Roger’s Rules

Pot Meet Kettle (New York Times Edition)

I have to admit that The News of the World, which just yesterday was the largest circulation newspaper in Britain and, beginning tomorrow, will have ceased to exist, has never been part of my literary diet.  I am not entirely sure I have ever actually seen the paper, though I know a juicy story involving alcohol, a prominent journalist, his concerned wife, and the paper, the details of which I will save for my memoirs. . . .

In the meantime, the word is that the scandal which put the paper out of business — hacking into the voicemail of certain British royals and other such tony folk — has yet to run its course and yield up all the salacious revelations that The News of the World, were it still with us (and if the scandal concerned some other paper), would surely be splashing with lip-smacking enthusiasm. Carl Bernstein even reprised his one genuine claim to fame, wondering whether the scandal would turn out to be “Murdoch’s Watergate.” More thoroughgoing cynics, noting that one of the culprits was chief press aide to Prime Minister David Cameron,  might wonder whether the “Gate” in question was on Downing Street, not Fleet Street. (Do we still say “Fleet Street” though the papers long ago left that storied address? I think so . . . .)

Anyway, so far the fate of The News of the World seems pretty distant from my usual concerns. I have, however, noted that reporting in the BBC,the Guardian, and other reflexively  left-wing organs has been gleeful primarily about the involvement of one of the men they most like to hate, to wit, Rupert Murdoch.  The schadenfreude veritably oozes out of their reports on the subject, not least the prospect that the scandal might scuttle Mr. Murdoch’s efforts to acquire a controlling interest in the BSkyB satellite television company. So I suppose that it was only a matter of time before our Former Paper of Record chimed in with one of its signature snotty efforts at character assassination. This one, written by op-ed columnist Joe Nocera, ran in the paper on Friday, July 8, and was called “Murdoch’s Fatal Flaw.” The basic idea is that Rupert Murdoch, who began as a “brash young Australian publisher,” “never grew up.”

Most people [quoth Joe Nocera] outgrow their twentysomething selves. As they age, they realize that the impulses and excitements of youth need to be tempered with the judgment, empathy and caution that come with maturity. They get a better feel for the lines that ought not to be crossed. Journalists, in particular, learn that there are stories that ought not to be pursued. Not every scoop is worth it.

Poor Rupert Murdoch. “I want to win,” he said when he was 22. “A little too much,” lectures Joe Nocera. Reporters who work at “pressure-packed scandal sheets,” he says, “quickly become inured to crossing lines and destroying lives; it’s what they do.” Result? Their moral compass, unlike the pristine instruments commanded by all reporters and columnists for the once-mighty New York Times, is out of kilter. They do things they should not. “The Murdoch culture had stripped them of their conscience.”

Gee whiz. It’s not just the chaps in London who hacked into private voicemails. It’s Murdoch himself, you see. The man might have a Midas touch: his media empire is worth some $33 billion. But he wants to succeed too badly and he is willing to sacrifice quality for alacrity: the scoop’s the thing! Consider, says Joe Nocera, the way the New York Post (also owned by Murdoch’s News Corporation) rushed into print with a story that the Guinean chambermaid,  allegedly assaulted by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was a prostitute turning tricks even while living in a safe-house hotel courtesy prosecutors in the case.  That, Joe assures us, was “based on the thinnest of sourcing.”

The Post, which cited “a prosecution source,” is sticking by its story even though the chambermaid in question is suing the paper. If I were a bookie, I would give about the same odds to Ms. X, the lying Guinean chambermaid, as I would have to Tawana Brawley.  Let’s see what happens.

In the meantime, the chief source of entertainment  to be had from Joe’s little exercise in innuendo are the sniffy bits about journalistic maturity and knowing about those “lines that ought not to be crossed” and those “stories that ought not to be pursued.” How has the Times itself done with respect to those desiderata?  Remember Jason (oops, that’s Jayson) Blair? Remember the Times’s despicable coverage of Clarence Thomas? Its malevolent obsession with George W. Bush? Its breathless front-page story claiming that veterans of the Iraq war returned as murderous psychopaths (“Across America,” the headline screamed, “Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles”)?  Or how about the paper’s disgusting coverage of the Duke Lacrosse “rape-that-wasn’t” case? When it comes to the New York Times and irresponsible stories, one feels like Koko with his list.

Let’s pause to consider how the Times treated that case of the Duke lacrosse players and the accusations made against them.

You remember the case: three Duke lacrosse players had been indicted for kidnapping and raping a black stripper in March 2006. It was the perfect morality tale. Those white jocks at “the Harvard of the South” just had to be guilty. And what a good time we were all going to have lacerating the malefactors while at the same time preening ourselves on our own superior virtue!

The editorials, the op-eds, the comments, the analyses poured forth non-stop, demonstrating that one of the deepest human passions is the urge to self-righteous pontification. The novelist Allan Gurganus epitomized the tone in an op-ed for — hey, it was the New York Times in April 2006: “The children of privilege,” he thundered, “feel vividly alive only while victimizing, even torturing.” You don’t say? Even sports writers got into the act. Selena Roberts, in another column for the Times, located Duke University “at the intersection of entitlement and enablement [meaning what, pray tell?], . . . virtuous on the outside, debauched on the inside.” By August 2006, as the case against the lacrosse players was betraying worrisome fissures, the Times published a 6,000-word article arguing — “praying” might be a more apposite term — that, whatever weaknesses there might be in the prosecution’s case, “there is also a body of evidence to support [taking] the matter to a jury.” As the Times columnist David Brooks ruefully noted, after the tide had begun to turn, the campaign against the athletes had the lineaments of a “witch hunt.” How’s that, Joe,  for journalistic ethics, for knowing about when not to cross a moral line, for recognizing that there are some stories  that “ought not to be pursued”?

This story had a relatively happy ending. Those three young men went through hell by the media as well as a corrupt prosecutor. (The process, as Mark Steyn has put it about our out-of-control prosecutorial state, is the punishment.) But they were eventually vindicated. In April 2007, Roy Cooper, the North Carolina attorney general, announced that he was dropping the case not because there was insufficient evidence — often a euphemism for “probably guilty, but we can’t prove it” — but because the three players were completely innocent of the charges that had recklessly been brought against them. Mr. Cooper went further: not only had there been “a tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations,” but the case also showed “the enormous consequences of overreaching by a prosecutor.” By a prosecutor — the wretched Mike Nifong, now disbarred and bankrupt — and also a reckless media, conspicuously including the New York Times.

Joe Nocera’s emetic piece is characteristic of the sanctimonious but hypocritical moralizing that debases the Times these days. “Say what you like about the News of the World,” wrote the London Telegraph, a competitor, “but their allegations were always backed up with evidence.” You can’t say the same of the New York Times.

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