A Q&A; with Author William McGowan
Posted by: Clay Waters
7/13/2006 2:53:17 PM
A Q&A with William McGowan, author of Coloring the News and the upcoming Gray Lady Down -- How the Times Broke Faith with America, coming in 2007 from Encounter Books.
Q: Your last book, Coloring the News, included criticisms of how the quest for diversity was corrupting Times reporting. it became rather timely after the Jayson Blair controversy. Have you seen any improvements?
A: As far as diversity, I do get into the Times coverage of race, immigration, and gay rights. There's been some improvement on this front since Coloring The News, but the paper still seems to be bending to an orthodoxy on diversity. In addition to the diversity thing, the new book (Gray Lady Down) focuses on what could be called the post-Abe Rosenthal era, looking particularly hard at the downshifts at the Times over the last couple of years under the leadership of publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. -- big-ticket downshifts like Jayson Blair, the paper's flawed WMD reporting, the Judy Miller federal grand jury subpoena and jailing, the National Security Agencys terrorist monitoring programs, the SWIFT story -- describing both the journalistic problems and the policies and personnel decisions behind them. Gray Lady Down is a hybrid of original reporting, critical assessment and analysis, as well as some secondary historical sources, including a number of memoirs, as well as Jones and Tifft's The Trust, Gay Talese's The Kingdom and the Power and Edwin Diamond's Behind the Times.
Q: Do you think youll get a review this time (the Times didnt review Coloring the News).
A: I think the Times efforts to create a little more transparency might suggest theyre more open to it than they were last time, when Charles McGrath, the book review editor, was quoted on the record by the San Francisco Chronicle questioning whether it was appropriate for the Times to review a book so critical of the paper.
Q: Meanwhile, the Times had no trouble reviewing Eric Alterman, who criticized the Times from the left.
A: I get into that in a chapter analyzing the double standards of coverage of conservatives and liberals in the Times. For a long time, there was a pattern where conservative books were reviewed pejoratively, or not reviewed at all, even if they topped the best seller list or created considerable buzz in the profession. In many cases, the Times misconstrued books like Coloring the News and Bernard Goldberg's Bias as conservative books when in fact they were books that simply challenged liberal orthodoxy in the newsroom. The double standard against so-called conservative books has been corrected somewhat at least at the Times Book Review under Sam Tanenhaus. Yet there is still considerable bias against a conservative point of view in the rest of the paper, especially among the cultural critics who seem to be given license to inject their own politics into the movie and media and art criticism they produce.
Q: Give us a taste of "Gray Lady Down."
A: It opens with the death of Abe Rosenthal, the former executive editor from 1969 to 1986, and the tributes and obituaries evoked by that event. I then ask questions about the health, vitality, and journalistic integrity of the Times in the post-Rosenthal era -- has the paper drifted to the left? Is it still the paper that plays it straight, as Abe Rosenthal was celebrated for doing, or has the paper become a vehicle for liberal politics and countercultural change? If you look at the tributes to Abe, and then listen to the themes and rhetoric contained in a speech publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. made in a commencement address at the New York State University at New Paltz just a week after Abe was buried, one hears the echo of profound generational change.
One chapter of the book is about the so-called golden age of the Times. In 1972, National Review had an article on government and media friction, at the time when Richard Nixon and Vice President Agnew were going after the establishment press. This was the time of the Pentagon Papers, Vietnam, and everyone was asking if the Times had gone left. Bill Buckley at National Review looked at coverage of five hot-button issues to see how the Times handled those issues, and what he took away was that things were not so bad on 43rd street. National Review concluded at the time that the Times was not so liberal in its reporting, despite conservative sturm und drang, and that in fact, if more news organizations showed that same kind of journalistic balance and acumen, wed be better as a country. I cant imagine National Review doing the same thing today.
Q: You mentioned Sulzbergers May 21 left-wing speech to graduates, which touched on Vietnam and such fundamental human rights as gay marriage and abortion.
A: It hit every P.C. hash-mark on the P.C. compass -- Sulzbergers Vietnam generational vanity, his liberal guilt, his historical shallowness, his complete journalistic solicitude and support for the left-wing agenda when he talks about fundamental rights for immigrants (by which he really meant illegal immigrants), gays, and womens right to choose. The very language he used made it very clear that, if Abe Rosenthals motto was keeping the Times coverage straight -- i.e. agnostic, Arthur Jr. has a far different ideal, one far more inclined toward activism and advocacy. Hearing the speech was like stepping through a mirror into another journalistic dimension, where the journalistic values and priorities of the so-called Golden Age of the Times have been turned upside down and inside out."
Thats not to say that what he outlined is the new party line. But I do think he is, in the same way Abe was, the dominant personality of his generation, Arthur Jr. is of his generation. Granted, Sulzberger is publisher, not executive editor, so he does not have the same day-to-day influence that Rosenthal. But in terms of setting the institutional compass and priorities, Arthur is that person, and thats why this speech is revelatory and some might consider disturbing.
Q: Do you see a loss of influence by the Times?
A: Like any news organization, the Times is coping with the general fragmentation of the media, its primacy undermined by the multiplicity of alternative sources of news -- cable, the Internet, blogs. That being said, the constant screw-ups, the journalist train-wrecks in terms of accuracy and fairness, the chronic P.C. undertone in news coverage -- and let's not even get into how many times of late it's been hoaxed outright -- have definitely subtracted from its credibility. How could it not?
