brisbane’s analysis of the Times coverage ignores the real problems while focusing on the one element that journalists have always had to deal with: time. Brisbane seems to think that the Times’s initial report that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was dead was terrible. It was an error but one that was an understandable result of a chaotic situation. Brisbane is more forgiving of the bigger mistake: “The Times’s day-one coverage in some of its Sunday print editions included a strong focus on the political climate in Arizona and the nation. For some readers — and I share this view to an extent — placing the violence in the broader political context was problematic.”

While he rightly deplores the instinctive decision of both reporters and editors to “frame” the Arizona shooting as an event that was a direct result of conservative dissent against the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress, Brisbane still thinks there “were some good reasons to steer the coverage in this direction.” But the only “good reason” he cites is the assumption that any violence directed at a politician must be the result of the fact that a lot of people disagree with her policies.

Brisbane acknowledges that a better focus of the Times coverage would have been one that highlighted the fact that the shooter was mentally ill. Yet he blames the false assumptions that caused the newspaper to “frame” all its coverage around a false belief that this was a political event for which conservatives must pay on the lack of time. But that is no excuse. Journalists never have enough time. But that’s no reason to take an event and shoehorn it into a fabricated story line that is based on the delegitimization of those who espouse political views that the Times opposes. Read More

Since Daniel Okrent left the post, the men who have served as the public editor of the New York Times haven’t caused much trouble for the journalists they are supposed to be monitoring. That has certainly been true of Arthur Brisbane, the latest to sit in that seat. However, when confronted with a colossal case of journalistic malpractice, even a Brisbane can’t ignore it. Thus, Brisbane was forced to address the fact that, like much of the mainstream media, the Times‘s coverage of the Arizona tragedy led with and assumed that the shooting was the result of conservative incitement, which would lead to serious political repercussions.

Unfortunately, Brisbane’s analysis of the Times coverage ignores the real problems while focusing on the one element that journalists have always had to deal with: time. Brisbane seems to think that the Times’s initial report that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was dead was terrible. It was an error but one that was an understandable result of a chaotic situation. Brisbane is more forgiving of the bigger mistake: “The Times’s day-one coverage in some of its Sunday print editions included a strong focus on the political climate in Arizona and the nation. For some readers — and I share this view to an extent — placing the violence in the broader political context was problematic.”

While he rightly deplores the instinctive decision of both reporters and editors to “frame” the Arizona shooting as an event that was a direct result of conservative dissent against the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress, Brisbane still thinks there “were some good reasons to steer the coverage in this direction.” But the only “good reason” he cites is the assumption that any violence directed at a politician must be the result of the fact that a lot of people disagree with her policies.

Brisbane acknowledges that a better focus of the Times coverage would have been one that highlighted the fact that the shooter was mentally ill. Yet he blames the false assumptions that caused the newspaper to “frame” all its coverage around a false belief that this was a political event for which conservatives must pay on the lack of time. But that is no excuse. Journalists never have enough time. But that’s no reason to take an event and shoehorn it into a fabricated story line that is based on the delegitimization of those who espouse political views that the Times opposes.

It wasn’t time that caused the editors at the Times and other broadcast media to falsely accuse conservatives of inciting the shooter; it was their own very obvious political bias. Like the pundits who write on the paper’s op-ed page who have continued to link the crime to politics, even after President Obama urged his followers to stop doing so, the paper’s news editors live in a world where conservative opinions simply aren’t legitimate. Indeed, on the same page where Brisbane’s apologia for the paper appears was a column by Frank Rich that again sought to falsely link Palin to the shooting. Rich spoke of the widespread public anger against the Obama administration’s policies as a violent “insurrection” that threatens the rule of law rather than a grassroots movement that led to an overwhelming Republican victory at the polls last November. Like so many other liberals, Rich thinks it doesn’t matter than Jared Loughner was insane. As far as he is concerned, those who oppose the Democrats are still responsible, even though Rich has produced as much “hate” of President Bush and the Republicans as even the most rabid conservative talk-radio hosts have of Obama.

