Commentary Magazine

The Degradation of the "New York Times"

At 6:30 one morning in 1965 in Little Rock, Arkansas, the doorbell rang, waking me. There on the porch stood an older man, who, after announcing he was from Western Union, handed me a telegram. In my combined drowsiness and incipient panic, I neglected to tip him. My imagination of disaster told me that a telegram at 6:30 a.m. could only mean bad news: university degree rescinded; report to IRS with past seven years’ receipts in hand; family wiped out in flood.

With nervous fingers, I pried open the telegram, which, if memory serves, read: “Can you give us 1,000 words on Alfred Kazin’s ‘Starting Out in the Thirties’? Book to follow. Review due four weeks from today.” No fee was mentioned. It was signed by an editor of the New York Times Book Review. Calmed down, I later wired back that I would be pleased to comply. And pleased I genuinely was, for I was twenty-eight, trying to make a reputation as a writer, and it was after all the New York Times we were talking about, the august New York Times. How times—and the Times—have changed!

I have always remembered that that telegram arrived at 6:30 a.m., for it is precisely at that hour that I have for some years gone to my door in a Chicago suburb to pick up the national edition of the daily Times, which comes in a blue plastic wrapper. By this hour I have already had my breakfast, and I now set aside my serious reading and begin working my way through the Times. At the outside, I tend to give it half an hour, and nothing like the full “attention of perusal” which, among his readers, Henry James claimed he took for granted.

Increasingly in recent years, I read the paper, to twist a phrase of Coleridge’s, in a state of almost entirely unwilling suspension of disbelief. Six mornings a week I read it with skepticism, deep suspicion, and mild anger among my reigning feelings. On the seventh morning, like the Lord, I rest and usually do not read the main news sections at all, though a friend supplies me with copies of the Book Review, the Magazine, and the “Arts & Leisure” section. Yet read it six days a week I continue to do, though more and more of late I have begun to ask myself why, and also whether life would not be better without it.

As a longtime reader, and occasional contributor, I—and not I alone—have also for a good while now been feeling the effects of yet another wave of radical changes in the Times. Once known as the paper of record, still the only newspaper in this country that has the status of a national daily—to a degree that neither the Wall Street Journal nor USA Today, for differing reasons, is quite able to manage—and hence the source and resource for much contemporary history, the New York Times, the good Gray Lady of American journalism, has of late in various ways been greatly tarted up, the better, it seems, to whore after the young, the rich, and the ignorant. One can practically hear, like the sound of mice behind the walls, the owners and editors of the New York Times madly scurrying about in the attempt to keep up with what they construe to be the spirit of the age.

After glimpsing the day’s front page, the first thing I turn to in the New York Times are the obituaries: the only news that stays news, which is, I believe, Ezra Pound’s definition of literature. Not that the obituaries are particularly well-written; for the most part, they are not so much written as compiled. But occasionally something amusing appears. Thus, in a recent obituary of the great Ray Arcel, trainer of so many of the boxers who unsuccessfully took on Joe Louis, the story was told that Louis once greeted Arcel at mid-ring before a fight by asking, “You heah again?” Sometimes patently political obits appear, as when, on January 17 of this year, the paper devoted much the greater part of its notice of Dr. Bernard Davis, of the Harvard Medical School, to the fact that he had opposed affirmative-action policies in admissions to medical schools. (The editors later apologized and ran a second obituary.) The grim procession of AIDS deaths marches past in these pages. Interesting to note, too, the amount of space the Times accords a public figure at his death, which one way or another often constitutes a political judgment on that person’s life.



After the obits, I turn back, rather glumly, to the front page and begin to work forward. I say glumly not merely because in the nature of things the news of the world figures to be unhappy, but also because the Times‘s coverage of that news seems to me less and less good than I remember it. And I remember it rather well, because in the early 1960’s I worked for a small political magazine quite without resources, which not only counted on the Times for comprehensive coverage, especially of foreign affairs, but whose editors assumed—usually correctly—evenhandedness and accuracy in most Times reporting. Today the Times seems to me neither comprehensive nor evenhanded nor especially accurate.

