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Interview with William McGowan on the Decline and Fall of the New York Times

January 3, 2011


In an exclusive, wide ranging interview with Accuracy in Media, William McGowan, author of the new book on The New York Times entitled Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of The New York Times Means For America, said that “organizations like the Times and the Guardian become aiders and abettors of an organization [WikiLeaks] that is not operating in the best interests of the world, not operating in the best interests of the human rights activists whose names were mentioned, not operating in the interests of the Afghani and Iraqi civilians who cooperated with the U.S., and, essentially, is operating as an anti-American organization.”

McGowan says that while he doesn’t see Julian Assange, the man behind WikiLeaks, as a terrorist, he does see him as “a cyber-warrior against the United States —I mean, he’s gone on the record in several interviews, saying that his intention is to pull down the information infrastructure of the United States government, military and diplomatic wings. The guy is kind of a crazed, mad genius Doctor Evil type, a power-mad, grandiose narcissist. ‘As to whether he’s prosecutable,’ said McGowan, ‘that’s a legal question that still needs to be answered.’” 

Bill McGowan is a former editor at Washington Monthly. He has reported for Newsweek International, the BBC, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The New Republic, National Review, The Wall Street Journal and The Columbia Journalism Review. He’s also the author of Coloring the News: How Political Correctness Has Corrupted American Journalism, for which he won a National Press Club Award. Bill McGowan is a Media Fellow at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center.

Besides WikiLeaks, we discussed the differences between the Times with Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger as the publisher, as compared to the Times with Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr. in charge. McGowan finds troubling editorial and financial policies that have badly damaged this iconic newspaper under Arthur Sulzberger Junior. He argues that political correctness and a political agenda, particularly as it relates to the U.S. ’s war with radical Islam, have severely set back this powerful institution. We discussed the Times’ coverage leading up to the war in Iraq , and how it treats the issue of domestic acts of terrorism.

Below, in quotes, are excerpts from the interview. You can listen to the entire two-part interview or read the transcript here.

“I had written Coloring the News, which was about political correctness in the news media in general, and I looked at—I’d say—the ten top news organizations in America for that book, and I saw a clear pattern that The New York Times was one of the most egregious offenders on that front.  Plus, the Times had entered into a kind of spiral of institutional embarrassment and journalistic blundering, starting in 2003 with the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal, and moving through other varied, dubious journalistic and institutional embarrassments.

“I’m coming at this not as much from a political point of view as I am from a professional point of view.  I’m arguing for objectivity, professional neutral detachment, agnosticism, and fact-based journalism—as opposed to a politicized, ideological, and values-based journalism.  So my political opinions really don’t matter.  What matters is the integrity of the analysis.

“Most people would, I guess, describe his [A.M. Rosenthal’s] leadership as the Golden Age of The New York Times, seeing The New York Times through such things as the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the rise of counterculture, and, also, through a very, very endangering financial crisis that they weathered by creating a more diversified paper.

“I think that American journalism, for a good part of the ’90s and through the first decade of this century, has accented ethnic and racial diversity within the ranks of its own news personnel, and that personnel policy has carried over into a politicization of news reporting itself, where diversity is not necessarily just a way of widening the ethnic and racial composition of your news staff, but it is an ideological position on a lot of issues, like affirmative action, immigration, gay rights, racial compensation, and those kinds of things, so that diversity has been an obsession of the news media, I’d say, for the last twenty years, and the Times has really led that crusade.  Arthur [Sulzberger], Jr. was very much at the forefront of instilling this pro-diversity ethos in publishers and editorial organizations, and other professional organizations throughout the news industry.

“...the Times took a view of some of the Bush administration’s efforts to fight the War on Terror on the domestic front, that these were deep violations of the soul of American freedom, that they ran counter to all traditions of civil liberties, and they particularly took an animus towards the PATRIOT Act, and the tools within the PATRIOT Act that the government was given to fight Islamic terrorism on our shores, and I make the point that it really became that the Times seemed to be more concerned with the so-called depredations of our own government than they really were with the depredations of the terrorists.  They saw the threat more as a government that was overreaching and trying to steal away freedoms in the name of protecting America—they saw that as a bigger threat than what these dedicated Islamic fundamentalist militants were up to in the many, many plots, some successful and others not, that were carried out after 9/11.

