Ed Driscoll

Questioning 'The Voice of Authority'

Then: Liberal journalists in the 1960s told us all to “Question Authority.”

Now: Journalists on the Left reminisce about the days when they were “The Voice of Authority.”

Van Jones wishes you would just “sit down and shut up,” and in a slightly more reserved way — and more on that in a moment — if you’re a blogger or Tea Partier, so does Joe Nocera of the New York Times. As Matt Welch wrote earlier this month at Reason, it’s the losers in the efforts of the Blogosphere to democratize journalism and “demassify” (if you’ll pardon a Tofflerian expression) mass media who are writing many of the first drafts of these transformative efforts. Concurrently, they long for the days, as Nocera writes, when syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop phoned up LBJ to offer him advice, three days after JFK’s assassination.

That Alsop was a Republican who, as with fellow Republican Henry Luce, supported JFK in 1960 isn’t mentioned by Nocera. But by now, we’re all used to “Name that Party” pieces; this may be the first “Name that newspaper” article, since the paper that Alsop primarily worked for is never mentioned in Nocera’s op-ed, beyond a reference to his column being syndicated to 300 papers.

It was the Washington Post, although his syndicated columns ran in the New York area in the New York Herald-Tribune, which ceased publication in 1966, but not before providing a salon to a host of journalists beyond Alsop who also became more-or-less household names. But given the era of journalism that Nocera would like to return to, when JFK could take Clintonian risks with his affairs, knowing that they would likely never see the light of day in the press, it’s worth recalling what was going on at the Times during the same week that Alsop was phoning up his successor to proffer advice. This was the beginning of the cognitive dissonance described thoroughly by James Piereson in Camelot and the Cultural Revolution. The newsmen at the Times ran a story on the front page of the Times headlined,  “MARXISM CALLED OSWALD RELIGION — Suspect ‘Refused to Eschew Violence.”  But near concurrently, opinion pieces in the Times such as this one by James Reston, another journalist with similar clout at Alsop, titled “Why America Weeps: Kennedy Victim of Violent Streak He Sought to Curb in the Nation,” blamed Kennedy’s death on “something in the nation itself, some strain of madness and violence,” before alluding to “the violence of the extremists on the Right.”

After mentioning a new play about Alsop written by David Auborn, and Robert W. Merry, an Alsop biographer, Nocera writes that he misses the days when journalism was as much about knowing what not to divulge, as it was giving readers information. (Which actually describes today’s MSM quite well, come to think of it, particularly the Post, and the Times on both coasts.) Nocera goes on to write that somewhat to his surprise, the author and playwright he spoke with “did not view this as an unmixed blessing”:

 “A tremendous amount of information came out of those dinner parties that was then conveyed to the American public,” Merry told me. “They served a purpose.” Auburn appreciated the fact that the phony controversies that crop up all the time now — Medicare death panels, [ahem — Ed] for instance — were much less frequent because the leading journalists of the day wouldn’t give them voice.

But Auburn, who is a voracious reader of blogs, also said that one of the things he really likes about the blogosphere is “the incredible diversity of opinion. Many of the people I read are not journalists,” he said. “But they sometimes have amazing knowledge and depth.”

I have to agree. It would be heady, certainly, if I could call the president and insist that he try my ideas. And I imagine that my life would be quite pleasant if I could write from the mountaintop the way Joe Alsop did. Instead, I’m just one voice among many. We’re all better off for that being the case.

Shorter Nocera: I’m just jealous because my fellow Timesman Thomas Friedman gets to call up Obama, play golf with him, and provide the leitmotifs for his State of the Union speeches, and I don’t. (Or perhaps that Fareed Zakaria of Time and CNN is working hard to transform himself from Obama’s court stenographer to court jester, in much the same way that another Time writer did as well. Not to mention all of the other liberal journalists who’ve gone through Obama’s revolving doors.)

Earlier in the column, Nocera files the standard boilerplate complaint about today’s “world of bloggers and anonymous critics and a fractured, often ideologically driven journalism,” and as a result, “The national consensus that Alsop once represented no longer exists. Politics is fragmented and angry.” But correlation does not always equal causation. Politics has always has been nasty; the era of journalism that Nocera longs for was actually a temporary distortion when the microphones and printing presses weren’t evenly distributed.