The Times supplied a consistency of coverage in those days, and from all over the world. Now it seems to provide coverage only where crises occur or scandals arise. Reading the paper once gave a sense of contemporary history as an ongoing business and not, as now, the sense of a jittery emergency-room operation. Foreign governments’ policies, cabinet posts, and national elections were covered from all over Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Indian subcontinent. (The recent movie The Paper mocks the old New York Times by having a character remark that it ran headlines like “Nepal Premier Won’t Resign.”) In those days, as an attentive reader of the Times, I could tell you the names of the heads of state of nearly every country in the world. Today, thanks to the Times‘s greatly delimited coverage, I cannot even tell you the names of all the countries, let alone of their leaders. (CD. Rom—Defense Minister of India, is he not?)

The New York Times is of course not alone in abandoning comprehensive coverage of hard international news. The Times of London, like that of New York, has pretty much given up the ghost on this front. Although I do not read them, I am told that the only newspapers that still attempt serious coverage are Le Monde in France, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in Switzerland, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine in Germany.

Nor did the famous Times coverage of foreign affairs prevent, in its day, some famously polluted coverage. One thinks of Walter Duranty, the Times correspondent in the Soviet Union in the 1920’s and 30’s, of whom Richard Pipes writes: “It has been said that no individual has done more to promote in the United States a favorable image of the Soviet Union at a time when it was suffering under the most savage tyranny known to man.” On a smaller scale, so biased was the reporting of Herbert Matthews on Fidel Castro’s “non-Marxist revolution” in Cuba that a joke had Castro saying, in imitation of an ad for the paper’s classified section, “I got my job through the New York Times.” Harrison Salisbury, one of the paper’s most revered foreign correspondents and long known as a man who had never met a revolution he did not like, made Hanoi sound as if it would be the ideal place to take the kids for a month in the country, if not for American bombs.

In recent decades, the news columns of the Times have become so filled with opinion that one has become all but inured to the phenomenon. This probably began with the coverage of Vietnam. Certainly, during the Reagan years it was rare to pick up a piece about the economy without finding mention of what I came to think of as that musical-comedy team of Savage Cuts and Chilling Effects: every Reagan budget cut was savage, the effect of every cut chilling. Not that one should ever read a newspaper story without a proper measure of skepticism, but in the New York Times of late the gentle whir of political axes being ground has come to serve as a kind of basso continuo to the paper’s reporting.

The main point, though, is that the news has never seemed so soft, not to say squishy, as it does now. True, when the Times does turn all its forces loose, it can be impressive on a major crisis like the Persian Gulf war—though television, with its up-to-the-minute coverage, easily beat out all print media during that particular event. Yet whole subjects, among them the labor unions, once the beat of A.H. Raskin, one of the Times‘s stalwart reporters, currently seem to go without serious coverage. Many news stories are not about news at all, but instead about people’s “perception”—always a dangerous word in the hands of a journalist—of the news: “So What Is This Whitewater? The People Speak (or Yawn)” ran a front-page story on March 12.

The supplanting of hard-news stories by feature stories (accompanied by a marked increase in the number of columnists being published) has gone very far. In the 1940’s and 50’s, Meyer Berger wrote a column, “About New York,” which was the Times‘s not very low bow in the direction of what used to be called human-interest stories. In the 60’s, Gay Talese wrote notable feature stories, but his position, too, seemed anomalous. Today, feature writing is one of the surest routes to success on the paper. When Maureen Dowd, one of the star writers on the current staff, was transferred from New York to the Washington bureau, she is supposed to have remarked: “I know one thing: I’m not going to be covering any of those dreary regulatory agencies.”



Large though its numbers are—in 1992, its daily circulation was 1.2 million, with 1.6 million sold on Sundays—the Times has in recent years felt its dominance much threatened: by Newsday in the Long Island suburbs and in New York and by the encroaching threat of an era dominated by television-watching and competing computer technology. The paper is evidently also much worried by the rise of the class now referred to as “aliterates,” a term used to describe younger people who can read but would rather watch TV, diddle with their computers, go to the movies, and do lots of other things that do not require them to bother with the New York Times.

