Reasons Not to Trust the Times

Friday, 04 Mar 2011 12:31 PM

By William McGowan

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I have been into the very belly of the politically correct news beast, though I live to tell the tale in "Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of The New York Times Means for America," my new book about The New York Times. And what a beast that paper is — full of subtle and not-so-subtle anti-Americanism, anti-bourgeois hauteur, hypersensitivity toward “victim” groups, double standards, and sanctimony.

This has translated into a pronounced left-liberal party line running through the paper's editorial commentary, news analysis, cultural criticism and, most important, news reporting on a variety of stories. Just a few of them include Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigration, the Obama administration, the “racism” of the tea party and the Tucson shooting, Muslim assimilation, diversity, affirmative action, conservative media and authors, the war on terror (i.e., WikiLeaks) and "atrocities" committed during our military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Times is certainly in violation of its historical mandate to give the news “impartially, without fear or favor,” and its ideological bias runs counter to the legacy of the late executive editor A.M. (Abe) Rosenthal who worked so hard to keep the paper “straight” that he even had words to that effect chiseled on his tombstone.

During my research, however, I did have a few “LOL” moments over the unfortunate number of times the paper has been conned or hoaxed by people using credulous reporters to embarrass the paper or advance dubious agendas. Such institutional gaffes were not supposed to happen after the Jayson Blair plagiarism and fraud scandal in 2003 and the reforms it prompted.

While humorous, these incidents expose a disturbing loss of rigor at the institution once seen as the gold standard of American journalism:
  • In January 2004, the Times reported on the ubiquity of surveillance cameras in New York City. The piece focused on a self-styled privacy activist named Bill Brown. Cameras were “warping human beings,” Brown told Metro reporter Sabrina Tavernise. Other news organizations soon reported that two weeks before the Times article appeared, Brown had been arrested for making hundreds of obscene phone calls from a Manhattan law office where he was a temp worker, after being caught on camera.
  • In a March 2006 news feature, Nicholas Confessore detailed the plight of a Hurricane Katrina victim from Biloxi, Miss., stranded by the ineptitude of FEMA, the Red Cross, and the welfare department in a run-down New York City hotel with a passel of children. But the woman was nowhere near Biloxi when Katrina hit, and did not even have custody of her children. Soon after the report, the D.A. arrested her for check forging. . Soon after, the paper's “standards editor” issued a directive banning “single-source” stories.
  • In March 2007, a New York Times Magazine cover story by Sara Corbett was devoted to American servicewomen in Iraq. One of the subjects, a Navy Seabee, claimed to have been raped in Guam while awaiting deployment to Iraq, and to be suffering brain damage from an IED in Iraq. The Navy informed the Times that she had never been to Iraq.
  • In February 2008, the Times celebrated Margaret B. Jones and her memoir of life in a world of crack, gang violence and police brutality in South Central Los Angeles. “Margaret B. Jones” turned out to be Margaret Seltzer, who grew up in a Los Angeles suburb and attended a top private school. Her knowledge of gang culture came from conversations in ghetto coffee shops.
  • In late December, 2008, while Caroline Kennedy was reportedly being considered for the New York Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton, the paper published a letter to the editor by someone claiming to be Bertrand Delanoe, the mayor of Paris, saying that Kennedy had “no qualification whatsoever” to be a senator. Her appointment would be wholly “dynastic.” The “mayor” concluded: “Can we speak of American decline?” The letter writer was not, in fact, the mayor of Paris.
It is tempting to blame inexperience, but even veteran reporters have been rused.

A more likely culprit is the tide of PC thinking that has washed over the newsroom, since many hoaxes involve members of “victim” groups that receive extra solicitude.

At the same time, the Times' embrace of “soft news” cultivates reporters who are more adept at identifying pop trends than at telling fact from fiction. Any way you explain it, as media tricksters grow more savvy, the journalistic street smarts needed to smoke them out have become more scarce at the (former) newspaper of record.

William McGowan is the author of Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of The New York Times Means for America (Encounter Books / grayladydown.net)

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