It is noteworthy that Brisbane even bothered to notice how badly his newspaper got the story wrong. But until he addresses the political bias that was the primary cause of that error, accountability at the Times is still not in the cards.

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Morning Commentary

Chas Freeman’s New York Times column “Why Iran Loves WikiLeaks” is as scary as it sounds.

Obama finally speaks with China about North Korea, nearly two weeks after the North’s attack on South Korea. Some experts see this as a sign of strained relations between the U.S. and China.

New WikiLeaks dump reveals list of international facilities vital to U.S. security. There are concerns that these locations may become targets of terrorist attacks.

The New York Times’s public editor on why he’s glad the paper published WikiLeaks: “The Times, like other serious news organizations in democracies, exists to ferret out and publish information — most especially information that government, business and other power centers prefer to conceal. Arming readers with knowledge is what it’s about, and journalists are motivated to pursue that end.”

The Iranian foreign minister snubs Hilary Clinton in Bahrain as the heat turns up on Iran’s nuclear program. Talks between Tehran and P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear ambitions begin today.

Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about John Boehner can be found in an extensive New Yorker profile out today. The congressman takes over as speaker of the House on January 5.

Afghani confidence with the U.S. is faltering, according to a new poll: “[T]he results … lay bare the challenge that remains in encouraging more Afghans to repudiate the insurgency and cast their lot with the government.”

Chas Freeman’s New York Times column “Why Iran Loves WikiLeaks” is as scary as it sounds.

Obama finally speaks with China about North Korea, nearly two weeks after the North’s attack on South Korea. Some experts see this as a sign of strained relations between the U.S. and China.

New WikiLeaks dump reveals list of international facilities vital to U.S. security. There are concerns that these locations may become targets of terrorist attacks.

The New York Times’s public editor on why he’s glad the paper published WikiLeaks: “The Times, like other serious news organizations in democracies, exists to ferret out and publish information — most especially information that government, business and other power centers prefer to conceal. Arming readers with knowledge is what it’s about, and journalists are motivated to pursue that end.”

The Iranian foreign minister snubs Hilary Clinton in Bahrain as the heat turns up on Iran’s nuclear program. Talks between Tehran and P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear ambitions begin today.

Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about John Boehner can be found in an extensive New Yorker profile out today. The congressman takes over as speaker of the House on January 5.

Afghani confidence with the U.S. is faltering, according to a new poll: “[T]he results … lay bare the challenge that remains in encouraging more Afghans to repudiate the insurgency and cast their lot with the government.”

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Gray Lady Capsizes — Again

The New York Times is incapable of punishing its “star” columnists, no matter what the offense. Maureen Dowd was caught plagiarizing and was allowed to skate by with a lame excuse and no real confession of guilt. Paul Krugman in a column last week wrote, “By all means, hang Senator Joe Lieberman in effigy.” Today, in a pathetic parenthetical, he writes: (“Management wants me to make it clear that in my last column I wasn’t endorsing inappropriate threats against Mr. Lieberman.”) A more insincere apology would be hard to find.

Let’s imagine — for we will have to, barring a spasm of transparency from public editor Clark Hoyt — that the Times management received one or more complaints about Krugman’s disgusting remark. What would they have said? “Well, no, we don’t actually support hanging in effigy U.S. senators.” If pressed as to their editorial judgment, would they have lamely acknowledged, “Er, yes, had anyone used that phrase with the regard to the president, we would have caught it and squelched it”? The mind reels.

What is clear is that for all the Times’s snooty condescension about the blogosphere, the editorial pages of the Gray Lady are no better than the average netroot blog. Journalistic ethics? Puh-leez! Common decency? Fuggedaboutit!