This is not the first time since the newspaper was acquired by Adolph S. Ochs in 1896 (for $75,000) that the Times has felt itself under the lash of social change. Hitherto, however, under successive Ochs-Sulzberger family publishers, the paper has preferred not to rush but to be dragged into the future. Only after years of discussion did it finally, in 1970, inaugurate an op-ed page. Only in 1976, when the change in its readership from metropolitan to suburban became evident, did the Times launch special weekend editions for New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island, and Westchester; and it was in that same year, 1976, that the paper began its weekday “Living,” “Home,” and other special sections directed at suburban consumers and designed to stimulate further advertising, which they have succeeded in doing.

Such, under Arthur Hays Sulzberger (better known as Punch), the paper’s publisher from 1963 to 1992, were some of the gradual and more self-evident changes in the New York Times. Many of them have now been chronicled in Edwin Diamond’s Behind the Times,1 a book that brings up to date the story of the paper since it was last told in 1969 in Gay Talese’s The Kingdom and the Power.

Diamond is an energetic reporter who sets out to satisfy interest in the behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt of a powerful institution. His book is filled with statistics and useful quotations, some of which I have availed myself of here. But he is nonetheless an unattractive writer, chiefly because in this book he wants to have it both ways: to condemn the Times for making changes in what were once considered serious journalistic procedures and then to turn around and condemn the paper a second time for not going far enough. He seems not to have heard of “political correctness,” nor noticed its advent in the (increasingly indistinguishable) news and feature columns of the Times.

One of Diamond’s great villains—and he does tend to deal in starkly one-dimensional figures—is A.M. Rosenthal, executive editor of the Times from 1970 to 1986 (and now a regular columnist on the op-ed page). Rosenthal, for Diamond, is a conservative and an opportunist—a hustler, essentially, guilty of “effectively moving the Times to the Right,” not to mention a misogynist, and a homophobe, and other of the imprecations people such as Diamond use to vilify those whom they consider less virtuous than themselves.

A very different picture of A.M. Rosenthal—more favorable and doubtless more accurate—emerges from John Corry’s recent memoir, My Times: Adventures in the News Trade,2 a book that winningly describes Corry’s own years at the newspaper as well as the complications of his domestic life during this same period. At the Times, Corry worked first as a reporter on the metropolitan beat and then in the Washington bureau; finally, after departing for a stint of magazine journalism at Harper’s during the years of Willie Morris’s editorship, he returned to the Times as its television critic. From the latter perch, Corry wrote about the culture at large.

Among the stories he recounts covering for the Times, perhaps the most significant was the plot to discredit the Polish-American novelist Jerzy Kosinski by claiming he was a CIA agent who did not write his own books. Corry is open in his gratitude to Rosenthal and his deputy Arthur Gelb for backing him up when, as in this case, he produced writing that fell outside what had by then become the in-house party line at the Times—standard Left-liberal, with a dash of 60’s radicalism added.



My own, much more peripheral view of the Rosenthal era is somewhat different, if only because, unlike either Diamond or Corry, I tend to see the inner workings of the paper as opéra bouffe—an impression confirmed on the comically sad occasions during those years when I had dealings with various subeditors exhibiting all the signs of living in terror of their superiors. In any case, disappointing though the new New York Times is as compared with the paper under Rosenthal, it would in general be a mistake to assume some prelapsarian era in which every reporter was dedicated to truth, every critic deeply learned and serious, every columnist wise in thought and stylish in utterance.

When I began reading the Times, Arthur Krock, James Reston, and C.L. Sulzberger had political columns, and excruciatingly dull they were, too. The drama and music critics tended to be above the level of journeymen but still far from distinguished; and so, too, were the paper’s art and architecture critics, with the exception of the tenure in those respective jobs of Hilton Kramer and Ada Louis Huxtable in the 1960’s and 70’s.

A typical issue of the Times Magazine, as Tom Wolfe once wittily pointed out, seemed to feature on its cover a water buffalo grazing in a rice field, as the come-on for a lead article with a title like “Asia Tackles Poverty”—inevitably, as it seemed in those days, written by Lady Barbara Ward. The New York Times Book Review was no great shakes, either, its chief task seeming to be that of providing, through the medium of its reviews, blurbs for books with commercial possibilities; the editor, a man named Francis Brown, much preferred reviews that he called “up” (for upbeat). Dwight Macdonald, with some justice, referred to the Times‘s two regular daily reviewers, Orville Prescott and Charles Poore, as “the lead-dust twins.”

