Will GOP regret attacks on The Times?

For four decades, conservative activists have worked to weaken The New York Times. Will they soon be sorry?

For four decades, conservative activists have worked to weaken The New York Times. The top ranks of the Republican Party, with varying degrees of genuine and manufactured outrage, have accused the nattering nabobs at the nation’s leading newspaper of sins ranging from rank partisanship to outright treason (a charge Dick Cheney more or less reiterated last week).

Over the years, the conservative elite’s contempt has trickled down to the base, gaining ?concentration in transit. After the Times exposed the Bush administration’s? warrantless eavesdropping program in 2005, a daily mob gathered across the street from the Times building to wave placards and chant “Prosecute the ?Times” at employees coming and going. In the Right's blogosphere, the ?Times is a piñata to be broken anew each morning with a battery of textual analysis and criticism from the smart set, calumny and snark from the dimmer bulbs. Both groups cherish the fiction that the tens of thousands of words the paper publishes daily are subject to a Pravda-like review to be sure they advance liberal orthodoxy with every carefully scrubbed fact and undermine conservatism with every comma. Meantime, on more occasions than the paper would like us to know, the newsroom has been the destination of letters containing ?baby powder and other faux anthrax. (Am I being presumptuous about the ideology of many in the baby powder brigade? Yes, I am.)

With so much else going wrong at their end, conservatives see a bright spot in the balance sheet of the Times. The paper is in bad shape. Some analysts contend it’s actually in terrible shape—at growing risk of bankruptcy or a forced sale. So here is the question: Would conservatives be better off without The New York Times?

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Not likely.

Even now, more than four months into the Obama era, the Times’ newsroom still declines to label the Bush administration’s policy of subjecting suspected terrorists to mental and physical abuse as “torture.” A similar hesitancy prevailed in the paper’s approach to Bush’s policy of warrantless? surveillance of American citizens. Out of deference to the Bush White House, ?the Times sat on the story for more than a year—including the 2004? election—before publishing it. (Quick thought experiment: For how many minutes would the paper have refrained from publishing a similar story at the behest of the Clinton administration?)

Like most powerful, entrenched institutions, including The Washington Post, the Times has a deep bias in favor of the way things are and of the values of existing business, cultural, and political elites. The paper takes its own seat at the power table immensely seriously—even to the point of talking itself out of plain English in the case of “enhanced interrogation” or postponing a journalistic scoop in obeisance to the view that terrorists won’t know they’re being wiretapped unless they read about it in the newspaper of record.

If the Times eventually fades or, in its nightmare scenario, is acquired by conservative mogul Rupert Murdoch, do conservatives really think the journalistic functions and bedrock liberal assumptions that define the paper would disappear? Those functions and values are already dispersing across the blogosphere, which is busy erecting its own liberal establishment.

This new establishment, however, is not very Timesian. How much institutional restraint would The Huffington Post bring to a scoop that embarrasses a Republican president? How sympathetic is Talking Points Memo to the notion that procedures derived from Chinese and Korean torture are technically something other than torture? How many liberal websites are eager to publish and promote conservative columnists like David Brooks or Ross Douthat in a spirit of open debate?

The depletion of the Times would represent a challenge to the Right for other reasons, as well. For all their complaints, even the most far-right conservative websites routinely embrace the Times as a source of truth—so long as it’s a truth they like. When conservative pundits blast Democrat Rep. Charles Rangel for corruption or lampoon former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer for his sexual escapades, the facts they use come straight from the Times. In September 2008, the McCain campaign attacked the Times as “a pro-Obama advocacy organization that every day attacks the McCain campaign.” In response, the Obama campaign released dozens of examples of McCain relying on Times reporting for the factual basis of his attacks against Obama.

As The Weekly Standard’s Michael Goldfarb has noted, conservative sites tend to be short on reporting. The liberal sites TPM, Huffpost and Emptywheel have all broken news; others, including Andrew Sullivan, have been crucial to the advance of big stories.

If conservatives were to look up from hammering nails in the Times’ coffin, they might notice that there is a growing web-based journalism infrastructure preparing to supplant their bête noir. It’s an infrastructure that is not only more liberal than the Times but also less inhibited by the paper’s habits of deference to power and concern for open debate and fair play. Having evolved in the era of Bush and Cheney, WMD and torture, much of the new establishment considers the contemporary GOP irredeemable. And unlike the Times, it refuses to treat conservative charges of liberal press bias as anything but a canard.

The more damage the Times sustains, the faster this new infrastructure rises to replace it. Maybe the next conservative protest outside the paper’s headquarters will be singing a different tune: “Resuscitate the Times.”

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