Though the common wisdom despairs over the steady decline in the readership of American newspapers, The New York Times remains central to the national debate, steadily expanding its organization and influence. As such, it’s a fat target of intensive, worldwide scrutiny and the obsession of media critics in an age when we’re all media critics, some of us with websites. Recent scandals—the blind pack-chase of the Lewinsky affair, the baseless pillory of Wen Ho Lee, the Jayson Blair/Howell Raines fiasco, and the shoddy Iraq war and WMD coverage—have hurt its reputation, leading to numerous examinations of the paper’s supposed bias, decline, or incompetence. It’s a testament to the Times‘ worth and resilience that it has weathered these failures with its reputation scarred but largely intact.
In The Record of the Paper: How The New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy, Richard Falk, a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton, and Howard Friel (founder of “an information services company”) argue that “the United States government has repeatedly violated international law with respect to its war-making over the past half-century or so,” a trend largely uncovered in the American press. They single out the Times “not because it is more at fault than other influential media outlets, but because it occupies such an exalted place in the political and moral imagination.”
Claiming that the paper either ignores or dismisses international law, the authors craft a clip-based analysis of its coverage of key foreign-policy blunders, from the Tonkin Gulf incident to the Iraq war and its buildup. Essentially, they’re right: The Times should be more supportive of international law, less credulous, and more inclusive of opposing viewpoints. But there’s something hard to swallow about their assertions that these failures betray a conscious effort by its editorial board to skew facts in order to “position” itself as politically neutral and thereby retain its profitable reputation as the Paper of Record. Were such pressure so pervasive, you’d think the authors would be able to get some pissed-off staffers to attest to it. And there’s an ideological twist to statements such as “terrorism targeting the United States is often provoked by U.S. and U.S.-sponsored violations of international law,” when the stated beefs of Islamicists (such as the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia) don’t conform to such simplifications.
On the other hand, in Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media, Seth Mnookin quotes a wide array of current and former employees, using a breezy but journalistically solid style that lends his version weight. He sinks his reportorial chops into the juiciest bit of scandal—the crazy deceptions of Blair and how they resulted from the oppressive atmosphere created by editor Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd—and pulls out a comprehensive, well-argued, humanizing narrative that goes further toward explaining the causes of the newspaper’s failures. His conclusions about the Blair incident show a deeper understanding of how newspapers work and fail (reflecting Mnookin’s experience as a former media writer for Newsweek) thando Friel and Falk’s legalistic-outsider condemnations.
After chronicling the intimidation characteristic of Raines’s tenure, Mnookin convincingly explains the paper’s early Iraq and WMD coverage by reporting that, “according to half a dozen sources within the Times, Raines wanted to prove once and for all that he wasn’t editing the paper in a way that betrayed his liberal beliefs, something he was especially intent on conveying after the beating the paper took for both its Augusta reporting and its flawed coverage of Kissinger’s position on an invasion of Iraq.” And by detailing the ways in which Raines’s heavy-handed style led to open revolt in the newsroom, Mnookin portrays a dedicated and somewhat besieged staff doing its best to live up to its reputation—a far cry from Friel and Falk’s description of a monolithic, decades-long tendency toward “positioning” that leads to deceptions on both news and editorial pages.
That unsupported assertion is lamentable, as The Record of the Paper makes the valuable observation that international law should be the starting point for all editorial examinations of U.S. foreign policy. But in their zeal to lay much of the blame for the Iraq war at the feet of The New York Times, the authors discount the array of factors that go into shaping the Times‘ coverage and policies. In fact, when someone like Raines tries to sculpt the newspaper according to personal biases, the paper has displayed an admirable capacity for self-correction. Mnookin gets that, Friel and Falk don’t, and while they all point to a tarnishing of the Gray Lady’s reputation, it’s the journalist of the group that works the story hard enough to reveal the not-yet-corroded mettle underneath.