Gray Lady Down, In the Gutter

What would happen to a newspaper if its adversaries routinely outed its sources, hacked into its computers and publicized the conversations at sensitive managerial meetings?

The New York Times, the U.S. printing arm of Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, began publishing illegally obtained U.S. diplomatic cables earlier this week that the paper admits “could strain relations with some countries, influencing international affairs in ways that are impossible to predict.”  The Saudi Arabian king badmouthing neighboring leaders, State Department officials calling Hamid Karzai’s half brother a corrupt drug dealer, and Yemen’s president admitting his cover up of U.S. missile strikes on local al Qaeda outposts are among the embarrassing revelations that will make it more difficult for foreign leaders to speak frankly with American envoys.

The Times, as it did in its damaging exposés on NSA wiretapping and the SWIFT program, maintains its right to keep secrets.  Indeed, the editor notes that the trove of documents purloined from U.S. diplomatic channels was “made available to the Times by a source who insisted on anonymity.”  While reserving the right to keep its sources secret, and respecting WikiLeaks’s right to do likewise, the Times rejects the legitimacy of the U.S. government’s keeping matters of national security private. The Times justified its publishing of secret documents by claiming that “it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name.”

Was it not “presumptuous” for the Times, rather than the elected government of the American people, to decide what is in the national interest to keep secret and what is in the national interest to tell the world?

The arrogance is familiar to readers of the Times.  It’s certainly familiar to readers of William McGowan’s new book, Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means for America. Therein, Gray Lady Down depicts a newsroom drenched in “subtle and not-so-subtle anti-Americanism, anti-bourgeois hauteur, hypersensitivity toward ‘victim’ groups, double standards, historical shallowness, intellectual dishonesty, cultural relativism, moral righteousness and sanctimony.”

While the Times has understandably held the U.S. government up to scrutiny, it has exhibited little curiosity examining the claims of shady characters seeking to undermine that government. “Journalists are supposed to have an adversarial relationship to the institutions they cover,” McGowan concedes, “but when it turns into a reflexive oppositionalism, at odds with the middle register of American society and its values, there’s a problem.”  The paper’s declining circulation, stock price and ad revenue would suggest that McGowan is onto something.

Why does the Times get so much so wrong, and why are its motives so suspect on WikiLeaks and other stories?  Because the onetime “newspaper of record” allows itself to be driven more by ideology than by the facts.  This is particularly true of the daily’s coverage of America at war.

McGowan highlights the gullible Times coverage of the looting of the Baghdad Museum in the early days of the Iraq War.  “In truth, the museum was not ransacked; and much of its most priceless collections had simply been secreted away,” Gray Lady Down points out.  “Pejorative information about America’s allowing the looting came from former Baath officials, who had a self-interest in representing the U.S. military as the culprit in the cultural ‘crime of the century.’” Even after the stolen objects were numbered at a few dozen, the Times reported “thousands” of items lost. 

When an Iraqi identified himself as the hooded man standing atop a box at Abu Ghraib, the Times featured him in the March 11, 2006, front-page article “Symbol of Abu Ghraib Seeks to Spare Others His Nightmare.”  But two years earlier, the military had identified the ugly indelible image as that of another man, and the Times retracted the story.

The following year, the Times Sunday Magazine reported on Amorita Randall, a Seabee who claimed to have been raped in the Navy prior to suffering an IED-inflicted brain injury in Iraq.  The piece meshed with the jaundiced view of the military held by the Times, so the paper ran with it without fact-checking diligence.  And as McGowan notes, “Three days after the article had gone to press, the Navy called the Times to say that Amoritas Randall had never been in Iraq.”

When did the Gray Lady start to go down?  McGowan recounts a famous conversation during the 1960s between longtime Times Publisher Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, Sr., a former Marine, and his anti-war protestor son/successor.  “Walking across Boston Commons one day discussing the war,” Gray Lady Down relates, “Punch asked Arthur Jr. which he would like to see get shot if an American soldier came across a North Vietnamese soldier in battle.  Arthur Jr. defiantly answered that he would like the American to get shot because it was the other guy’s country. For Punch, the remark bordered on treason, and the two began shouting.”

In other words, publishing the WikiLeaks story is totally in keeping with Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger’s beliefs.