“I think somebody should do an analysis of the double standards, how much Obama has gotten away with that Bush was denounced and ridiculed for throughout his administrations.  The Times is definitely giving Obama a “Get Out of Jail” pass in terms of a lot of the Bush programs Obama has actually redoubled on, in some ways.  Obama has not followed through on his pledges to close Guantánamo; has not followed through on delivering the jailed terrorists to swift justice; has not followed through on a lot of efforts, both domestically and internationally, to wind down our confrontation with the Islamic world; and, on the immigration front, Obama’s probably deported more criminals than Bush has, which the Times was always decrying.  But they’ve cut him a tremendous amount of slack.

“...journalism has been, traditionally, a liberal profession.  Abe Rosenthal, the editor of the Times, famously said that, as executive editor, he needed to keep his right hand heavier on the tiller, because the newsroom, given its natural proclivities, would drift to the left.  It’s a kind of self-selecting thing.  Reporters just tend to embrace liberal values—not all, but many, and that kind of sets an organizational tone, and a kind of intellectual orthodoxy within these organizations.

“I’m not necessarily a big fan of the Tea Party—however, I completely defend its right to exist.  I think, as a political analyst, I understand its wellsprings, I understand why it exists, but I don’t necessarily think it’s the right movement at this particular time.  However, I will say that it is not a racist movement, and by characterizing it as that, the Times is reflecting more its own mentality than it is the Tea Party’s.

“When you look at what the Times has exposed itself to now, legally, by publicizing the WikiLeaks Cablegate materials—they’ve exposed themselves, as they did with the National Security Agency story and the SWIFT banking story, to possible prosecution under the Espionage Act for the publication of classified materials.  So they might be in a pretty big pot of hot water right now, depending on what the Obama administration decides to do.

“...the Times, for instance, published the Pentagon Papers only after they decided that there were no live military secrets, no current military secrets, within the Papers.  That’s the only reason they went with them.  In this case, they’re exposing, as I said, real-time diplomatic traffic that has a lot to do with the War on Terror, and they seem to think that it’s more important for citizens, individual citizens, to know this rather than for the government to shroud this.  My point would be, diplomacy serves democracy, but it’s not necessarily a democratic process.  It needs veils of secrecy in order to be effective.  What the Times has done has ripped that veil apart, and it’s exposed the inner workings of our diplomatic processes in a way that embarrasses us.  It renders our diplomats’ credibility and trust null. 

“I think WMDs were an important reason we went into Iraq , but it wasn’t the only reason—there were all sorts of other concerns.  But that became the perception, that the Times’ misreporting on WMDs—erroneous reporting on WMDS—was what put us into Iraq, and their reporting after that was a kind of effort to do penance—and to adopt very much of an anti-war posture, and to filter a lot of what they wrote about Iraq—not everything, but a lot of what they wrote—through a filter of the “Vietnam quagmire” script.

“The Times has always had an ambivalent relationship to Judaism.  Its owners are Jewish, but some have converted to Episcopalianism.  Historically, they did not want to be seen as a “Jewish newspaper,” and because of that, they minimized coverage of the Holocaust, for instance—there were very few stories about Hitler’s genocide.  I think someone wrote a book recently, saying there were only five or six small stories about one of the 20th century’s biggest stories.  The Times—even though it, for a while, was supportive of Israel —I think, has shifted somewhat, and reflects more of the European press’s hostility to Israel , and its sympathy with the Palestinian cause.

“[The Times] has cash flow issues.  That’s why they turned to this Mexican billionaire, Carlos Slim Helú, for a loan of, I think, somewhere upwards of around $200 million.  The loan was structured on rates of interest that were almost usurious—I mean, it was like going to a check-cashing place to get this kind of money.  They were paying huge amounts of interest on it.  So it was an act of desperation.

“The point I make in Gray Lady Down is, you can agree with Podhoretz or not in his politics, but this is a major figure in American letters, and certainly he deserves a little bit more respect than what he got in the pages of the Times Book Reviews.  They really go out of their way to make conservative intellectuals appear faulty or crackpot.

“I’m not a Times hater at all, and I do not wish them ill.  I don’t want to see them go under.  I’m a reformer, not a revolutionary, and I guess I write out of a spirit of loyal opposition, because I’ve read the Times all my life, and I started my career writing for them—not as a reporter, but as a freelancer, and in prominent places in the paper.  So I have a lot of sympathy for them, but, boy, they are really, really fouling their own nest in a way, over and over again, that has repercussions, and I don’t think it’s great for this country to lose a vital forum like the Times.”

Copyright ©2011 Roger Aronoff

 


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