Wherein lies the chief difference today? Whatever its shortcomings, the old New York Times took itself seriously in a way that, in comparison with the new New York Times, now seems most salutary—even noble in aspiration. Where the new Times feels it quite natural to have a piece entitled “Behind the Scene With a Rock Impresario” dominate the front page of the Sunday “Arts & Leisure” section, in the old Times the same spot might have been given over to, say, a Renoir retrospective. Like all good middlebrow institutions, the old Times felt duty-bound to educate and elevate its readers. The new Times aims no higher than entertainment and catching its readers up on popular culture. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., the forty-two-year-old son of Punch Sulzberger and now the publisher of the Times, has gone on record as saying that people should read his newspaper “not only because it is the best newspaper in the world, but also for the fun of it.”



Which brings us to the role of the publisher. It used to be a matter of some controversy whether publishers or their editors truly ran newspapers. In the old left-wing view, it was always the publisher who called the shots: with the ownership of the means of production, as the Marxists had it, went the real power. H.L. Mencken thought otherwise. His notion was that it was from their own wretched newspapers that publishers got most of their foolish ideas to begin with. Today perhaps they get them quite as much from their universities.

At the New York Times, as publishers, the Ochses and Sulzbergers were circumspect yet nonetheless firmly in control. The circumspection may in part have come from their being Jewish and not wanting to be seen as pushy. (Not until the accession of A.M. Rosenthal in 1970 was there a Jew at the top of the Times‘s editorial masthead.) But this behind-the-scenes role began to change the further into his career Punch Sulzberger went. “I play a very active role in these things,” he said of key editorial stands taken by his paper. “They don’t go the other way if I don’t want them to.” His son appears determined to extend this activism, by taking a strong hand in hiring, newsroom management, and other day-to-day aspects of running the paper.

As his comment about “fun” suggests, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. is a man intent on saving his family’s newspaper by softening it up still further. As he puts his mind to the task, the Times is in danger of becoming one of those newspapers that Joseph Conrad, in The Secret Agent, refers to as “written by fools to be read by imbeciles.” For all that the old Times may have been stuffy and dull in its high pretensions, the new Times is thin and frivolous in its celebration of all that is new and young and with-it. It was after Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. took over from his father that the new gaudy “Styles” section was inaugurated, and it is under him, too, that there has occurred the notable increase in so-called “life-style” and other soft stories.

“It seems to me,” wrote the English poet Philip Larkin, “that the apparatus for the creation and maintenance of celebrity is vastly in excess of the material fit to be celebrated.” Nowhere does this seem truer than at the contemporary New York Times. The paper is dedicated to the creation of celebrity, not least among such tertiary figures in the arts as agents, movie producers, clothing designers, chefs, and journalists. Whether the subject is Tina Brown, the new editor of the New Yorker, or Bill T.Jones, an avant-garde choreographer and dancer (“HIV-positive son of migrant fieldworkers”), the coverage is not only entirely uncritical but generally gushing. Of Jones, a writer for the Times Magazine notes: “Onstage, Jones can be the embodiment of the expression ‘in your face’; dissonant, edgy, and watchful, with an anger so profound he could not allay it even if he wanted to, which he decidedly does not.” It is enough to make one miss the snooziferous Barbara Ward.

The standard present-day Times Magazine piece—the same thing shows up among the paper’s columnists—is personal, confessional, slightly weepy. The perfect article of this sort would be about one’s grief in the midst of one’s success, one’s doubts about almost everything but one’s own ineluctable goodness, with the added piquancy of friends who are suffering or recently dead from AIDS.

Such an article actually appeared in the Times Magazine written by Frank Rich, the paper’s former drama critic and now one of its regular op-ed page columnists. In this essay, “Exit the Critic,” Rich speaks of his mother’s taking him to the theater as “an unspoken consolation for the pain of her and my father’s divorce”; of “dating” the woman who was to be his wife; of turning forty and discovering the theater to be “a world I had once seen as sophisticated [but that] no longer struck me as adult”; of his overwhelming grief at his mother’s death in a car accident; of the death of Joseph Papp and of the latter’s son’s death (of AIDS). But in the end, not to worry, “death had been transfigured for me too, into something that looked very much like hope”—which is to say, Frank Rich had been given a column on the Times‘s op-ed page.