The New York Times is incapable of punishing its “star” columnists, no matter what the offense. Maureen Dowd was caught plagiarizing and was allowed to skate by with a lame excuse and no real confession of guilt. Paul Krugman in a column last week wrote, “By all means, hang Senator Joe Lieberman in effigy.” Today, in a pathetic parenthetical, he writes: (“Management wants me to make it clear that in my last column I wasn’t endorsing inappropriate threats against Mr. Lieberman.”) A more insincere apology would be hard to find.

Let’s imagine — for we will have to, barring a spasm of transparency from public editor Clark Hoyt — that the Times management received one or more complaints about Krugman’s disgusting remark. What would they have said? “Well, no, we don’t actually support hanging in effigy U.S. senators.” If pressed as to their editorial judgment, would they have lamely acknowledged, “Er, yes, had anyone used that phrase with the regard to the president, we would have caught it and squelched it”? The mind reels.

What is clear is that for all the Times’s snooty condescension about the blogosphere, the editorial pages of the Gray Lady are no better than the average netroot blog. Journalistic ethics? Puh-leez! Common decency? Fuggedaboutit!

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Hoyt Tries To Clean Up – Again

New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt is cleaning up after another embarrassing display of journalistic bias by the Times. (Remember him? He was tasked with the job of excoriating Bill Keller and the rest of the Times editors and reporters responsible for the smear story on John McCain and the female lobbyist.) This time the subject is Reverend Wright. Hoyt writes:

While The Times was aggressive with its coverage on the Web, it was slow to fully engage the Wright story in print and angered some readers by putting opinion about it on the front page — a review by the television critic of his appearances on PBS, at an N.A.A.C.P. convention and at the National Press Club — before ever reporting in any depth what he actually said, how it squared with reality and what it might mean as Democrats ponder Obama as their potential nominee.

Hoyt traces the Times‘s repeated failures to report and analyze developments in the Wright story, despite robust coverage by other outlets. He then includes this howler:

[Bill] Keller, [Jill] Abramson and [Richard] Stevenson said they wished that more of Wright’s words had gotten into the paper. But Keller and Abramson defended the front-page review. “This was a story that was playing out on TV, and we have a reviewer who is a smart viewer,” Keller said. Abramson said, “She had a lot of interesting things to say that didn’t go over the news-opinion divide.”

It’s nice to know that the management of our paper of record sees no reason to pipe up so long as TV reporters are covering a story. One wonders, with 24/7 cable news coverage, why the Times doesn’t close up shop altogether. Prior to Hoyt’s column, this utter failure by the Times to report on the Wright story had long been discussed on numerous blogs. But better late than never, I suppose, that the Times should acknowledge its own negligence.

Isn’t it odd, though, how the mistakes made by the Times invariably tilt toward its political favorites and against those favorites’ opponents? Apparently no journalistic malpractice is grave enough to cause personnel changes at a newspaper constantly screaming about lack of accountability in government and corporations.

New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt is cleaning up after another embarrassing display of journalistic bias by the Times. (Remember him? He was tasked with the job of excoriating Bill Keller and the rest of the Times editors and reporters responsible for the smear story on John McCain and the female lobbyist.) This time the subject is Reverend Wright. Hoyt writes:

While The Times was aggressive with its coverage on the Web, it was slow to fully engage the Wright story in print and angered some readers by putting opinion about it on the front page — a review by the television critic of his appearances on PBS, at an N.A.A.C.P. convention and at the National Press Club — before ever reporting in any depth what he actually said, how it squared with reality and what it might mean as Democrats ponder Obama as their potential nominee.

Hoyt traces the Times‘s repeated failures to report and analyze developments in the Wright story, despite robust coverage by other outlets. He then includes this howler:

[Bill] Keller, [Jill] Abramson and [Richard] Stevenson said they wished that more of Wright’s words had gotten into the paper. But Keller and Abramson defended the front-page review. “This was a story that was playing out on TV, and we have a reviewer who is a smart viewer,” Keller said. Abramson said, “She had a lot of interesting things to say that didn’t go over the news-opinion divide.”

