Thursday, February 21, 2008

Flailing Brand: New York Times Descends to Tabloidism

While Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham have used the New York Times' hit piece on John McCain to pump up their own ratings and (hoped for) relevance, Thomas Lifson offers a principled criticism of the Times' flailing journalistic practices:

The decline and fall of the New York Times accelerates, with today's anonymously-sourced hit piece on John McCain. I will leave to others like Rick Moran and Ed Morrissey the debunking of the story itself. What concerns me is the manner in which the CEO of the organization has jettisoned standards that once would have ruled out publication of such material.

"A fish rots from the head" goes an old Chinese saying. If it is true, as
reported, that the story was controversial within the Times, and only ran because the paper feared that The New Republic would publicize the office politics at the Times over publication of the story, the Sulzberger's responsibility is all the greater. His inability to set clear guidelines, hire capable editors, and maintain newsroom harmony and discipline was about to be exposed to the public. To protect his hind quarters, he went with a disastrously bad story.

The proper response to TNR would be a statement that the Times does not rush into print with anonymously sourced accusations against the presumptive nominee of either party. And do it with a straight face.

Such an approach might have begun to undo the damage of Jayson Blair, a man promoted and retained despite obvious signs of trouble. Such an approach would be consistent with the Times' previous
practice of seriously downplaying similar and much worse stories about Bill Clinton's sexual behavior. Such an approach might have begun to undo some of the damage to the institution of the Times inflicted by Pinch Sulzberger's management.

The corporation he heads is in the fight of its life, with the News Corporation-owned Wall Street Journal preparing to challenge it as a national general interest newspaper, while disgruntled shareholders search for a way to reform management, despite a dual class shareholder system which enables the Sulzberger family to elect a majority of shareholders despite owning only around 10% of the company's equity.

In the face of these challenges, The Times descends a full notch or two, resorting to partisan gossip that is inadequately sourced. This is not a way to enhance the value of the brand, nor to ensure the survival of the firm.
Lifson makes a good case.

I would note that for all of the Times' liberal politics, bloggers, commentators, and pundits from all sides of the spectrum are equally quick to jump on a story from the Old Gray Lady if it suits their ideological program.

Certainly, the paper's reputation has been in decline, but so far the Times remains the country's "unofficial newspaper of record."

Frankly, I wildly prefer the Wall Street Journal, not just for its editorial slant but for the rigor of its front-page news journalism. I think WSJ is hard to beat, and I'm hoping that it really does become the country's main national daily, toppling NYT from its perch.

Now, we debate issues with the media we have, and thank goodness for the tremendous news resources at the command of the American news industry. Could things be better? Naturally. The media's hardly a watchdog for the people much these days, serving as a fourth branch and checking the power of one governmental faction or the other. The news media are not only increasing partisan actors, but they're increasing the "news."

Perhaps NYT will boost its revenues a bit. I don't think they're going to hurt McCain all that much, although
Rush Limbaugh may get some good mileage out of this.

We've still got a good ways to go until the November election. I doubt the fundamental dynamics of the race will change much, nor will this be last of such underhanded tabloidism.