Under the younger Sulzberger, too, the politics of the paper’s editorials have similarly shifted. Whatever the politics of its reporters and feature writers, the politics of the old Times editorial page tended to be centrist liberal. In his book, Edwin Diamond, himself a man of the liberal Left, reminds his readers of the paper’s tortured 1988 election editorial, entitled “Two Good Men,” a 1,785-word ramble and shamble which, in its last sentence, finally came out for Michael Dukakis over George Bush. (Punch Sulzberger, who called this particular shot, was made nervous by Dan Quayle.) Earlier, in 1976, there was great intramural turmoil over the Democratic primary race for the U.S. Senate between Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bella Abzug, with the publisher overruling John B. Oakes, his cousin and then editor of the editorial page, who wanted to go for Abzug.

It was once the traditional but unspoken belief of American liberals that, in any grouping of political views, they occupied the Center—or certainly would in any reasonable world. For better or worse, the Times, in past days, sought that Center in its editorials; because it is not always so easily located, the paper could at least on occasion take unexpected positions. No longer.

One can now predict how the Times will come out editorially on nearly every issue, problem, or question of the day. The only amusement, or instruction, is in watching its editorial writers squirm in defending the indefensible, or rationalizing the irrational. An editorial of January 12, 1994—about the large number of street beggars in New York—provides an example. “Begging and Giving” is the title; it might have been more accurately titled, “Still, Yet, But, and However.” It ends thus:

Panhandlers, especially those in enclosed spaces like subways, and many of the squeegee-wielders on street intersections can indeed be threatening, even dangerous. The public has a right to its peace of mind. But people also have a right to show compassion. So yes, T[ransit] A[uthority] police, discourage the panhandlers. But New Yorkers have every right to exercise their charitable instincts. It is cold out there.

Huh? What’d he say? How’s that again?

As for its regular columnists, the Times‘s op-ed page is currently dominated by various shades of liberalism: Russell Baker’s soft liberalism; Anthony Lewis’s old-fashioned anti-American liberalism; the standard contemporary liberalism of Bob Herbert, who is opposed to handguns, cigarette smoke, and race prejudice; the ready-to-rage feminist liberalism of Anna Quindlen; and the sensitive-guy cultural liberalism of Frank Rich. As a conservative, William Safire has for some years been the bastard at this particular family reunion. More recently, he has been joined by A. M. Rosenthal, who, in the current climate, is considered conservative if only because he is not a party-liner on such subjects as Israel, the third world, and street crime. Yet even Rosenthal, who comes closest on the op-ed page to embodying the tough workaday journalistic spirit, has to bite the bullet on occasion, as when, instead of using the term sob-sisters, he writes, without apparent irony, “sob-persons.”

The daily op-ed page is filled out with two or three pieces by outside contributors. According to Edwin Diamond, something like a hundred such pieces come unsolicited into the Times every day (the paper also receives roughly 300 letters daily), and obviously no more than a small fraction of these is usable. Lots of people from the academy, from think tanks, from business and industry would do anything to get an op-ed piece in the Times, salivating at what they must think would be its immense influence.

The editors of the op-ed page do a fair amount of soliciting of material. My own name must appear on the Rolodex of one of these editors, who calls me every year or so for a piece. I once accommodated him by writing 750 words on the emptiness of the term “role model.” For this I received a $150 fee and a letter from a professor of African-American studies in Pennsylvania offering to punch me out for my views. Such is the influence enjoyed by this contributor to the Times op-ed page. I have also been asked to write for the Book Review and the Magazine, and from time to time I have done so, but always with the feeling that my articles were sought as those of a curmudgeon or a somehow acceptable right-winger, to give the operation the appearance of intellectual openness. I am not sure that even that appearance is any longer sought.