It’s nice to know that the management of our paper of record sees no reason to pipe up so long as TV reporters are covering a story. One wonders, with 24/7 cable news coverage, why the Times doesn’t close up shop altogether. Prior to Hoyt’s column, this utter failure by the Times to report on the Wright story had long been discussed on numerous blogs. But better late than never, I suppose, that the Times should acknowledge its own negligence.

Isn’t it odd, though, how the mistakes made by the Times invariably tilt toward its political favorites and against those favorites’ opponents? Apparently no journalistic malpractice is grave enough to cause personnel changes at a newspaper constantly screaming about lack of accountability in government and corporations.

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The New York Times Is Outraged

The Times is fit to be tied — about the Times. Its public editor takes Executive Editor Bill Keller to the journalistic woodshed with this blast:

The article was notable for what it did not say: It did not say what convinced the advisers that there was a romance. It did not make clear what McCain was admitting when he acknowledged behaving inappropriately — an affair or just an association with a lobbyist that could look bad. And it did not say whether Weaver, the only on-the-record source, believed there was a romance. The Times did not offer independent proof, like the text messages between Detroit’s mayor and a female aide that The Detroit Free Press disclosed recently, or the photograph of Donna Rice sitting on Gary Hart’s lap.

It was not for want of trying. Four highly respected reporters in the Washington bureau worked for months on the story and were pressed repeatedly to get sources on the record and to find documentary evidence like e-mail. If McCain had been having an affair with a lobbyist seeking his help on public policy issues, and The Times had proved it, it would have been a story of unquestionable importance.

But in the absence of a smoking gun, I asked Keller why he decided to run what he had.

“If the point of the story was to allege that McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, we’d have owed readers more compelling evidence than the conviction of senior staff members,” he replied. “But that was not the point of the story. The point of the story was that he behaved in such a way that his close aides felt the relationship constituted reckless behavior and feared it would ruin his career.”

I think that ignores the scarlet elephant in the room. A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.

Well, who can argue with that? Two thousand outraged Times readers can’t be wrong. John McCain, whose professional reputation is in better shape than Bill Keller’s, has, by the way, raised more than $2M from his “The Times is after me” fundraising letter.

The Times is fit to be tied — about the Times. Its public editor takes Executive Editor Bill Keller to the journalistic woodshed with this blast:

The article was notable for what it did not say: It did not say what convinced the advisers that there was a romance. It did not make clear what McCain was admitting when he acknowledged behaving inappropriately — an affair or just an association with a lobbyist that could look bad. And it did not say whether Weaver, the only on-the-record source, believed there was a romance. The Times did not offer independent proof, like the text messages between Detroit’s mayor and a female aide that The Detroit Free Press disclosed recently, or the photograph of Donna Rice sitting on Gary Hart’s lap.

It was not for want of trying. Four highly respected reporters in the Washington bureau worked for months on the story and were pressed repeatedly to get sources on the record and to find documentary evidence like e-mail. If McCain had been having an affair with a lobbyist seeking his help on public policy issues, and The Times had proved it, it would have been a story of unquestionable importance.

But in the absence of a smoking gun, I asked Keller why he decided to run what he had.

“If the point of the story was to allege that McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, we’d have owed readers more compelling evidence than the conviction of senior staff members,” he replied. “But that was not the point of the story. The point of the story was that he behaved in such a way that his close aides felt the relationship constituted reckless behavior and feared it would ruin his career.”

I think that ignores the scarlet elephant in the room. A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.

Well, who can argue with that? Two thousand outraged Times readers can’t be wrong. John McCain, whose professional reputation is in better shape than Bill Keller’s, has, by the way, raised more than $2M from his “The Times is after me” fundraising letter.

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Sawdust or Bill Kristol?

