Commentary Magazine

The “New York Times”

To the Editor:

I appreciate the attention that Joseph Epstein gave my book, Behind the Times: Inside the New New York Times, in his provocative article, “The Degradation of the New York Times” [May]. I also thank him for describing me as an “energetic reporter” and availing himself in his piece of so much of the material from my book. However, I must quarrel with his major misreadings of the book. To take one of his most serious misrepresentations, he writes that the Times’s former executive editor A.M. Rosenthal is “one of Diamond’s great villains.” Mr. Epstein then suggests that I consider Rosenthal “guilty of effectively moving the Times to the Right.” Further, Mr. Epstein accuses me of calling Rosenthal a “misogynist and homophobe.” Wrong, wrong, wrong.

First, Rosenthal is, in fact, a larger-than-life figure who dominates my book by the force of his personality and intelligence. While he appears throughout the book—my narrative encompasses the 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s, the period of his greatest activity at the Times—I devote an entire chapter to his accomplishments. It is called “Last of the Red Hot Mamas”—Rosenthal’s own description of himself to me in our interviews (how can a Sophie Tucker figure be a villain?). Second, I show how the publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, and the business side of the paper moved the Times to the Right. Rosenthal, the fearsome editor, I concluded, served as another of the hired hands of the Sulzberger family. (Nowhere, not so incidentally, do I criticize this rightward shift; I report it.) Finally, Mr. Epstein’s homophobia reference is particularly egregious. I devote close attention to the Times‘s treatment of the AIDS epidemic and examine some gay activists’ allegations that the Times news department lagged in its early coverage. I specifically report that some subeditors in the newsroom interpreted Rosenthal’s attitude as homophobic. But then I specifically document how Rosenthal’s Times—and Max Frankel’s—did devote great attention to the AIDS story. And I analyze how demographic considerations shaped coverage along with news values. It is an analysis that goes against the conventional wisdom of the subject.

To conclude on a personal note: Mr. Epstein presumes to know my politics, considering me, on his pop-eyed reading of my book, a hopeless liberal. But I saw my role as a nonideological one, that of describing what has been happening at the Times over the past 25 years. When, in the final pages of my book, I permit myself what Mr. Epstein would consider political judgments, they are not putatively “liberal” ones. Thus, I describe the Times‘s current publisher as promoting a kind of “skin-deep diversity in the newsroom”—and I call that a limp banner for rallying the cause of serious journalism. Maybe that is why long-time Village Voice columnist Geoffrey Stokes, in his review of Behind the Times, wrote that my “conservative biases” were showing.

With critics like Stokes and Epstein, I’ll take energetic reporting any day.

Edwin Diamond
Washington, D.C.



To the Editor:

Edwin Diamond has sent me a copy of his letter to COMMENTARY about Joseph Epstein’s comments on his book about the New York Times. Since Mr. Diamond’s letter is largely about me, I thought it would be useful if I replied in COMMENTARY on my own behalf.

I have not read Mr. Diamond’s book. I did take it from the shelf in a bookstore, intending to buy it. I looked myself up in the index and read a few of the references to me. Each one was either inaccurate, mean-spirited, or stale, untrue gossip. The same tired stuff, to me devoid of sophistication or knowledgeability about journalism, which I understand he now teaches.

I thought, who needs this nonsense?—and I put the book back. I have not heard it discussed since.

So I cannot comment directly on the book itself. But Mr. Diamond’s letter to COMMENTARY shows me how wise and sensibly thrifty of my money and time I was.

In his letter, Mr. Diamond says that the publisher of the paper, then Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, now the chairman of the New York Times Company, and Walter Mattson, the business manager of the paper, moved the paper to the Right and that I served as a hired hand in the process.

The comment shows a painful lack of knowledge about the paper. In the 25 years I was an editor, the business side of the paper never, but never, tried to steer me or the news columns of the paper in any political direction, Left, Right, up, or down. Walter Matt-son, head of the business department when I was managing or executive editor, took as much pride in the paper as I or Mr. Sulzberger and was as determined as either of us to make sure that no political pressure, from within or without, was placed on the reporters and editors. I understand that is difficult for Mr. Diamond to grasp, but he might try.

