Friday, April 25, 2008

If It Was Fair and Balanced, It Wouldn't Be Essential

Ask the average person to describe the New York Times with one word, and most people will say, “Liberal.” Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. That’s not the word I would use, however. For me, the New York Times is “essential.”

There’s a legend in the folklore of politics about Karl Rove in his early days in Texas. He wanted a direct mail list of Conservative Republicans in the state, and because such a thing did not exist at the time, Rove bought himself a list of the subscribers to Field and Stream Magazine. He knew that such a list would be overwhelmingly comprised of Conservative Republicans, and he was comfortable in the knowledge that Field and Stream would not begin opposing the NRA just to broaden its appeal to a wider audience. Rove knew that publications all have their own identifiable and predictable constituencies, and this is true of newspapers as well as magazines.

The constituency of the New York Times is primarily composed of East Coast, urban intellectuals, and such a group tends to be politically liberal. News is a product, and a newspaper is a business, and the reader is the customer. And the first rule of business is to give the customer what they want. The New York Times does this well. To become more balanced and nonjudgmental, the newspaper could reach out to a broader audience of Conservatives by printing the daily diatribes of Rush Limbaugh, or quoting the rants of Bill O’Reilly, but decision makers at the Times are smart enough to know that red-meat, Right-wingers like to get their venom directly from the source by tuning in to the EIB Network or the FOX News Channel. The Times appeals to Liberals because Liberals are the ones who read the paper.

For me, the important question is not whether the Times is liberal, but is the Times essential? I believe that it is, and here’s why. About five years ago, I had the privilege of being part of a group discussion with Daniel Ellsberg, and Ellsberg told us, personally, why he gave the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. He said that the Times, in his opinion, was the only institution with the clout and the courage to withstand the predictable onslaught from the Nixon administration. Ellsberg confided that, prior to turning over the papers to the Times, he had experienced an “All-The-President’s-Men” moment when he genuinely feared for his life. The New York Times, for Ellsberg, was not just an outlet to expose the lies of the Pentagon about Vietnam, but it was also an ally to help guarantee his personal safety.

Here’s the essential thing about why such a liberal bastion is necessary. When power on the Left goes off the track, it tends toward the silly and the pathetic, and maybe even the tragic. I would cite LBJ, Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton as examples, annoying, but not really threatening. But when power on the Right gets out of control, it is downright destructive. Both ends of the political spectrum are not above punishing their enemies, but whereas the Lefties do it with some temerity, those on the Right do it with a kind of evil enthusiasm. Joe McCarthy, the Nixon administration, and Bush-Cheney are examples of this. Even an institution as strong as the U.S. Congress doesn’t seem up to the task of speaking truth to that kind of power. I don’t mean to imply that the New York Times is the only thing standing between us and outright fascism, but it does seem to have a good track record in helping keep the Right under control. If this offends some Conservatives, it seems like a fair trade-off.

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