10.04.09

The Right's Lesser Press

ACORN is just the latest example of how conservative media love to blast the New York Times for its shortcomings. So why can’t they live up to the Gray Lady’s standards?

ACORN is just the latest example of how conservative media love to blast The New York Times for its shortcomings. So why can’t they live up to the Gray Lady’s standards? 

Those attuned to America’s place on the world stage have an advantage understanding The New York Times: It is journalism’s sometimes-arrogant, oft-maligned global superpower, and though its influence has waned in recent years, along with its financial health, it remains the world’s foremost purveyor of serious news, analysis, and opinion.

It is therefore a net benefit to humanity.

As a hegemonic newspaper, the Gray Lady has accomplished journalistic goods unprecedented in history—a long-running global network of first-rate reporters, a record-setting 101 Pulitzer Prizes, and powerful advocacy for First Amendment causes, for starters. These feats don’t obviate the need for vigilant critics, especially given the newspaper’s history of significant screwups: false apologia published for Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, fictional dispatches filed by Jayson Blair, and insufficient due regularly paid to conservative insights are notable examples.

Andrew Breitbart’s criticism of the Times is somewhat odd—given that his media empire, and the outlets he associates with, are thoroughly ideological, publish few if any ideologically heterodox pieces, seldom if ever correct factual mistakes and ignore liberal insights entirely.

Its most recent journalistic sin concerns the ACORN story broken by activist reporters with hidden cameras. Thoughtful critics, including the Times’ own ombudsman, rightly castigated the newspaper for being slow to cover news that was obviously fit to print.

The recent criticism also includes a predictable cadre of folks so enraged by shortcomings at the Times that they are oblivious to its daily accomplishments, its importance as a check against government power, and core values that make it a journalistic entity worth saving. These critics care not for reforming the Times via constructive criticism; they aim to destroy it via hyperbolic sniping that ignores its every good quality.

Andrew Breitbart is the man in the middle of the current madness. Credit him for sponsoring Big Government, the site that broke the ACORN story and prompted the Times to begin monitoring breaking news on partisan sites. These are substantial accomplishments that improve the state of journalism. 

But Mr. Breitbart’s role hardly ends there.

As a proprietor of Big Government and Big Hollywood, part of the team that runs The Drudge Report, and a regular guest on Fox News, especially Sean Hannity’s show, he is a leader among folks who complain that the Times is a pernicious force in American life—that it ignores stories that cut against its ideological bent, too often makes mistakes in its reporting, and gives insufficient consideration to ideological insights other than those held by its staff. This is somewhat odd given that Mr. Breitbart’s media empire, and the outlets with which he most closely associates himself, are thoroughly ideological enterprises, publish few if any ideologically heterodox pieces, seldom if ever correct factual mistakes, and ignore liberal insights entirely.

These are outlets that scoff at claims that the Times attempts objective journalism, but that never question the “fair and balanced” claim made by Fox News, or acknowledge that they deliberately ignore certain stories. Its critics cite columns written by the Times’ “public editor” as evidence that the newspaper is unaccountable to the American people—yet they’d never dream of allowing semi-autonomous ombudsmen to operate on their own sites. Imagine Fox News, Big Government, or the Drudge Report hiring an honest guy like Jack Shafer to write a prominently displayed column calling them on their bullshit.

Every time these Times critics make what I regard as accurate criticism of the newspaper, or even an intellectually honest, plausible point, I am glad for their contribution, and I echo it when I agree. On occasion, however, I can’t help but marvel at their sanctimony, given the lower standards to which they hold themselves. It reminds one of the Atlas Shrugged villains, who exploit the best in others by appealing to their shame at falling short of perfect virtuousness—even though the antagonist making demands doesn’t himself abide by the code to which he appeals.

Compare Fox News' commentary spoken by Mr. Hannity or Washington Times columns written by Mr. Breitbart to The New York Times Magazine opinion columns once written by current New York Times head honcho Bill Keller. You’ll quickly discover how absurd it is for the former men to demand ideological open-mindedness or fairness to political adversaries from the latter man.

Another commentator might call for conservative ideologues to stop criticizing The New York Times. That isn’t the solution I’d prefer. Despite all the bluster, bombast, and hyperbole, Mr. Breitbart is capable of insightful media criticism, and his Big Government site can make a real contributions to American journalism, especially if it continues to underwrite original reporting, and somewhat improves the quality of its commentary. The right should instead regard the Gray Lady as an imperfect institution whose core journalistic values are nevertheless worth emulating, along with the practices of other worthy players in the liberal press.

Is it too much to ask for right-wing media outlets to employ an ombudsman, a talented pool of reporters, and ideologically heterodox columnists like the Times; to check facts as carefully as the New Yorker; to challenge its own orthodoxies as regularly as The New Republic; and to assemble an staff alumni list as impressive an influential as The Washington Monthly?

Once those tasks are done—tasks that numerous left-leaning publications have long managed to accomplish!—the conservative media will be more effective in spreading news, analysis, and opinion, while broadening its appeal beyond the hard core of partisans who already subscribe to every position its editors care to advocate. These improved right-of center publications would also find their scoops spreading a lot faster due to greater confidence that they are accurate—and a greater need to heed whatever appears on their pages for fear of missing exceptional stories. A mainstream media that ignored work done by such outlets would risk losing even apolitical readers.

Conservatives should finally recognize that despite its frequently center-left approach to journalism, The New York Times employs a lot of people for whom accuracy, fairness, and balance are ends in themselves; engaging the newspaper affords an opportunity to improve it, whereas helping to destroy the broadsheet would eliminate one of America’s most powerful institutional checks on government, and deprive the left of an ally only until more partisan outlets spring up to serve readers who once were happy relying on the Times for their information.

The Times, whatever its faults, is a better general-interest newspaper than anything conservatives ever created, which is reason enough to approach it with humility and learn from its strengths. This hardly precludes regularly pointing out its weaknesses.

Conor Friedersdorf writes for The American Scene and The Atlantic Online's ideas blog.