Secondly, neither Mr. Sulzberger nor I moved the paper to the Right. What we tried to do, and successfully, was to prevent the news columns from being used politically, consciously or unconsciously, by editorialization in the news columns, unfair attack, anonymous pejorative criticism, and other violations of what we considered decent journalism and the standards of the Times. In other words, we kept the paper straight.

Again, I understand Mr. Diamond may find this hard to grasp. I believe that is because Mr. Diamond, like so many other interviewers, suffers from an interesting problem. He erects a mirror between himself and the subject so when he looks at the subject he really is looking at himself. He knows that if he were the publisher or editor of the Times, he damned well would try to impose his own opinions and political biases on the news columns. He assumes therefore that I or Mr. Sulzberger would do so too. It does not occur to him that the subject of the interview might be considerably stronger, more ethical, or a better and more honest journalist than he.

These interviewers who see themselves in the mirror tell a great deal about themselves, but not much about the people foolish enough to have given them time. Mr. Diamond does not understand much about Mr. Sulzberger, Mr. Mattson, or about me, but of course I accept the fact that he knows himself well.

A.M. Rosenthal
New York City



To the Editor:

What Joseph Epstein seems to mean when he refers to the “degradation” of the New York Times is that it is not as far Right politically as he is. Many of us feel that the Times is better than ever. . . . In my opinion, the Times‘s treatment of foreign affairs is excellent. As I often say, the Times is not just the best paper in the country, it’s the only one.

[Rabbi] Samuel M. Silver
Temple Sinai
Delray Beach, Florida



To the Editor:

Joseph Epstein must be growing weary of the burden of carting around his procrustean bed of bias in laying out first the New York Review of Books [“Thirty Years of the New York Review,” December 1993] and now the New York Times itself. Mr. Epstein has emerged as our articulate vigilante in sniffing out traces of liberal and/or leftist thinking as he defines it. He spares no one in his broad sweep of Times writers, then and now. He lampoons the article on begging on New York streets because it did not take a position. I read the same piece and was impressed by the writer’s intimation of the complexity of the issue itself. Mr. Epstein wants the Times to come down hard in concluding what Mr. Epstein concludes.

The fact is that, despite his protests, Mr. Epstein simply wants the Times to write as he thinks. He did not like it when Arthur Krock, James Reston, and C.L. Sulzberger wrote in the past any more than he likes Anna Quindlen or Anthony Lewis today. Nonetheless, . . . Times writers continue to win front-ranking recognition among newspaper people the country over.

Charles Ansell
Sherman Oaks, California



To the Editor:

In his critique of the current management of the New York Times, Joseph Epstein refers to the ease with which it is possible to predict any Times editorial position. I assume that this is meant as a point of criticism, since Mr. Epstein goes on to note the enjoyment he derives from watching the Times editorial writers “squirm” in rationalizing the irrational. On the other hand, as Mr. Epstein himself chooses to publish in COMMENTARY, whose editorial predictability is granite compared with the New York Times‘s clay, the state of his actual feelings vis-à-vis editorial predictability is somewhat mysterious to me.

Michael Halpern
Glenside, Pennsylvania



To the Editor:

Joseph Epstein’s article is sad and true. But in his polite manner he has failed to point out how the paper has injected a very real element of danger into the country’s intellectual climate.

In the midst of intense fear and public confusion about crime and its causes, the Times fails to see how it is demonizing a very large group of (primarily white, middle-class) people as causing and contributing to crime rather than having opposing political or intellectual views from those held by the Times staff. . . . As recently as May 3, the Times continued to create the justification for a reprehensible intellectual climate of scapegoating, when, in an editorial, it accused almost four million people, members of the National Rifle Association, of participating in “well-organized fanaticism.” And that was very polite language and wording relative to its normal vitriol on this topic. . . .

