There used to be a theory in the newspaper business, to which The Scrapbook wholeheartedly subscribes, that when two publications merged—say an afternoon daily with a weekday tabloid—the new hybrid publication would veer toward the lowest common denominator. That is to say, the new paper would more closely resemble the tabloid than its “prestige” partner.
Of course, few newspapers are merging these days, much less worrying about prestige. But The Scrapbook believes that this unwritten rule of journalism takes other forms as well. Consider, for example, the editorial and op-ed pages of the New York Times.
It is hardly worth mentioning that the Times’s editorial pages are liberal—all newspaper editorial pages have distinct political points of view—and that its stable of op-ed columnists and random contributors is heavily weighted toward the left. This has been true of the New York Times since the late 1960s, at least; and in The Scrapbook’s view, the Times is entitled to its opinions. But while the editorial pages crept decisively over time toward the left-wing fever swamps, they maintained certain rhetorical standards—of decorum and civility, even good humor, not to mention stentorian prose—which readers associate with the New York Times.
Until recently, that is. And The Scrapbook knows why. We call it the Krugman Effect. Readers who recall the Times of yesteryear must shake their heads in wonderment when perusing the op-ed columns of Gail Collins or Timothy Egan or Maureen Dowd or Charles M. Blow. But while their essays are more likely to provoke merriment in conservative ranks, the Princeton economist Paul Krugman inspires a kind of horror.
Like many left-wing ideologues, Krugman finds it impossible to believe that, say, congressional Republicans or conservative scholars say what they think in good faith, or on principle. In his view, they must know better—that is to say, they must agree with Paul Krugman—and to say otherwise is self-evidently corrupt or cynical. There is no other explanation for Krugman’s habitually cranky tone, barely suppressed hysteria, and incessant dismissal of conservatives as “liars” or “frauds” or “phonies” or whatever schoolyard epithet comes to his mind.
The problem, from The Scrapbook’s perspective, is that the coarseness of Krugman’s tone and the adolescent character of his invective are no longer confined to Paul Krugman. It has crept across the columns of newsprint to the Times editorial page, which has lately adopted the prose style and declamatory habits of a student newspaper. A recent editorial about Wisconsin governor Scott Walker—“Only weeks after giving up on his lackluster presidential campaign in the face of national indifference”—ended with “relief that Mr. Walker won’t be able to impose his warped ideas . . . on the rest of the country.” Republicans don’t say things; they “rage” or “spew” or “froth” or “scream.” The GOP is not the majority party in the House of Representatives but a “gang” that includes the new speaker, Paul Ryan, the “supposed congressional budget expert” whose rise extinguishes all hope for “rational government.”
As The Scrapbook says, the Times is entitled to its opinions, as we are to ours. But chroniclers of the age should take note: It’s a benchmark in the backward march of civilization when the Gray Lady of American journalism begins to sound like her delinquent niece.