Gray Lady Down
What the Decline and Fall
of the New York Times
Means for America
by William McGowan
Encounter, 288 pp., $25.95
Bill McGowan should have won a Pulitzer for Coloring the News, his 2001 tirade against the transformation of mainstream American journalism into a circus show: clowns, freaks, and the fat lady, all in the center ring. As it happens, the book did win a National Press Club Award and sold reasonably well, but it should have sold phenomenally. McGowan should have won everything from the Nobel Prize for chemistry to the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for gentlemanly conduct in the National Hockey League. He should have had totems carved of him on small Pacific islands. The book should have been displayed on every coffee table in America—because it mattered.
Hard now to remember, almost a decade on, that there was a moment in 2001, after the attacks of September 11, when it seemed possible for the nation’s newspapers and magazines and television news programs to be called to seriousness. Called to abandon the culture wars. To shake loose from all the decadent, shock-the-booboisie feature stories that are luxury goods of a fat and lazy media culture. To go out and report the actual news.
Didn’t happen, of course, but McGowan was there at the time with a diagnosis and a plan, all based on his vision of what journalism had been on the rare but real occasions in American history when it practiced its profession with sincerity and skill. And now, with Gray Lady Down, he’s returned to the subject. The argument is, essentially, that the New York Times remains the nation’s premier media outlet—which is a fact with dire implications, for the Times ain’t what it used to be. In journalistic standards, in commitment to the American experiment, and in financial worth to its owners, the grand old Gray Lady has collapsed on the sidewalks of Eighth Avenue. Where a wealthy tourist named Carlos Slim is giving her artificial respiration and fingering her valuables, while the town’s workaday citizens hurry by, their gazes averted and copies of the New York Post clutched in their hands.
The trouble is that, this time, it doesn’t matter. The moment when such anguished cries might have made a difference has long gone by. McGowan loves the New York Times, loves it in a way only an old newspaperman and obsessive reader can. But the effect of his book isn’t to call the paper back to its better self. It’s merely another kick at the old gal as she lies gasping on the ground.
Yes, she brought it on herself, in many ways. She left her finances in the hands of a spendthrift relative (whose nickname, Pinch, ought to have been a clue). She drugged herself up with section after section of soft feature stories. She talked so incessantly about her crochets and pet peeves that no one wanted her in the house anymore. She carried herself with an arrogance so annoying that her every misstep was greeted with jeers. But now that she’s down, why bother putting the boot in?
On the day the current instantiation of the New York Times dies—gets sold by the Sulzberger family, or bankrupted, or turned into an online-only publication—the nation’s writers will fill their columns and blogs with long thumbsucking accounts of what it means for the decline and fall of America. For a week or two. And then they’ll move on. Because, the truth is, the New York Times doesn’t really matter all that much anymore. It’s a local paper with pretensions, a newsletter from the vicar of a once important but now mostly moribund parish, and the brutal economics of these days will eventually gobble it up.
Not that Gray Lady Down is a bad read. Remember the Times’s coverage of the rape accusations against the Duke lacrosse team? Remember the ins and outs of its relation with Judith Miller during the runup to the Iraq war? Remember Jayson Blair, whose “widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper,” as the Times itself ended up having to admit? McGowan reminds us of those stories and much more besides. Particularly in the chapters on race, homosexuality, and the culture wars, Gray Lady Down recounts all the little bits—the slanting of prose, the prettifying of photographs, the assigning of beats—that add up to an astonishing amount of dishonesty at the newspaper: a raging left-wing agenda masked by the claim to be objectively reporting the news.
McGowan clearly believes that things were better, once upon a time, which creates the most significant problem in the book: its author’s conviction that things could be better once again. Gray Lady Down opens with an account of the funeral of A. M. Rosenthal, the longtime editor whose death (in 2006) marked the end of an era. And throughout, McGowan uses Rosenthal as a symbol and a shining light, the figure who teaches how things ought to be.
The trouble is that the Rosenthal Era was over long before A. M. Rosenthal’s death. First joining the Times in 1946, he stopped editing it in 1986 and ceased writing his column in 1999. For that matter, even Rosenthal’s golden age wasn’t all that golden. In the 1970s and ’80s, Rosenthal himself created the “sectional revolution” at the newspaper, the addition of topical section after topical section—fashion, science, technology, etc.—that brought in an enormous amount of advertising revenue. But as Gray Lady Down repeatedly points out, the soft-news features of these sections created what became standard practice in American journalism, allowing the leftist political opinion and shared liberal culture of the Times newsroom first to infiltrate and then to take over the reporting that was supposed to be objective reporting.
In other words, maybe it was always thus at the nation’s newspapers. Golden ages only look golden when something even worse follows them. Besides, interesting as it all may be, it doesn’t really matter anymore. The New York Times is just another local newspaper, in the same financial and circulation trouble as them all. Why, exactly, are we supposed to care?
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.