Mark S. Levey
Chicago, Illinois



To the Editor:

Joseph Epstein notes the stuffy style of the old New York Times. It still is boring, especially when, striving not to be, it starts news columns as if they were novels—“Joe Blow sawed planks for his Xanthian village. . . .” It ignores the basic news-story format, which runs from the general to the particular, so busy readers can grasp the story’s framework and its major points quickly. Although wordy, the articles often omit explanation, leaving readers perplexed and fatigued. . . .

A font of misinformation, the Times advocates its traditionally anti-Zionist view with a preponderance of articles favoring the Arabs. . . . Despite frequent denunciations of extremism, it disproportionately quotes appeasement-minded Jewish extremists as if they were the authority on Israel, and it allows vicious Arab slander against Israel to go unchallenged. Photos, headlines, terminology, and maps are distorted. Just before the Six-Day War, Jordan occupied Judea and Samaria, but Times maps showed the area as part of Jordan. Just after the war, when those territories reverted to Israeli control, . . . Times maps showed the area as “occupied” by Israel, a misconception now quite popular. . . .

Richard H. Shulman
New York City



To the Editor:

Thank you for Joseph Epstein’s excellent discussion of the New York Times. He has confirmed my lingering suspicion that the newspaper I used to revere has lately become (I choose my words carefully) full of crap. The Times is clearly written these days for a few hundred people between the ages of twenty-one and forty, who reside on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, summer on Fire Island, and spend most of their waking hours shopping for beads, torn jeans, organic vegetables, and “relationships.”

Those of us who still appreciate the profession of journalism . . . and serious journalists have long ago fled to the glorious and uplifting oases of the Wall Street Journal and COMMENTARY!

Jeffrey Roberts
Jericho, New York



To the Editor:

Joseph Epstein’s “The Degradation of the New York Times” is right on target. Having read the Times since its two-cent days, I have seen the disintegration of what used to be called an institution. But, like Mr. Epstein, I continue the habit, albeit now down to three times a week.

Why the editors of the Times, with its reputation for quality, scurry about “in an attempt to keep up with what they construe to be the spirit of the age” is disconcertingly puzzling. . . . Certainly Mr. Epstein is correct in claiming that the Times is trying ever so hard to be “with-it.” . . . Take the Sunday magazine section. If by chance an interesting topic is broached, the so-called hip style turns curiosity into boredom in its condescension to the non-literate public. Even film reviews no longer educate taste, but cater to the fashion of television soap opera. Unlike Mr. Epstein, I used to enjoy some of the weekly special sections. Today, however, with the distracting graphs and data charts, . . . contemplation of serious issues is no longer needed. But one thing that has remained consistent is the Times‘s anti-Zionist, anti-Israel policy. . . .

The radicalization of the New York Times on all levels—quality, opinion, taste, even format (I think of the classic layout of page one and of a time when only a declaration of war or peace brought forth across-the-page headlines . . .)—calls for a new newspaper for New Yorkers. Perhaps Mr. Epstein and Hilton Kramer, who has written some scathing articles criticizing the Times in the New York Post, will take up this torch so that I may once again read a newspaper daily.

Daniel Spicehandler
New York City



To the Editor:

In “The Degradation of the New York Times,” Joseph Epstein does not claim to have made a full diagnosis of that influential institution. But his article suggests that the effects of the paper’s decline are relatively localized and innocuous. The Times‘s pathologies—its lock-step compliance (bordering on parody) with the program and practices of political correctness; its timid embrace of multiculturalism as long as the culture is not conventional Western; its paternalistic and politicized news coverage; and its unending, uncritical, and unoriented life-style fluff—are more pervasive and consequential than Mr. Epstein suggests.

As the nation’s de-facto paper of record, the Times is the most important single source of nontechnical information on the events of the day. While it is nice to have numerous sources of fragmentary or specialized news and commentary, people benefit from having all issues addressed in one voice and in one place. A paper of record does that. Moreover, a paper of record serves as an accessible and continuous reference point (or standard) for fixing the scope and tenor of public debate over the issues of our time. . . .