In any case, all of this progressive nostalgia for the good old days is awfully ironic considering that last August, Nocera melted down with some rather fractured ideologically driven angry journalism of his own. If you forget the details of Nocera’s epic screed de coeur in the aftermath of last summer’s big story in DC, the debt ceiling negotiations, let Guy Benson of Townhall refresh your memory:

Being labeled a “terrorist” ranks right up there with “racist!” on the scale of opprobrium, and it’s no accident that liberals employ both denigrations promiscuously.  Who, pray tell, is boldly blazing this defamatory path?  Our old friends at the New York Times.  No fewer than four “esteemed” Times columnists have drawn the conservatives/terrorism connection within the last two weeks: Nicholas Kristof, Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd, and today’s addition from Joe Nocera(who?), whose piece is subtly entitled, “The Tea Party’s War On America:”

You know what they say: Never negotiate with terrorists. It only encourages them. These last few months, much of the country has watched in horror as the Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people. Their intransigent demands for deep spending cuts, coupled with their almost gleeful willingness to destroy one of America’s most invaluable assets, its full faith and credit, were incredibly irresponsible. But they didn’t care. Their goal, they believed, was worth blowing up the country for, if that’s what it took.

For now, the Tea Party Republicans can put aside their suicide vests. But rest assured: They’ll have them on again soon enough. After all, they’ve gotten so much encouragement.

Nocera fuses the originality of Bob Herbert with the cool-headed composure of Frank Rich — and the writing ability of Levi Johnston.  Read the whole thing for an excruciating example of a paint-by-the-numbers left-wing diatribe.

Nocera would later apologize, admitting, “In the four months since I began writing an Op-Ed column, the thing that has most surprised me is how darned liberal I sound sometimes.”

Oh yeah, everybody’s shocked when that happens at the Times. Particularly since these days,  the Times can be pretty open about the ideology driving their journalism when it wants to be. Even when it’s not painfully obvious for everyone who isn’t playing the “objective journalism” kabuki dance.

And finally, note that Nocera writes that he’s amazed “that journalists ever had” Alsop’s authority. “But the great columnists of the postwar generation did. Their columns were part of the weaponry of policymaking, and they themselves were powerbrokers.”

In 2008, they still were. If Nocera has written any articles condemning the Journolist, they’re not exactly coming up atop a Google search.

Earlier: “Now They Tell Us,” in which Nocera accidentally disclosed that everything the Times printed in the 1970s and ’80s about the state of liberal ideology was wrong. And given how this post started, it’s worth flashing back to Andrew Klavan’s 2009 video, on the left’s desires for you to…

Related: “At The NYT: Clueless Blue Deer Meet Onrushing Truck:” Walter Russell Mead features a six-minute video of unionized Timespeople worrying aloud that the new defined contribution retirement plan they’re being offered by their cash-strapped employer “could make them eat cat food and sleep in boxes on the street in old age. (Or late middle age, anyway; not one staffer talks about working past 65.)” and responds:

Nobody in the video talks about the changes in the news business that threatens to drive the Times into a deep dive. Nobody talks about the prospect of future significant staff cuts if costs can’t be contained. None of them discuss the incongruity between their own naive sense of entitlement and what is going on in the cities, companies and countries they cover.

They just want the money.

Some writers allude to the prospect of leaving the paper if the pension change goes through, but a quick check of the newspaper business suggests they don’t have all that many options. Certainly with the exception of a handful of superstars the New York Times would have less trouble replacing its current staff than the current staff would have in replacing their jobs. And if those new jobs are in journalism, good luck finding a company with a generous defined benefit pension plan.

I sympathize with the Times staff about living in tougher economic conditions, but that is what people are adjusting to all over the world; I’m not sure what gives them an exemption. Newspaper reporters of all people should have seen this coming long ago, and have made savings and retirement plans on the assumption that their defined benefit plan would be going the way of the passenger pigeon and sooner rather than later.

As I wrote way back in 2005, “It’s weirdly ironic — despite the fact that they’re in the news business, the media are often the last to spot a realignment of their own industry.”