The always perceptive Peggy Noonan gets the New York Times right.
Once the New York Times was extremely important, and often destructive. Now it is less important, and often destructive. This is not a change for the worse.
The Times is important still because of its influence on other parts of the media: Other journalists, knowing the great resources of the Times, respecting its air of professionalism (which is sometimes not an air but the thing itself), key their own decisions on news coverage to the front and opinion pages. If you’re a blogger or a talk-show lion, you key some of the things you talk about to the Times. It’s still important.
But it’s not what it was. Once it was such a force that it controlled the intellectual climate. Now it’s just part of it. Seventy years ago its depiction of Stalin’s benignity left a generation confused, or confounded. Fifty years ago, when the Times became enamored of a romantic young revolutionary named Fidel, the American decision-making establishment believed what it read and observed in comfort as an angry communist dictatorship was established 90 miles off our shore. The Times’ wrongheadedness had huge implications for American statecraft.
The Times is still in many respects an extraordinary daily achievement. The sheer size and scope of its efforts is impressive–the Sunday paper is big as a book every week, and costs a lot less.
But it is not what it was and will never be again. It was hurt by its own limits–a paper of and from an island off the continent, awkward in its relationship with and understanding of the continent. It was and is hurt by its longtime and predictable liberalism. Predictable isn’t fun. It doesn’t make you want to get up in the morning, tear the paper off the mat and open it with a hungry snap. It was hurt by technology–it lost its share of what was, essentially, a monopoly. And it’s been hurt by its own scandals and misjudgments. The Times rarely seems driven by an agenda to get the news first, fast and clear; to get the story and let the chips fall. It often seems driven by a search for information that might support its suppositions. Which, again, gets boring. The Times never knows what’s becoming a huge national issue. It’s always surprised by what Americans are thinking.
In a way the modern Times is playing to a base, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and the redoubts of the Upper West Side throughout America: affluent urban neighborhoods and suburbs. The paper plays not to a region but a class.
But one senses the people who run the Times now are not so much living as re-enacting. They’re lost on the big new playing field of American media, and they’re reenacting their great moments–the Pentagon papers, the Watergate days. They’re locked in a pose: We speak truth to (bad Republican) power. Frank Rich is running around with his antiwar screeds as if it’s 1968 and he’s an idealist with a beard, as opposed to what he is, a guy who if he pierced his ears gravy would come out.
This is the imagery that comes to you when you ponder the Times. It’s the imagery that comes unbidden when you ponder the national security stories they’ve been doing. They’re all re-enacting. They’re acting out their own private drama in which they bravely stand up to a secretive and all-powerful American government.
I think it’s personal drama in part because there’s no common sense in it. Common sense tells you that when the actual physical safety of Americans is threatened by extremists who’ve declared a holy war, and when those extremists have, or can get, terrible weapons that can kill thousands or tens of thousands or more, and when the American government is trying to keep them from doing what they’d like to do, which, again, is kill–then you’d think twice, thrice, 10 times before you tell the world exactly how the government is trying, in its own bumbling way, which is how governments do things, to keep innocent people safe and bad guys on the run.
It is kind of crazy that the Times would do two stories that expose, and presumably hinder, the government’s efforts. But then it strikes me as crazy that every paper that has reported the latest story–that would include The Wall Street Journal–would do so. Based on the evidence that has become public so far, the Journal, like the Times, and the Los Angeles Times, seems to me to have made the wrong call. But to me it is the New York Times, of all papers involved, that has most forgotten the mission. The mission is to get the story, break through the forest to get to a clear space called news, and also be a citizen. It’s not to be a certain kind of citizen, and insist everyone else be that kind of citizen, and also now and then break a story.
Forgetting the mission is a problem endemic in newsrooms now. It’s why a lot of them do less journalism than politics. When you’ve forgotten the mission you spend your days talking about, say, diversity in the newsroom. You become distracted by tertiary issues. (Too bad. The news doesn’t care the color or sex of the person who finds it and reports it.) You become not journalistic and now and then political, but political and now and then journalistic.
It’s sad. Though I guess if you’re the Times you take comfort in the fact that even though you’re not as important as you used to be, you’re just as destructive as ever.