McGowan attributes the paper’s decline to two main causes. The first is its embrace of so-called lifestyle journalism in the 1970s. Designed to give the staid “Gray Lady” a trendy makeover and lure a younger demographic, the focus on soft news failed to increase readership. It did, however, open the door for the left-wing politics that Rosenthal had resisted and which would gradually shape the paper’s cultural coverage. A case in point is the Times Book Review, a once-diverse forum for intellectual debate that now often shuns conservative titles, even when they top the paper’s own extended bestseller list.
The second factor in the Times’s decline was the ascension of Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. to the perch of publisher in 1992. Having come of age in the sixties counterculture, Sulzberger moved to shift the paper’s focus from its historical commitment of reporting the news “without fear or favor” to the more activist promise to “enhance society.” In particular, Sulzberger wanted the paper to promote “diversity” and to move beyond what he disparaged as the “predominantly white, straight, male version of events.” As the author of Coloring the News, a critical look at the politically correct mania for “diversity” and its damaging effect on the news media, McGowan writes as an authority on the Times’s transformation. The change was most obvious in the paper’s increasingly strident editorial pages, but the news content, which began taking its cues from editorial, suffered as well. Times veterans groused that the paper risked compromising its news coverage with a newly ideological agenda, but Sulzberger dismissed such concerns, declaring that he was “setting a moral standard.”
Let’s explore one byproduct of that self-described “moral standard.”
If and when the Times condemns Terry Jones’ execrable Koran-burning PR stunt, it’s worth a reminder that in the past, they’ve had no problem with those who’ve destroyed religious icons to gin-up their fame. Andres Serrano was the “artist”* who created the infamous “Piss Christ,” in 1987, which Wikipedia describes as:
[A] small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine. The piece was a winner of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art‘s “Awards in the Visual Arts” competition,which is sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, a United States Government agency that offers support and funding for artistic projects.
In 2005, the Times accompanied one of their near-daily rants on Abu Ghraib (funny how this more recent and far more violent incident hasn’t inspired similar outrage…) with illustrations they commissioned from Serrano:
The whole piece is still online at the Times, complete with Serrano’s illustrations; click here to view the paper’s “moral standard” in action when it comes to hiring those who destroy sensitive religious iconography as their stock and trade — at least when they know there are no consequences to their actions.
And the media shouldn’t be all that surprised, after giving Serrano and artists like him tens of thousands of words of publicity in the late 1980s and ’90s, long before commissioning him themselves, that others would attempt to follow his path towards fame, reasoning, as many do, that “there’s no such thing as bad PR” provided it’s generated in sufficient quantities to make your name.
* Serrano’s Wikipedia page has a deadpan note that “More recent work of his uses feces as a medium,” a reminder of James Lileks’ quip in 2002 that “If art contains sh*t, we should take it at its word.”