Do Media Rule?

A response to those who think I was too kind to The N.Y. Times. Plus: the courage of the NYRB

Imagining Politics

Speaking of publications that dare to break ranks (as their readers expect them to), one of the few pleasures in this arid time is to see The New York Review of Books reclaim its role as the most important American venue for imaginative political writing.

I'm not just thinking of Michael Massing's devastating exposés of war coverage (especially in the Times), Andrew Hacker's incisive exegeses on economic reality, or the audacious reporting on Israel by Tony Judt and Amos Oz. I mean pieces that treat politics as a subject for the imagination. Norman Mailer might have placed his libidinal analysis of the war in a number of publications, but he chose the NYRB, not just because he had a book to promote but because that sort of speculative journalism has been one of that paper's hallmarks ever since its birth in the 1960s.

Back then it published eloquent dissent and acute reporting, along with David Levine's scabrous caricatures of Lyndon Johnson and, in 1967, a front-page diagram of a Molotov cocktail. It took the NYRB about a decade to live that down, and though its spirit of moral outrage remained, the paper gradually lost its animating connection with the left. In the Reagan era, it stayed out of the culture wars, except for dyspeptic attacks on structuralism and psychotherapy. Radical black and female critics were not to be found in its pages, which grew less relevant as a result.

But the present danger has brought a mood of mutual respect, if not consensus, to the left, and this new sensibility is finding its way into the NYRB. The May 27 issue, for example, contained a rich mix of the paper's concerns, from Byzantine art to the Beatles. The most significant piece, however, was Anthony Lewis's unflinching assessment of civil liberties under Bush. It allowed us to imagine what this government would be capable of after another terrorist attack. You won't find that in Foreign Policy or the Times' Sunday magazine.

If it comes to defending civil liberties in a crisis, I wouldn't rely on the mass media, liberal or otherwise. Look to a publication with a tradition of independent thinking, a strong circulation base to offset undue reliance on ads, and a real respect for the imagination. Short of a paper edited by descendants of Pastor Bonhoeffer, I'd put my faith in The New York Review.

Research: Matthew Phillp


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