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The Myth of The New York Times, in Documentary Form
Posted on Jul 6, 2011
By Chris Hedges
Blair and Miller, whose behavior was reprehensible, were fired. But they were also scapegoats. They, and many at the paper, have no real moral compass. They know the rules imposed by the paper’s stylebook. They know what constitutes a “balanced” story. They know what the institution demands. They work hard. They have ingested the byzantine quirks and traditions of the paper. But they cannot finally make independent moral choices. The entire paper—I speak as someone who was there at the time—enthusiastically served as a propaganda machine for the impending invasion of Iraq. It was not only Miller.
The film should have looked more carefully at the colorless editor of the paper, Bill Keller, who will step down in September. Keller, who had been given a column as a consolation prize when he was first passed over as editor for the hapless Howell Raines, served, as faithfully as Miller, la causa. He was a vocal cheerleader for the war in Iraq. In one column he called for the firing of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell because Powell wanted U.N. approval for an invasion. He wrote glowingly about Paul Wolfowitz. And once he was in charge of the paper he placed Sam Tanenhaus, a conservative admirer of William F. Buckley, in charge of the Book Review section and the Week in Review.
Keller, whose on-camera comments are bland and vapid, represents the ascendancy of neocons inside as well as outside The New York Times. This process of ideological reconfiguration, first begun by the paper’s Editor Abe Rosenthal in the 1980s, was accomplished through a series of purges, persecutions, firings and dismissals as well as the appointments of those who, like Tanenhaus and Keller, have little allegiance to the tenets of traditional liberalism, tenets that made a free press possible. Senior editors such as Keller and Tanenhaus are products of the time. They do not question the utopian faith in globalization. They support preemptive war, at least before it goes horribly wrong. And they accept unfettered capitalism, despite what it has done to the nation, as a kind of natural law. The reigning corporate ideology has infected the Times as it has most other liberal institutions. Because this ideology does not challenge the status quo it is defended by these editors as evidence of the paper’s impartiality, balance and neutrality. ExxonMobil, Citibank and Goldman Sachs are treated with deference and respect. The inability to see that major centers of corporate power are criminal enterprises that are plundering the nation and destroying the ecosystem is evidence not of objectivity but moral bankruptcy.
The motion picture’s focus on Carr and the media desk, one of the smaller and less important departments in the paper, means that the most important sections in The New York Times are ignored, including Foreign, National and Business. The Business section, which never appears in the film, is one of the largest in the nation. Its editors and reporters, however, completely missed the looming financial meltdown. If the paper’s reporters had spent time in poor neighborhoods where subprime mortgages were being peddled to people who could never repay them, they would have understood and been able to explain to readers the tottering financial system. But poor people rarely get a voice in the Times. Instead, the paper’s business reporters busied themselves with interviews with the elite and powerful on Wall Street or the latest financial “news,” much of it manufactured by public relations firms. The Times’ obsession with access has blinded many at the paper to the dark machinations of the corporate state. And the paper, as advertising revenue has plummeted, has become ever more craven in its efforts to placate the wealthy elites their corporate advertisers seek to reach. The lifestyle sections of the paper are rife with stories about fancy restaurants in New York, summer happenings in the Hamptons, designer wardrobes, expensive cars, exotic vacations and exclusive private schools that are accessible to only a tiny percentage of rich Americans. The headline in Sunday’s Real Estate section is typical: “It’s July. Do You Know Where Your Beach House Is?”
The Times, like Harvard University, where I attended graduate school, is one of the country’s most elite and exclusive institutions. Its ethos can be best summed up with the phrase “You are lucky to be here.” That huge numbers of people at The Times, as at Harvard, buy into this institutional hubris makes the paper, where I spent 15 years—nearly all of them, thankfully, as a foreign correspondent a few thousand miles from the newsroom—a fear-ridden and oppressive place to work. The Times newsroom, like most corporate nerve centers, is a labyrinth of intrigue, gossip, back-biting, rumor, false piety, rampant ambition, betrayal and deception. Those who play this game well are repugnant. They are also usually the people who run the place.
When you allow an institution to provide you with your identity and sense of self-worth you become an obsequious pawn, no matter how much talent you possess. You live in perpetual fear of what those in authority think of you and might do to you. This mechanism of internalized control—for you always need them more than they need you—is effective. The rules of advancement at the paper are never clearly defined or written down. Careerists pay lip service to the stated ideals of the institution, which are couched in lofty rhetoric about balance, impartiality and neutrality, but astutely grasp the actual guiding principle of the paper, which is: Do not significantly alienate the corporate and political power elite on whom the institution depends for access and money. Those who master this duplicitous game do well. Those who cling tenaciously to a desire to tell the truth, even at a cost to themselves and the institution, become a management problem. This creates tremendous friction within the paper. I knew reporters with a conscience who would arrive at the paper and vomit in the restroom from nervous tension before starting work. If Rossi had examined the effects of this institutional hubris and the pathology of the paper’s self-infatuation, if he had looked at the paper’s large and small failures as well as its successes, he would have pushed past the myth of the Great Oz, peddled to him by the paper’s editors and minions like Carr, and uncovered its troubled core.
Chris Hedges worked as a foreign correspondent at The New York Times for 15 years. His column appears on Truthdig every Monday. He is the author of “Death of the Liberal Class” and “The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress.”
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