Of course, much of what happens at the Times, as in any large institution, happens less through conscious intention than through corporate cowardice, with added doses of inconsistency, internal incoherence, and incompetence. My dealings with the Book Review bear this out. I have had books of mine praised there, and books of mine blasted there (my considered opinion is, praised is better). In the days when I was asked to review fairly frequently, I noted that whenever I initiated a request, it was denied—more out of paranoia, I now realize, than of anything else. The assumption was that one must have had some secret motive in asking for a specific book. Like the Jewish-waiter joke whose punchline is, “You wanted the chicken soup, you should have ordered the borscht,” so at the Book Review, “You wanted the Capote, you should have ordered the Mailer.”

None of this contradicts the fact that the Book Review has come more and more to show the signs of a steady politicization—as John Ellis, in the magazine Heterodoxy, has recently been at some pains to document. But then the entire Times is politicized, if in a suitably up-to-date way. The politics of today’s Times finds its strongest expression less in the traditional arenas of party and foreign and domestic policy than in those of culture and sensibility. (Not that the Times does not savor traditional political scandal. Even though most there probably voted for Bill Clinton, the Times‘s editorial page and reporters have been ardent in their pursuit of him once his Whitewater troubles became evident. Journalists, after all, love nothing better than to kick a man when he is down.) But the true politics of the new New York Times are to be found at work on the issues of feminism, racism, homosexuality—usually funneled through the totem of “diversity,” which, reinforced by political correctness, I prefer to think of as totalitarian pluralism.

In this respect, the Times has come more and more to resemble the contemporary university: out to achieve diversity, if need be, down the barrel of a gun. Enforced diversity creeps in everywhere. Thus, in the advertising column for March 17, the Chevrolet Division of General Motors is criticized because in its newest commercial, “nearly all the people having a good time . . . are white”; thus, Maureen Dowd, in a piece on photographs and drawings on the walls of Washington restaurants and watering holes:

These heads are generally male, white, middle-aged (in spirit if not in years), and, at least judging from the fragments of torsos seen, decently suited. To be sure, the age of diversity has made its mark on the local delicatessen pictures; on these walls you can now find a black man or a white woman or even a black woman.

None of this is very surprising, for Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. is himself committed to totalitarian pluralism. In Edwin Diamond’s book, he is quoted as declaring: “We can no longer offer our readers a predominantly white, straight, male vision of events and say we’re doing our job.” The way Sulzberger has backed up his conviction is not only through the writing he publishes but also through hiring and promotion practices inside the paper.

In 1989, the Times appointed a senior editor for minority recruitment, and “minority hire” is now a standard phrase around the newsroom. Diamond reports that “a dozen women moved into previously male-dominated positions in the news department.” He also writes that “at the start of the 1992 presidential campaign, the Times named twelve people to high-profile assignments covering the candidates and politics. Six were women; three were African-Americans.”

The sorts of people hired under such a strong diversity regime are likely to view the world from the standpoint of their ethnic origin or sexual orientation—as opposed to that now moribund “straight, male vision of events.” And so, like the contemporary university, the pages of the Times increasingly wear the straitjacket of race, class, and gender.



No one in a position of power at the New York Times believes that there is any going back to the paper’s old way of doing business. Warren Hoge, an assistant managing editor and clearly among the coming new men, has no compunction about saying that “we have to grab young readers by the lapels because they are less interested in reading.” Hoge believes that the way to do this is with language and graphics that are potently up to the moment. The other, truer name for this procedure of jazzing up is “dumbing down.”

There is, then, probably no hope of the Times‘s turning away from the campaign for an artificial—because enforced—diversity. Whether the campaign will succeed in a business sense, by capturing that new audience of well-off, young non-readers for which the editors and publishers hanker—this, as an older generation of Times correspondents might have signed off their reports on one or another foreign revolution in progress, this “remains to be seen.” In the meantime, the cost in intellectual distinction, even in the appearance of distinction, has been staggering. Through the 20th century the New York Times, for all its shortcomings, has been this country’s greatest journalistic institution. The continuing degradation of that institution in the era of cultural decline we are now living through is far from pleasing to contemplate.


1 Villard, 437 pp., $24.00.

2 Grosset/Putnam, 240 pp., $24.95.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.

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