Commentary Magazine


The Tone and Thought Police at the New York Times

Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, is charged with investigating “matters of journalistic integrity.” Her recent takedown of Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Kinsley reveals a disturbing view of what that means.

At issue is Kinsley’s review of Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide, in which Greenwald recounts his role in the Edward Snowden case. Greenwald is the activist blogger to whom Snowden leaked classified documents that shed light on the NSA’s controversial electronic surveillance programs.

Kinsley, truth to tell, is unkind to Snowden, and that is where the trouble begins. Sullivan thinks Kinsley’s “sneering tone” is “unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards.” Kinsley says, among other things, that Greenwald, whatever he may really be like, comes across as a “self-righteous sourpuss” in the book. Never mind that the New York Times would not have an op-ed section if sneering were ruled out of bounds. Although Kinsley gives us Greenwald’s own words to back up his assertion, it is too much for Sullivan, who apparently thinks that Kinsley should have found a way to indicate that Greenwald’s authorial voice is that of a self-aggrandizing blowhard without being insulting.

Sullivan also sympathizes with Greenwald’s boosters, who have complained that Kinsley never should have been chosen to write the review. To prove the point, she links to the very same piece Glenn Greenwald does in his own published complaint about the review. Kinsley devotes a small portion of that eight-year-old piece to questioning the opinion that journalists have an absolute privilege to refuse to disclose their sources. Kinsley also devotes a few sentences to the question of whether the Constitution offers absolute protection to journalists who disclose classified information. He does not answer the question, but Sullivan, a ventriloquist for Greenwald in this matter, evidently thinks that the Book Review editor, Pamela Paul, erred when she picked someone who had ever expressed any doubt about a person’s right to do what Greenwald did without facing any consequences.

On the other hand, it’s no problem for Sullivan to take Greenwald’s side, even though she is a recipient of Greenwald’s prior, recent, and lavish praise. Greenwald has called her an “invaluable voice on all of the key issues of media criticism,” praised her willingness to “write about issues that scare away even the bravest journalists,” and credited her with “revolutioniz[ing] the public editor position in the best possible way.” Of course, Sullivan should be allowed to write about people who think she is American elite journalism’s answer to Joan of Arc, but she is surely more at fault for choosing herself to write about Greenwald than Pamela Paul is for choosing Kinsley to do the same.

Echoing Greenwald again, Sullivan proposes that the main reason Kinsley’s review was inadmissible is that Kinsley does not hold the same view as she assumes the Times must about the proper balance between national security and freedom of the press. How can the Times, famous for publishing the Pentagon Papers, print a review that argues, as Kinsley does, that “the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences”? Sullivan thinks that Kinsley’s view is inadmissible because of, well, an assortment of platitudes: there is a “special role for the press in America’s democracy”; the “Founders intended the press to be a crucial check on the power of the federal government.” Of course, these admittedly important claims do not settle the question of how best to handle the disclosure of classified information, and Kinsley doesn’t deny either of them. Nonetheless editors “should not have allowed such a denial to stand.”

To be sure, Sullivan does not insist that Pamela Paul should have rejected the review. She thinks, instead, that “editing ought to point out gaping holes in an argument.” But what if Kinsley refused to acknowledge that his disagreement with Greenwald and Sullivan meant that his reasoning was deficient? Sullivan’s argument certainly implies that, insofar as the review would then remain “unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards,” Paul would be obliged to turn it down. Yet, since Sullivan envisions no circumstance in which Kinsley’s view could be defended in America, there is no version of it that would not, for her, be full of gaping holes.

Here, then, are the standards the public editor of the New York Times applies in investigating “matters of journalistic integrity” in the book review section. 1. Readers must not be told that a favored author’s voice is grating, no matter how grating it is; 2. No one who has ever expressed doubt about a beloved author’s views can review that author’s books; 3. Reviewers who express views that, however plausible, are considered out of bounds by Times staff should be compelled to recant if they wish to get published.

The paper is in the best of hands.

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