The April issue of Conde Nast’s Portfolio includes an essay by Howell Raines, “Murdoch vs. the Times,” which speculates about a possible sale of the Manhattan-based daily (ludicrously still referred by lazy writers as “The Gray Lady”) now that it’s certain that virtually every print-based media company will never again post enormous profits each year.
Even The New York Times!
Raines, a longtime correspondent and editor at the paper who was mercifully fired by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. in 2003 for his role in the Jayson Blair scandal, claims he’s saddened by this thought. Whether that’s a crock or not isn’t particularly relevant. It’s Raines’ view that Rupert Murdoch, the “jolly pirate” who last year stunned the communications industry by audaciously acquiring Dow Jones & Co., which publishes The Wall Street Journal, now has the Times on his wish list.
Raines says that any feeling of schadenfreude—there’s that word again, on the topic of laziness—over the troubles of Sulzberger’s fiefdom (both financial and editorial) are mitigated by his fear that Murdoch will turn the Times into a print/online version of Fox News. He writes: “As a Times pensioner, I want the paper to make money under public-spirited owners. As a reader, I believe a Murdoch takeover of our last independent national newspaper would be a disaster for trustworthy reporting on which our civic life depends.” Frankly, I don’t believe many Americans are fretting about the slumping stock prices of the Times, and the idea that “our civic life” depends on its autonomy is fairly insulting. Furthermore, Raines is hardly in a position to speak reverently about “trustworthy reporting,” considering that his tenure at the Times was cut short for an exact lack of that quality.
In any case, the Times demonstrates on a regular basis that its supposed “objectivity” is a tired trope—why the editors are too timid to admit that they run a left-of-center newspaper, from page one to the arts reviews to the opinion pages, is beyond me—which even sympathetic readers know to be false. The paper’s editorialists, when prescribing remedies for the nation’s economic or political difficulties, habitually, and condescendingly, refer to fellow citizens as “average Americans,” giving the impression that within the Times’ headquarters there are few employees who’d fall into that category. The Journal’s Holman Jenkins Jr., in a March 26 column about the fire sale of Bear Stearns, summed up this arrogant attitude with one brutal sentence, writing, “The Fed undoubtedly believed it was acting for the good of all of us, but to a certain kind of midtown editorial writer, only one thing matters: Bear Stearns. Rich guys with suspenders. Bailed out.”
Yet far from the world of $50 restaurant entrees, private university clubs and intricate estate planning to avoid inheritance taxes, there’s a teenager in Arkansas, an “average American” in the “heartland” who was mauled by a Times writer on March 24. In a front-page article that was borderline irresponsible at best and quite possibly negligent, “This Land” columnist Dan Barry described in harrowing detail the miserable life of a 16-year-old high school student who’s the constant target for bullies. Never mind that the spate of sociological “bullying stories” in the media over the past several years has run its course; Barry didn’t even make the pretense of tying the beatings of this one individual to a larger thesis. In so doing, the columnist—for whom this was a random human interest sketch, quickly forgotten as he scooted off to another assignment—has undoubtedly guaranteed that the youth, depicted as a gangly fellow with a learning disability who also happens to like girls, will come home from school every day with a pair of shiners or worse.
What’s incomprehensible, and disgraceful, is that the Times ran this story on the front page, along with a picture of the kid, adjacent to a foreign dispatch about the further disintegration of peacekeeping in Darfur. And Howell Raines worries about a Murdoch buyout of the Times reducing the once-respected institution to the level of the New York tabloids? It's conceivable that this national attention might drive the Arkansas boy into deep despair, resulting not only in further bullying, but perhaps suicide or a deadly act of violence against his tormentors.
I wonder how, if at all, Dan Barry and his Times editors would react to that.