TCS Daily

The Great Divider

By James K. Glassman - July 29, 2004 12:00 AM

"Is the New York Times A Liberal Newspaper?" asked a headline on Sunday.

The first sentence had the answer: "Of course it is."

If that sounds like a dog-bites-man story, then consider the kicker: The article appeared in The New York Times itself. Its author was Daniel Okrent, who last December became the paper "Public Editor," or ombudsman.

Okrent's skillful, fact-filled piece eviscerates The Times for its coverage of "social issues: gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others. If you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them," he writes, "you've been reading the paper with your eyes closed."

Okrent says he will get to politics in a few months, and he's right to start with culture, which is at the heart of the red-blue split pundits wring their hands about. It's my view that The Times -- which provides the script each day for the many clueless folks who produce TV news programs -- has been a major perpetrator in dividing the nation.

My guess -- and I admit I have no scholarly data -- is that conservatives today are more tolerant than liberals, whose compassion extends mainly to groups like transgendered vegans, not to those who, in Okrent's words, "The Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide, [like] devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews and Texans."

The editorial page, says Okrent, is "thoroughly saturated in liberal ideology," but it's elsewhere that rankles. For example, "On the Arts & Leisure front page each week, columnist Frank Rich slices up President Bush, Mel Gibson, John Ashcroft and other paladins of the right. In the Sunday Styles section, there are gay wedding announcements, of course, but also downtown sex clubs and T-shirts bearing the slogan, 'I'm Afraid of Americans.'"

The publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. "doesn't think this walk through The Times is a tour of liberalism," writes Okrent. "He prefers to call the paper's viewpoint 'urban.'" The adjectives I would use are parochial, pusillanimous and condescending -- and dangerous. The Times has become the Great Divider.

"It's one thing," says Okrent, "to make the paper's pages a congenial home for editorial polemicists, conceptual artists, the fashion-forward or other like-minded souls, and quite another to tell only the side of the story your co-religionists want to hear."

He adds, "Is it any wonder the offended or befuddled reader might consider everything else in the paper -- including, say, campaign coverage -- suspicious as well?"

Sulzberger had a chance to change the direction of his newspaper after he dismissed top editor Howell Raines last year. But The Times, if anything, is slipping farther from its moorings as America's newspaper of record.

In May study, the Pew Research Center asked journalists, "Is there a news organization you think is especially liberal in its coverage of news?" Some 20 percent of respondents picked The Times. Second was the Washington Post at 4 percent, followed by CNN, CBS and National Public Radio at 2 percent.

But the worst of it is that, at a time of cultural division, The Times should be a healer, or at least an explainer -- not an inflamer and an antagonist toward people with whom the editors have not just a disagreement, but a disdain and a seething antipathy: the hicks and the ignoramuses west of the Hudson. Included in this group is George W. Bush, a graduate of Andover, Yale and Harvard who betrayed his class and became a rube, and religious to boot!

Okrent writes of gay marriage, "On a topic that has produced one of the defining debates of our time, Times editors have failed to provide the three-dimensional perspective balanced journalism requires." I could add many other key topics The Times treats one-dimensionally: climate change, accounting scandals, obesity, prescription drugs, crime.

Okrent, by the way, is no right-winger. He's won the ultimate jackpot for a liberal New Yorker -- a role in a Woody Allen movie ( "Sweet and Lowdown," 1999). He's been managing editor of Life magazine. He says his cultural views are similar to those in The Times, but he is severely troubled by the turn the paper has taken.

The Times is an important institution that is degenerating into a close-minded small-town paper with a giant megaphone. On the eve of an important election, it's willfully ignoring the great story of our age -- the glorious richness and diversity (intellectual, political, entrepreneurial and cultural) of America. That's a shame and a threat.


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