America's Next Great Newspaper
From the May 26, 2003 issue: A great democracy like ours deserves a first-rate newspaper of record. And the New York Times isn't it.
May 26, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 36 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
CONSERVATIVES, populists, humorists, smart alecks, men and women of good will everywhere, including even a few Blue America types--in sum, a solid majority of our fellow citizens--are enjoying the misery of the New York Times. It is hard not to relish the sight of smugness shown up, pomposity punctured, and self-righteousness smashed.
We're of two minds about the glee. On the one hand, there is much that is impressive, even admirable, about the New York Times. Its in-depth coverage of events overseas is unmatched, certainly in the American press, perhaps in the world. It covers the arts as no other American daily newspaper does. It has some star reporters who pretty reliably perform star turns (John Burns in Baghdad and Michael Gordon at the Pentagon come to mind). And, as the Times's own, instantly notorious account of the Jayson Blair saga shows, there are competent and responsible editors in its ranks. What's more, and closer to home, the Times has been quite kind to The Weekly Standard, even as we have rarely returned the favor.
Still, the simple truth is that a great democracy like ours deserves a first-rate newspaper of record. And the New York Times isn't it. The last couple of weeks make clear that there is no real hope that the Times, under its current regime, can become that paper. In their bizarre May 14 town meeting with the news staff, editor Howell Raines is reported to have said he would not resign, and owner Arthur Sulzberger that he would not accept such a resignation.
Even if Raines were to go, everything we know about Sulzberger suggests his next pick would be no improvement. Fundamental regime change at the New York Times is not in the cards. Inspections and sanctions won't work. Even the French can't help. The Times is irredeemable. The question is whether a new newspaper of record will replace it.
The country needs such a paper. Its editorial page could be conservative or liberal, as long as it was thoughtful and serious, and not ignorantly disdainful of Red America--or anyone else. Its op-ed page would be intellectually interesting, mature, and diverse. This paper's editor would never be the former editor of the editorial page. And it would be possible for a member of the staff to enjoy career advancement even if he were known to hold some politically incorrect views.
At this paper, too, "diversity" would be understood not merely in terms of skin color. Jayson Blair was a middle-class kid from suburban D.C., who attended a fine state school--not presumably an underrepresented class at the New York Times. Yet he was Howell Raines's idea, and totem--and a badly exploited totem--of "diversity."
The first-rate paper we need would have real diversity--of background, of experience, but especially of viewpoint. It wouldn't, for example, suppress columns by its own sportswriters who happened not to be entranced by the top brass's project of transforming an all-men's golf club.
More important, this new paper would serve its readers by producing serious "news analysis" on the leading stories of the moment, not unintentionally comical meditations by disengaged semi-retired reporters.
Furthermore, this new paper wouldn't create in its own ranks a "culture of fear." Its reporters and editors would speak their minds among themselves, without concern that a minority viewpoint might cause them to lose favor. In its 7,200-word examination of the Blair saga, the Times was unable to find a single staffer brave enough to dissent on the record from his publisher's "diversity" orthodoxy. Surely the Times isn't really so homogeneous as not to have such a staffer?
Finally, this new paper would have a culture of accountability without favoritism, and responsibility without defensiveness--the opposite of the current Times regime.
In sum, we need, and deserve, a great daily newspaper. That paper would be careful and truthful, lively and unpompous, confident and not smug--and, of course, fair, balanced, and unafraid. Who will found it?