It is the contention of William McGowan that the once august New York Times, our “newspaper of record” (for lack of an alternative), has become a politically correct sheet. He blames the nepotistic reign of Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., who inherited the publishing mantle in 1991 upon the retirement of his legendary father, Arthur O. “Punch” Sulzberger. Since then, McGowan argues, such time-honored journalistic standards as reportorial balance, political neutrality, and fairness have withered and died, while multicultural advocacy, lightweight lifestyle reporting, and left-wing cheerleading have flourished.
McGowan blames Sulzberger for tendencies characteristic of all of our metropolitan dailies and thus fails to grasp the nature of what’s wrong with American journalism. He understands the political-correctness part; he wrote an excellent book on the subject about eight years ago. What he doesn’t understand is that the Times is never more pro-establishment than when it is politically correct. His charge of anti-institutional bias at the Times—a “reflexive oppositionalism”—rests on that paper’s belated opposition to the Iraq war and its skeptical attitude toward the “War on Terror” and the Af-Pak escalation.
McGowan’s Coloring the News: How Political Correctness Has Corrupted American Journalism (2002) remains a devastating indictment of journalistic malpractice by virtually every major paper in the country over a ten-year period. (It won the National Press Club’s Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism.) What he found was that editors had an unspoken policy. Potential stories concerning people of color, homosexuals, immigrants, and illegal aliens are deemed newsworthy only if the persons belonging to those groups, or the groups themselves, could be presented as either heroes or victims. If not, no story. If a negative event concerning one of these was too big to be ignored, it would be downplayed, minimized, or sympathetically explained. What’s more, the press took upon itself the role of defender of unpopular government policies it favored, such as affirmative action and other forms of preferential treatment, multiculturalism, refugee resettlement, and mass immigration.
McGowan predicted that those in the nonfavored groups (male, white, Christian) would increasingly turn to alternative news sources (FOX, talk radio, websites) and warned that “an ideological press whose reporting and analysis is distorted by double standards, intellectual dishonesty, and fashionable cant, favoring certain groups over others, only poisons the national well.” Eight years later, the well is poisoned, and the perverse phenomenon he reported in meticulous detail is more evident than ever.
It is here that Gray Lady disappoints. What I would like from McGowan is a follow-up to his earlier book, a study that probes the question of why the press is wedded to a multicultural agenda—one that takes precedence over their primary duty, which is to tell the truth about what is happening, just as historians are supposed to the tell the truth about what did happen. What we get instead is a narrow monograph.
When George Orwell returned to England in late 1937 from fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, he found that the English press (socialist and liberal) was deliberately misreporting events in that country. When he complained, he was told more than once that “if you tell the truth about Spain it will be used as Fascist propaganda.” The same thing is happening today, except that fascism is now understood to mean everything that is white, Christian, conservative, or male.
When McGowan asked a reporter from the Los Angeles Times why his paper would not report (in 1996) the chief argument in favor of Proposition 209—that newcomers to the country had no moral or historical claim to preferential treatment in education and employment and that it was unjust and unfair to native-born Americans to continue granting such privileges—he was told that it would be “reckless” to bring that up. A reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle admitted that “the last thing people wanted to do was to debate the issue” (i.e., the merits of the referendum); rather, the attitude of editors and reporters alike was that “the real job of the paper is to defeat this thing.” A former reporter for the Los Angeles Times told McGowan that the old journalistic values had been “socialized out,” while the new generation of editors and reporters are “smug,” self-righteous, and hostile to “complexity.” An ombudsman at the Philadelphia Inquirer admitted that journalists have a very simplistic worldview: “an enlightened us and an unenlightened them.” Richard Harwood, the one-time ombudsman for the Washington Post, observed that
journalists for the most part are children of the managerial and professional classes and attend colleges and universities staffed by leftist intellectuals. The best and brightest move on to the most influential newspapers, all of them located in metropolitan centers dominated by the urban, liberal bourgeois.
Fourteen years later, the mainstream media would not even report the arguments made by those opposed to the so-called Dream Act, which was before the Senate last December. When U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) had the temerity to point out that the children of illegal aliens given legal status by this proposed law would receive preferential treatment in education, employment, federal contracting and grants, and be empowered to petition the government to bring in additional family members, he was attacked as a racist by Media Matters, The American Prospect, and The American Monthly.
In Gray Lady, McGowan shows how the New York Times repeatedly covers up illegal-alien crime by not reporting that the criminal is here illegally, or that he may have been arrested before and subsequently released. The Times also neglects to make the most obvious causal connections between immigration and other stories or trends of the day, such as the budget crisis in California, high unemployment, falling wages and salaries, increasing traffic congestion, and environmental stress, all of which are exacerbated by the immigrant-driven population increase. Negative stories, or guest editorials opposed to immigration, simply do not appear, ever.
This is a long-standing policy. In Coloring, McGowan observed that, “for most of the 1980s and 1990s, journalists helped to chill a much-needed vigorous debate on immigration and immigration reform.” Here is an example (not found in McGowan’s new book). Twenty-six years ago, Edward Abbey, the conservationist and Western writer, wrote “Immigration and Liberal Taboos” on assignment for the Times editorial page. The editors wanted it “as soon as possible.” Abbey mailed it the next day. Two months later they wrote back asking him to rewrite his essay at half the previously agreed-upon length. He at once complied. A month passed. Abbey sent a letter of inquiry. He was informed that his essay could not be published “for lack of space.” In other words, his editorial had been spiked, and as an added insult he was never paid the customary kill fee. (It is significant that all this took place before Junior Sulzberger supposedly ruined the Times.) Abbey then sent his essay to Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Mother Jones, and Playboy. No one published it. You can find it in Abbey’s One Life at a Time, Please (1988).
This is an example of why McGowan’s closing plea for a neutral and nonpartisan press is so naive. “In this time of increasing social and cultural fragmentation,” he writes, “our civic culture needs a common narrative and a national forum that is free from cant and agnostic toward fact—an honest broker of hard news and detached analysis.” The press no doubt already sees itself that way and will therefore dismiss McGowan’s criticism as conservative carping. You can’t please everyone, they will say. The conservatives say we’re liberal, the liberals complain we’re conservative. Therefore, we must be doing something right. Actually both groups are right; but they are perceiving different biases. Cultural conservatives see the antiwhite, anti-Christian agenda of the press, while liberals, and some populists and paleoconservatives, see its corporatist-imperialist one. Lewis Lapham, the long-time editor of Harper’s Magazine, has written on the “courtier spirit” of the American press, and Ray McGovern, formerly of the CIA, has given it a just and pungent acronym—the FCM (Fawning Corporate Media).
Eight years ago, McGowan discerned that “diversity was the new religion.” It is more than that—it is a state religion, the new faith of the clerical class and a means of social control for the plutocracy. In George Orwell’s 1940 essay “Inside the Whale” he described communism as “the patriotism of the deracinated.” Having discarded all the old values—“patriotism, religion, the Empire, the family, the sanctity of marriage, the Old School Tie, birth, breeding, honour, discipline”—intellectuals were left with nothing to believe in. Finding unbelief unbearable, they rushed to join the new, man-centered church. More than just a faith, it possessed “a world-wide organization,” “power and prestige,” and a “fatherland.” Hence, “All the loyalties and superstitions that the intellect had seemingly banished could come rushing back under the thinnest of disguises.” So it is now with the multicultural American empire. Leftists love it, especially now that Barack Obama is President.
Hence the problem with American journalism—class bias reinforced by ideological commitment—and only a revolution will solve it.
[Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means for America, by William McGowan (New York: Encounter Books) 276 pp., $25.95]