Man Without Qualities


Sunday, May 22, 2005


Maybe The Fee Could Finance Some Fact-checkers With Strong Stomachs And A Bit Of Backbone?

A few days ago the New York Times announced a new on-line service, TimesSelect, with an annual subscription $49.95 and features including "Access to some of the most influential and insightful voices today, including David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman, Bob Herbert, Nicholas Kristof, Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, John Tierney, Dave Anderson, Peter Applebome, Harvey Araton, Dan Barry, Clyde Haberman, Gretchen Morgenson, Joe Nocera, Floyd Norris, Joyce Purnick, William Rhoden, Selena Roberts, George Vescey, Roger Cohen, and John Vinocur."

Today, the Times' departing "readers' representative" Daniel Okrent tells us:

Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults. Maureen Dowd was still writing that Alberto R. Gonzales "called the Geneva Conventions 'quaint' " nearly two months after a correction in the news pages noted that Gonzales had specifically applied the term to Geneva provisions about commissary privileges, athletic uniforms and scientific instruments. Before his retirement in January, William Safire vexed me with his chronic assertion of clear links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, based on evidence only he seemed to possess.

No one deserves the personal vituperation that regularly comes Dowd's way, and some of Krugman's enemies are every bit as ideological (and consequently unfair) as he is. But that doesn't mean that their boss, publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., shouldn't hold his columnists to higher standards.

I didn't give Krugman, Dowd or Safire the chance to respond before writing the last two paragraphs. I decided to impersonate an opinion columnist.


Pay $49.95 for that? Well, it would be nice to think that the best disinfectant on the Times opinion desk might be market forces. But since many of the Times columnists show serious symptoms of actually being sock puppets for their boss, publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., it seems unlikely that anything short of his actual departure or threatened ejection will change things much.

The entire Okrent column is worth reading for some surprisingly frank insights into the Times current difficulties - and, I believe, some of the reasons for its inexorable decline. ("Reader Steven L. Carter of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., asks, If 'Tucker Carlson is identified as a conservative' in The Times, then why is 'Bill Moyers just, well, plain old Bill Moyers'? Good question.")

Mr. Okrent's column also evokes real sympathy for its author, a man of good intentions who apparently learned the hard way that some thankless jobs are indeed thankless.

The column also raises some unanswered questions - and not just of the "so why the heck didn't you say something then, Mr. Okrent!?" variety. For example, Mr. Okrent recalls:
Last July, when I slapped the headline "Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?" atop my column and opened the piece ...
Isn't it nearly gospel in criticizing the Times that one presumes that a columnist does not "slap" the headline on the column? It is received wisdom that the Times columnist headlines are written and slapped by the Times' squadron of nameless, excitable, professional headline writers and slappers!

So what the heck has been going on here? Have we all be tricked for years? Should we have been holding Krugman, Dowd and the rest accountable not just for the dubious body of those columns but for the often-even-more dubious headlines slapped on to those columns!

Pay attention! This is important!

UPDATE: Speaking of frank insights, Don Luskin correctly notes that Okrent's column displays some of his worst flaws, especially a serious lack of self insight and a tendency to lash out at others - including for his own deficiencies. On the other hand, given the grossly self-important, intellectually dishonest and ultra-vindictive Times culture and dominant personalities, every little bit of honesty Mr. Okrent did manage to eek out must have resulted in a hugely disproportionate personal pain to him. Such is life in the belly of the beast!

Indeed, I would not be a bit surprised to learn that with all of his deficiencies and inadequate pale criticisms of egregious Times' errors, Mr. Okrent was de facto asked to leave because it was felt (that is, "felt" by the boss) that he was being too harsh in his judgments.

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