Q: Mickey Kaus refers to the Times as the liberal cocoon. What impact does this "liberal cocoon" problem have on politics and our political culture?
A: The problem with the Times being a liberal cocoon is that its own institutional insularity seems to be mirrored in that of that other liberal cocoon -- i.e the Democratic party. Of course, there is some reportage and analysis that challenges Democratic core thinking. [Contributing writer] Matt Bai's magazine pieces come to mind. But the flow of daily coverage -- the framing assumptions are those that are shared by Democrats. It's funny in some ways that conservatives complain about the paper because they think the Times doesnt let their issues gain traction. But on some of the big political reforms of the last 5-10 years -- reforms that have a decided conservative cast like welfare reform, bilingual education reform, and rollbacks of affirmative action -- the Times has been on the liberal-Democratic side of those issues, and, at least in these cases, the losing side. In some ways, I think it's quite accurate to say that the paper's liberal journalistic bias has become an ingredient in a conservative backlash.
All this is not to say that the Times doesn't still produce great journalism. But along with the good straight stuff is lots of politically or ideologically infected or inflected journalism that detracts from its reliability, trustworthiness, and gravitas. The Times was once the voice of the era. Now its just a voice, read as much for news as it is for indications of what liberals think of the news."
In this, I think The Times has betrayed its historical journalistic mission and in some ways its estrangement from mainstream values and perspectives has betrayed America as well, although charges that it has committed treason such as Ann Coulter's are overwrought and inaccurate. Yet for the majority of Americans who are more moderate and traditional in their beliefs, the Times has become something of a counterculture publication. Again, that doesnt mean the paper is incapable of producing great journalism, but the great stuff is marbled in among stuff thats pretty dubious and represents a significant fall from journalistic grace.
Q: "Two weeks ago the Times exposed a terrorist surveillance program involving international banking transactions -- a program which the paper itself notes has had some successes and whose legality wasn't being seriously questioned. The paper is a repeat offender, if you will, on the matter of revealing classified information about anti-terror programs -- these same reporters uncovered the NSA surveillance program last December. Why do you think the Times revealed the SWIFT details?"
A: I don't agree with some critics of the Times that the paper's SWIFT story reflects a lack of patriotism, or treasonous impulses, although it edges closer than I would like to admit. If Bill Keller has been honest in post-publication interviews, what drove the Times seems to have been a felt need to examine a larger pattern to expand executive powers without appropriate congressional oversight. Nothing wrong with this impulse. The problem, journalistically, is that the Times chose the wrong horse to ride through that territory -- and at the wrong time. The SWIFT program was legal, had more than adequate internal privacy safeguards and enough congressional oversight to satisfy ranking members of both parties, including Democrat John Murtha. Most important, the program was effective, resulting in arrests against some serious international terrorists and those who would aid them.
I'm a bit reluctant to speculate on motives or background factors, but deep down, the decision to go with this story shows phenomenal institutional arrogance and presumption, in that the Times second-guessed almost every official it consulted, across the bi-partisan board, and declared, without citing any evidence behind its own decision, that the terrorists already knew about the program and that revealing its classified details -- which did indeed include intelligence sources and methods -- wouldn't undercut the effort to obstruct terrorist financial dealings or generate a political backlash, which could very well scuttle or neuter the program. In maintaining that the public can't take the government's word at face value the Times is basically asking us, the public, to take its word at face value. And in light of the Times own long record of egregious lapses in editorial judgment in recent years -- the Blair scandal, the Miller fiasco and many other screw-ups I mentioned above and will cite in Gray Lady Down -- this is hard to do. Whatever earnest-sounding genuflections to the vision of the founders that Keller made on television over the Fourth of July weekend, and continues to make, I think there was an element of gratuitousness here that renders all the high-minded rhetoric a bit tinny and self-serving. There's also a lot of scholarship out there -- legal and historical -- that suggests Keller is wrong both on the history of what the founders envisioned and the constitutional law which grew out of that.
I can't help but feel that the Times ran the SWIFT story simply because they could, flexing their institutional muscles in a very irresponsible way, as the crush of negative public reaction clearly reflects. And by negative public reaction, I don't mean the White House or professional right-wing yahoos. I mean ordinary citizens and its own readers, a vast majority of whom wrote emails and letters to the paper that were highly critical of the SWIFT story, a large fraction venomous, according to ombudsman Byron Calame, who reported that 85% of the 1000 emails he received in the week following publication were negative.
The level of historical myopia and amnesia here, as well as the institutional insularity, is disturbing, and, I think reflects yet again, that the Times has lost touch with the values and perspectives of much of the rest of the country -- and the imperatives of the country's current struggle against enemies, who are indeed real and rabid. The SWIFT story tells me that the Times is part of the camp which thinks the tactics used to fight terror are at least as large a threat as terrorism itself. I'd suggest Times editors go back and try to recapture the fear and shock that dominated the immediate period after 9-11. While almost five years have passed since that attack, the broad threat behind that particular attack has not, as reports last weekend of the suicide bomber plot to blow up transit tunnels between New York City and New Jersey should remind us. If the same post-September 11 vigilance was adequately represented in the newsroom, emotionally and psychologically, when the SWIFT story was being discussed, I don't think the Times would have run it.
And what if there's another major attack? And after we connect the dots we discover that disclosures like the Times' NSA and SWIFT stories played a role in making us vulnerable to that attack? Will the Times publicly acknowledge its measure of responsibility? Will Keller and Sulzberger resign? Don't hold your breath.