While there exists no formal device for investing the Times, or any other paper, with the powers and responsibilities of an official paper of record, for whatever reasons it just so happened that the Times came to fill this role in the United States and it did so while delighting in the accompanying influence and moral weight. Perhaps one of the reasons many people find the paper’s current shrill tone so grating is that, apart from an ingrained abhorrence of moral self-righteousness, one feels that a position of trust and power (albeit informal) has been abused. It is analogous to the otherwise disproportionate interest in some of the Clintons’ prior activities: if someone sets himself up as a moral arbiter (or a patron saint of a politics of meaning) or presumes to revamp broad walks of life with which he has no direct knowledge other than something he read in a book or heard at careerist networking symposia, he had better be able to meet high standards indeed.

Mr. Epstein could have spoken more broadly:

  • It is not merely, as he writes, that “the true politics of the new New York Times are to be found at work on the issues of feminism, racism, homosexuality.” This suggests that in the Times these issues have no radical priority over all others of concern to humankind. Obviously, the paper continues to run measured and neutral articles on some issues (Bosnia and business coverage, perhaps). But in fastidious accord with PC practice in the university, the paper is obsessed with these issues, which govern its coverage of all others (when they do not displace them altogether). The litmus test for government competence and administration is diversity in staffing; the litmus test for political compassion and responsiveness is AIDS mobilization; that for sound military policy (as for organized religion) is “gender” sensitivity; and so on. Symptomatic of issue displacement is that items on the Navy’s Tail-hook convention, gays in the military, and coeducation at The Citadel substantially outnumber those on all issues regarding worldwide arms proliferation, Latin America, and South Asia combined. . . .
  • When, as Mr. Epstein notes, the editorial positions of the Times are predictable in their entirety, they are obviously not the work of serious or discriminating mentalities. Politics and social life are complex. The predictability of Times editorials demonstrates more adolescent certitude than any practical insight. . . . Normally one thinks of editorials as places for adducing facts, identifying distinctions, developing an analysis, i.e., for making an argument. If courts should be finding broad abortion rights, what are the pertinent facts regarding fetal development or constitutional law? You will not learn these or other things in Times editorials, which merely cheer when the Times likes something and whine when it does not. . . .
  • The Times is immune to the basic notion that, in our system of government, judges apply and interpret the law, but that the people’s elected representatives make the laws and set policy. The Times rarely inquires whether judges make correct legal decisions. It wonders only whether there has been a happy outcome. Thus, it will express endless adulation on the resignation of this or that judge, . . . with scarcely a sentence regarding whether the judge’s decisions were generally accurate legally. This aversion to the rough and tumble of democratic debate and majority rule . . . resonates in the Times‘s policies on printing letters to the editor. One almost never sees there an animated incisive attack on the policies of the Times itself (even though the paper must receive boxes of them every day).

Perhaps at the end of the day the decline of the Times is felicitous for our social and political culture. It diminishes the authority and influence which the Times wielded as a de-facto paper of record. But whether we have a malfunctioning paper of record or have lost one altogether, the circumstance is regrettable.

Thomas A. Connolly
New York City



Joseph Epstein writes:

Edwin Diamond is apparently one of those cheerful writers who go happily about their work, letting the details pile up, without having a very strong sense of the cumulative picture such details leave when taken together. So allow me to assure Mr. Diamond that his picture of A. M. Rosenthal is a mocking and cruel one, making the case that Rosenthal, during his tenure as editor of the New York Times, was a bully, a social climber, a stultifier of progress, and a man who above all looked out for Number One, which is to say, for himself.

Mr. Diamond takes pleasure in the fact that the politics of his book were found wanting in both the Village Voice and COMMENTARY, and chooses to see this as evidence of the undoctrinaire quality and hence fundamental soundness of those politics. I think he might do better to consider that the general political line in his book comes off as unconvincing from various, even strikingly dissimilar, points of view.

I wonder if I cannot kill three different birds with one distinction by reminding Rabbi Samuel M. Silver, Charles Ansell, and Michael Halpern that I am not for a moment asking that the New York Times share my politics; all I am asking is that the paper live up to its pretensions as a national newspaper by being as objective, as fair-minded, and (in its reporting) as unbiased as the best journalism has always claimed to be.

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