Among my various regular household duties, sorting bottles, paper, metal, and other forms of refuse, as mandated by local recycling law, is irksome, especially because I suspect that all these form of garbage end up in the same dump. But of such daily chores, none is more bothersome than reading the editorials of the New York Times. It’s not so much that I disagree with them — which I almost always do — but the fact that they are almost always dead on the page. Apodictic, sententious, grim are three words that consistently come to mind; these editorial masterpieces are to reading as sawdust is to eating.

Now that the paper is locked in a competition with Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, either the Times will have to get rid of the sawdust or they will continue to lose this portion of the game to an editorial-page operation that is nothing but lively and full of high good humor. Already, the Times’s op-ed page — as opposed to the editorial page — seems to have gotten the message. How else are we to read the decision to give prime real estate — a weekly column — to Bill Kristol, a dreaded neoconservative, and the editor of the Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard?

That decision has provoked howls of outrage from free-thinking liberals who appear exceedingly anxious to avoid hearing the views of anyone with whom they might disagree. One of the more notable contributions to this choir of conformity is Clark Hoyt, the Times’s “public editor” or ombudsman. This past Sunday he wrote a column calling the decision to appoint Kristol a mistake. The headline was He May Be Unwelcome, but We’ll Survive. Hoyt’s is the kind of thinking that might ensure that the Times will not survive. Keep up the good work Hoyt!

I take a closer look at Hoyt’s argument today in Bill Kristol: Enemy of the People, over at realclearpolitics.

Among my various regular household duties, sorting bottles, paper, metal, and other forms of refuse, as mandated by local recycling law, is irksome, especially because I suspect that all these form of garbage end up in the same dump. But of such daily chores, none is more bothersome than reading the editorials of the New York Times. It’s not so much that I disagree with them — which I almost always do — but the fact that they are almost always dead on the page. Apodictic, sententious, grim are three words that consistently come to mind; these editorial masterpieces are to reading as sawdust is to eating.

Now that the paper is locked in a competition with Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, either the Times will have to get rid of the sawdust or they will continue to lose this portion of the game to an editorial-page operation that is nothing but lively and full of high good humor. Already, the Times’s op-ed page — as opposed to the editorial page — seems to have gotten the message. How else are we to read the decision to give prime real estate — a weekly column — to Bill Kristol, a dreaded neoconservative, and the editor of the Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard?

That decision has provoked howls of outrage from free-thinking liberals who appear exceedingly anxious to avoid hearing the views of anyone with whom they might disagree. One of the more notable contributions to this choir of conformity is Clark Hoyt, the Times’s “public editor” or ombudsman. This past Sunday he wrote a column calling the decision to appoint Kristol a mistake. The headline was He May Be Unwelcome, but We’ll Survive. Hoyt’s is the kind of thinking that might ensure that the Times will not survive. Keep up the good work Hoyt!

I take a closer look at Hoyt’s argument today in Bill Kristol: Enemy of the People, over at realclearpolitics.

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Is Michael Mukasey Really Spider-Man?

What is the difference between the Daily Bugle and the New York Times? In the Daily Bugle, the fictional newspaper in the Spider-Man franchise, the superhero is smeared as a danger to the public weal with headlines like “Spider-Man: Threat or Menace?”

The headline in Monday’s New York Times, “Post-9/11 Cases Fuel Criticism for Nominee,” was more subtle than that. But the contents that followed were not. As former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy demonstrates today in an exceptionally well-informed analysis, the Times was performing nothing less than a hatchet job on Michael B. Mukasey, President Bush’s choice for the position of Attorney General.

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What is the difference between the Daily Bugle and the New York Times? In the Daily Bugle, the fictional newspaper in the Spider-Man franchise, the superhero is smeared as a danger to the public weal with headlines like “Spider-Man: Threat or Menace?”

The headline in Monday’s New York Times, “Post-9/11 Cases Fuel Criticism for Nominee,” was more subtle than that. But the contents that followed were not. As former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy demonstrates today in an exceptionally well-informed analysis, the Times was performing nothing less than a hatchet job on Michael B. Mukasey, President Bush’s choice for the position of Attorney General.

