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Ed Driscoll

‘Fast Times at Eighth Avenue High’

February 7th, 2014 - 4:57 pm

The New York Times and “our adolescent media” are dissected today by Matthew Continetti at the Washington Free Beacon. Continetti notes that the recent article “The Tyranny and Lethargy of the Times Editorial Page,” by Ken Kurson, at the New York Observer, uses as one of its sources of information regarding the dysfunctional world of the New York Times, an unnamed journalist, who as Continetti notes, “is so upset at editorial and op-ed page editor Andrew Rosenthal that “he will literally not allow Mr. Rosenthal to join their lunch table in the cafeteria:”

On the most superficial level, the article is a delight. The experience of reading it is like watching a colony of red ants turn against each other—a violent and morbidly fascinating event towards which one is completely apathetic. It reminded me of the practice of some high school teachers who, having intercepted gossipy notes passed between students, read the messages aloud to the entire class. Except in this case the students gave their teacher the notes.

High school is an apt metaphor for the shenanigans inside the Times’ $850 million skyscraper at the corner of Fortieth Street and Eighth Avenue. The Times portrayed in Kurson’s article is not the established, serious, and competent institution of the liberal imagination. It is the Beverly Hills High School in Clueless, a cliquey and catty war of all against all, where the self-importance of the occupants masks deep insecurities. The next time our reporters and producers and anchors and bloggers affect an air of moral or social superiority, the next time they pretend to know the answers to every political and economic and cultural question, remember this: They are basically teenagers.

But essentially, the same could be said of their publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. aka “Pinch,” as William McGowan noted in his 2010 book, Gray Lady Down:

It was fortunate for Sulzberger that he was arriving at the Times as the influence of Abe Rosenthal was beginning to ebb. Rosenthal was an up-by-the-bootstraps hardscrabbler who clawed his way to the top of the Times. Arthur Jr. was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and grew up as the presumed heir to one of the country’s most important and richest media families. Rosenthal was deeply patriotic and temperamentally, culturally and socioeconomically allergic to the Woodstock Generation. Sulzberger was proud to the point of vanity to be part of the sixties and its emancipatory spirit. [Of course, Sulzberger didn't want everyone to emancipated back then -- Ed] Nor had his efforts to submerge his sense of entitlement, successful on some people, worked with Rosenthal. According to some reports, Rosenthal had little regard for Sulzberger’s talents and informal affectations. Once, barely containing his fury, Rosenthal grabbed a shoeless Sulzberger by the arm and told him never to come into an editorial meeting in his office that way. At another point, Rosenthal’s secretary caught Arthur Jr. reading her boss’s messages outside his office. “Who do you think you are?” she snapped. Sulzberger contritely apologized. “I’m a reporter. I’ve got all the instincts. I can’t help it,” he supposedly replied.

Years later, in 1999, when he had been firmly established as publisher since 1991, Sulzberger finally got his delayed revenge on Rosenthal when he called the older man into his office to tell him that he would no longer be writing his op-ed column. “It’s time,” Sulzberger said, giving little other explanation. After having given his life to the paper, Rosenthal felt betrayed and heartbroken. “I didn’t expect it at all,” he reportedly told his good friend William F. Buckley.

One need only compare the shenanigans described in McGowan’s recent book with the infinitely more sober — not to mention patriotic — Timesmen in Gay Talese’s mammoth 1969 tome The Kingdom and the Power, to understand what has befallen the paper.

There is daily newspaper that’s called the New York Times. It shares the same masthead and slogan, and for those who pick it up in dead-tree form on a newsstand or vending machine, the same form it has always had. However, the similarities end there, if only because the people who now produce the paper share a radically different worldview than the people who originally established the modern form of the New York Times in the first half of the 20th century. But then, the same could be said about much of the elites running the country, and shaping its minds via academia and the rest of the media as well.

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Back went Abe was still a young international reporter for The Times, the ideological battle was still going on -- the newspaper PM (employer of David Axelrod's mother) and even the pre-Murdoch New York Post were the more liberal competitors of the Times in the late 30s and 40s, while in the 50s the creation of the Village Voice and alternative journalism was pretty much an effort to get into print the type of nakedly opinionated stories that couldn't see the light of day in the Paper of Record.

Post-Rosenthal the elder, the Pinch era of the Times has seen those dreams of merging opinion and news become reality on Page 1, which in turn has led the younger Rosenthal's opinion pages and it's op-ed columnists to become both inane and repetitively dull at the same time. The bad part for the paper is that most of those on staff complaining about the opinion page's direction are mad at the dullness part, but have no problem with the liberal inanity and would consider a Times' op-ed page sounding like the most strident Occupy Wall Street activist a major improvement.
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