The Week: Conservatives Should 'Regret' New York Times' $$ Troubles?

Francis Wilkinson, executive editor of The Week news magazine, seems to think that The New York Times is a model of restraint with a centrist editorial policy and that conservatives should be afraid of the day when the Old Gray Lady publishes its last sheet. My guess: if your eyebrow could be raised any higher at this claim, it’d become a toupee.

In a somewhat contradictory piece headlined “Will GOP regret attacks on The Times?,” Wilkinson by turns says that The New York Times has on one hand allowed the Bush administration to program its content while on the other hand says that the paper exhibits “bedrock liberal assumptions that define the paper.” How it can be both is hard to understand, but Wilkinson seems to think it’s possible.

The central point of the piece, though, sets up a sort of straw man that is then knocked down by saying that The New York Times is a model of journalistic restraint that will be sorely missed by conservatives when the paper is buried to be replaced by Internet based “news” outlets like The Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo. Even so, this piece is not without merit.

There are many amazing assumptions and statements in this piece and it really must be read all the way through to be believed. At the outset, Wilkinson bemoans the meanie conservatives that have protested the Times’ left-wing bias. He regurgitates one of the most common arguments against left-wing bias in the media that left-wingers love to hide behind to “prove” that there couldn’t be any such bias.

In the Right’s blogosphere, the Times is a piñata to be broken anew each morning with a battery of textual analysis and criticism from the smart set, calumny and snark from the dimmer bulbs. Both groups cherish the fiction that the tens of thousands of words the paper publishes daily are subject to a Pravda-like review to be sure they advance liberal orthodoxy with every carefully scrubbed fact and undermine conservatism with every comma.

Since we here are a member in good standing of the “right blogosphere” I would like to shoot down this notion that we think there is some “Pravda-like review” of content by the Old Media to assure left-wing adherence. We do not believe any such thing occurs. Rather, what we believe is that the Old Media is so stocked with liberals that write what they feel that there is no need for any compliance checks. None of them would ever write from a conservative viewpoint in the first place so who needs any review when there isn’t anything to “correct” for left-wing bias? It would be like expecting sports fans to only talk about how they hate sports. It ain’t gonna happen.

Plus, like any close knit community, the Old Media is self-correcting. When one of their number steps out of line, the rest smack them around until they return to the fold. So, no, we don’t think that there is any board of review type conventions in the Old Media to assure that the party line is promulgated. They each, nearly every last employee, are true believers and are dutiful self-starters to advance that party line.

From the moaning about how shabbily we nasty conservatives treat the poor, poor Times, Wilkinson warms to his theme by asking the central question. “Would conservatives be better off without The New York Times?” To which he answers, “Not likely.”

Wilkinson, you see, thinks that the Times was obedient to George W. Bush and could never have been so subservient to Bill Clinton. After you pick your jaw up from the floor, here is his claim:

Even now, more than four months into the Obama era, the Times’ newsroom still declines to label the Bush administration’s policy of subjecting suspected terrorists to mental and physical abuse as “torture.” A similar hesitancy prevailed in the paper’s approach to Bush’s policy of warrantless surveillance of American citizens. Out of deference to the Bush White House, the Times sat on the story for more than a year–including the 2004 election–before publishing it. (Quick thought experiment: For how many minutes would the paper have refrained from publishing a similar story at the behest of the Clinton administration?)

Yeah. Whenever I think of the Times I think of “deference to the Bush administration.” I think Mr. Wilkinson is drunk.

But, whatever Wilkinson thinks of the Times’ “obeisance” to the Bush administration, his ultimate point is an interesting one.

If the Times eventually fades or, in its nightmare scenario, is acquired by conservative mogul Rupert Murdoch, do conservatives really think the journalistic functions and bedrock liberal assumptions that define the paper would disappear? Those functions and values are already dispersing across the blogosphere, which is busy erecting its own liberal establishment.

First of all, Wilkinson spends half his piece arguing that The New York Times is essentially as conservative as Rush Limbaugh, but then he uncorks the following line: “do conservatives really think the journalistic functions and bedrock liberal assumptions that define the paper would disappear?” How the paper can be as staid and conservative as Wilkinson tries to make it out in the first half of the piece only to make an admission that the paper has “bedrock liberal assumptions that define the paper” in the second half is a bit of a head spinner.

The claim that the Times is anything but an extremely liberal paper can be shot down by reminding everyone that Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Duranty worked there!

But, there is Wilkinson’s seminal contention for us to agree with of the obvious liberal bias of many Internet sites, a source of news that might replace the Times if that paper should become a thing of the past.

This new establishment, however, is not very Timesian. How much institutional restraint would The Huffington Post bring to a scoop that embarrasses a Republican president? How sympathetic is Talking Points Memo to the notion that procedures derived from Chinese and Korean torture are technically something other than torture? How many liberal websites are eager to publish and promote conservative columnists like David Brooks or Ross Douthat in a spirit of open debate?

Of course, it is absurd on its face to say that the Times exhibits much “journalistic restraint,” but Wilkinson is absolutely right to say that outlets like The Huffington Post have no restraint at all. Nor do HuffyPo or Talking Points have anything by way of standards, for that matter.

In his final analysis, Wilkinson says that conservatives will miss the Times because of its professionalism, something that the Internet sites he mentions thoroughly lacks and I can’t say he’s completely wrong at some level.

If conservatives were to look up from hammering nails in the Times’ coffin, they might notice that there is a growing web-based journalism infrastructure preparing to supplant their bête noir. It’s an infrastructure that is not only more liberal than the Times but also less inhibited by the paper’s habits of deference to power and concern for open debate and fair play. Having evolved in the era of Bush and Cheney, WMD and torture, much of the new establishment considers the contemporary GOP irredeemable. And unlike the Times, it refuses to treat conservative charges of liberal press bias as anything but a canard.

We can quibble with Wilkinson’s claim that the Times pays any “deference to power” but I find nothing to argue about with his contention that HuffyPo and Talking Points Memo are wild-eyed leftists without any professional standards at all. I also agree that if traditional news outlets like The New York Times go away to be replaced by the hack work of Huffington Post, we will all be worse off — conservatives and liberals both.

But what would Wilkinson want us to do? Stay quiet about the Times’ left-wing bias? Should we not scold the Times for its bias when it occurs just because there are other outlets that are more biased? That seems rather a ridiculous concept, sort of like not complaining about being mauled by a wolf because there is a bear standing behind him.

I for one have said right here in the past that I don’t want the traditional Old Media to necessarily go away. I’d rather they reform and truly take on the just-the-facts style of journalism that they claim to strive for. Or, lacking that outcome, I’d rather they all admit where they stand and proceed without the pretense of “fairness” that they refuse to uphold anyway.

So, in the end, I both agree and disagree with Wilkinson. I disagree with him that The New York Times is some sort of bastion of moderation and restraint, but agree with him that Huffington Post and other such Internet sites are far, far worse. Sadly, though, arguing that the tiny bit of restraint and the existence of some small standards by The New York Times means that paper is much better than the complete lack of both from Huffington Post is not a very convincing reason for conservatives to shut up about the bias in the Times.

Instead of us just shutting up, how about The New York Times reforms? After all, doesn’t it want to stay in print?