Next to the MoveOn.org advertising flap, which has revealed how the paper’s managerial incompetence can mix with its biases, the Mukasey story exposes the partisanship of the paper’s supposedly non-partisan news section in a way that few stories ever quite so nakedly do. It will be interesting to see if Clark Hoyt, the Times’s Public Editor, takes up this scandal, as he has here with the MoveOn.org ad, in a forthcoming column.

Whether we hear from Hoyt or not, the lengthening of the line of soiled laundry on display at our country’s premier newspaper is spectacularly ill-timedat least from the point of view of the self-preening journalism lobby itself. On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to take up a “shield law” that would carve out special privileges for journalists, exempting them from having to testify in legal proceedings about their confidential sources.

Although the Times’s Mukasey story does not bear in any direct way on the issues addressed in the bill, it demonstrates, as clearly as DanRathergate did, something else. Rank partisanship has infected American journalism to the point that a shield lawa bad idea under any circumstances, as I have argued herewould at this juncture be a formula for the kind of disaster that only a Spider-Man could save us from.

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Bad Ad

In yesterday’s “The Public Editor” column for the New York Times, Clark Hoyt informs us that the Times, after almost two weeks of insisting otherwise, now admits that it gave favorable treatment to the MoveOn.org ad defaming General David Petraeus—charging MoveOn.org $64,575 for the ad instead of the $142,083 MoveOn.org should have paid.

What a shocking revelation.

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In yesterday’s “The Public Editor” column for the New York Times, Clark Hoyt informs us that the Times, after almost two weeks of insisting otherwise, now admits that it gave favorable treatment to the MoveOn.org ad defaming General David Petraeus—charging MoveOn.org $64,575 for the ad instead of the $142,083 MoveOn.org should have paid.

What a shocking revelation.

The Hoyt article is full of insights into the mindset of those who work at the Times. For one thing, we learn that Steph Jespersen, the executive who approved the MoveOn.org ad, said that while it was “rough,” he regarded it as a “comment on a public official’s management of his office and therefore acceptable speech for the Times to print.” We also are told that Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the Times and chairman of its parent company, said this:

If we’re going to err, it’s better to err on the side of more political dialogue…. Perhaps we did err in this case. If we did, we erred with the intent of giving greater voice to people.

The trouble with this explanation, of course, is that what we are dealing with is not free speech so much as slander. The MoveOn.org ad accuses General Petraeus, a four-star general and war hero, of betraying his nation and “cooking the books.” These charges are false and malicious, yet in response, the best Sulzberger can say is that he believes that “perhaps”—perhaps!—the Times erred in this case. Sulzberger is almost Ratheresque in his ability to defend the journalistically indefensible.

One wonders if an organization ran a full-page ad accusing the publisher of the Times, without evidence, of being a traitor or a racist with strong ties to hate groups, he would view such charges as “giving greater voice to people.” Perhaps. And would those who work for him characterize such an ad as “rough” but “acceptable” speech for the Times to print? Perhaps.

We are also told that Jespersen, director of advertising acceptability, “bends over backward to accommodate advocacy ads, including ads from groups with which the newspaper disagrees editorially.” Of course he does. And Jespersen, we learn, has rejected an ad from the National Right to Life Committee—not, he said, because of its message, but because it pictured aborted fetuses.

Now isn’t that rich? The New York Times rejected an ad that is certainly “rough” but also has the virtue of being accurate—after all, it shows what aborted fetuses look like—but gave a huge discount rate to an ad that was “rough” but was also utterly false and slanderous. It’s worth bearing in mind that the Times—which took almost two weeks to correct its false claims and admit wrongdoing—is the same newspaper that regularly lacerates public officials (like former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales) for not being able to get their stories straight. Is it any wonder, then, that the New York Times is losing money, readers, respect, and credibility by the day?

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