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Defenestration on 43rd Street

    This is tragic.  This is silly.  This is nuts. 

    The Howell Raines downfall turns on a mix-up (inside and out) of molehill and mountain.

   The media crisis in the country (and in its greatest print-era newspaper) has next-to-nothing to do with the sins of a pathetic little conman, Jayson Blair.

   It doesn’t have much to do, either, with Raines’ management style. He’s a month in the country compared to that volcanic player of favorites, Abe Rosenthal.

   The crisis has everything to do with the evidence that more than half of the citizenry came to believe that Saddam Hussein was the author of the World Trade Center attack.

   If half of New York believed that that Martha Stewart was the Mets’ shortstop, The Times would not only set us straight, it would inquire how the misconception arose–even ask if their pages had contributed to it.

   The crisis in the democratic information business is all about the big media (including the New York Times) staying “on message” with the reckless Bush administration in the long duplicitous runup to war with Iraq.  “Inevitable” was the Times’ favorite word about the war, trivializing the largely unreported questions and reservations about the Bush war planning.

   The nastier inside crisis at the Times is the unprecedented and truly lethal civil war among the Op-Ed stars:
Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman against Tom Friedman and William Safire.  Friedman says that bait-and-switch war propaganda from the White House is, in effect, good enough for government work.  Paul Krugman says it  is “arguably the worst scandal in American political history — worse than Watergate, worse than Iran-contra.” Dowd names Safire among the neo-con war groupies.  Safire says there was no intelligence failure on the missing Weapons of Mass Destruction.  These are not reasoned differences; this is editorial and moral chaos.

   The style-book crisis at the Times is that the paper hasn’t the vocabulary to tell the people what Colin Powell told his staff (“This is bullshit!”) about the cooked-up panic alarms he was supposed to sell at the United Nations.

   The real nightmare for the Times is the plain fact that one-way print-based corporate journalism cannot prevail in a rough-and-ready information game against the interactive, almost-free, global, democratic and instant Internet.  For hungry hounds of news and for “the rising generation,” in the late Times saint James Reston’s phrase, the Times will never again be “the paper of record,” as we used to call it, or the first draft of history.

   Around the Iraq war and the many dismayed post-mortems–in the dazed, double-speaking minds of Paul Wolfowitz & Co and in the stinking slums of Baghdad today–the New York Times has to confront its rather amazing timidity, shallowness of reporting, thinness of political judgment as the war machinery geared up.  

   If Howell Raines is to be held responsible for serious lapses, let it be for the Times’ pusillanamity around the unnecessary war that the Bush team slipped past the Congress and the sleeping watchmen in the serious press.

   Abe Rosenthal defined his time at the Times helm by publishing the Pentagon Papers, the Kennedy-Johnson secret history of the Vietnam War.  Max Frankel’s Times chose deliberately to bury the Genifer Flowers story about Bill Clinton, the candidate.  But Joe Lelyveld (and Howell Raines, then on the editorial page) went full bore at same story when Clinton and Monica Lewinsky reenacted it at the White House.  

    The crucible of leadership at the Times, it seems, requires that readiness “without fear or favor” to tell the folks that their government is lying to them–again.  Howell Raines will be remembered for missing his opportunity to ferret out more of what we should have known and argued about Bush’s war in Iraq.

   Family note:  One of my daughters read the Times’ first self-exposing story on Jayson Blair and said: “Amazing!  That’s the guy who sub-let my apartment when he was interning at the (Boston) Globe  He left me a mess, and an $800 phone bill.”  Blair ducked her, of course, but she hounded his parents.  “This isn’t fair,” she had told them.  “I’m a student, too, trying to making it on my own as much as he is.”  They paid her in full, and that was the end of it.  It wasn’t about affirmative action, or public moral posturing.  It was petty fraud, addressed head on.  Our kid puts the Times to shame.

{ 14 } Comments

  1. Anonymous | June 6, 2003 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Come on Chris–

    Do you really think Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction in the recent past?

    Do you think, perhaps, that Saddam, out of the goodness of his heart or– fear of sweet, grandfatherly Hans Blix –actually got rid of all his nerve gas, bio agents, ect??

    I don’t mean this tongue in cheek, I mean this seriously.

    And please don’t label me a neo-con.

    And please don’t also insinuate that the Op-ed crew at should all fall into some kind of party line.

    There is no party line Chris!!!

    Op ed is supposed to be a market place of ideas– it should be chaos, remember?

    Start worrying when the op ed crew all sings the same song. Then you should be scared.

    As far as Saddam goes…

    …he torched the Kuwaiti oil fields when it was obvious he had lost the war…

    …he tried to assisinate George Bush Sr. as well, so…

    …wouldn’t cleaning out the WMDs’ be a great act of spite for a tyrant with a proven track record of spite?

    And also– given that Hussein was counting on world opinion (combined with a bloody, protracted seige of Bagdad) to save his regime.

    Don’t you think this also would have been a string incentive for Hussein to roll up his WMD’s in advance of the U.S. led invasion that certainly would have uncovered them???

    Worse still (and you are not alone in this Chris) if enough liberals really pursue this faulty line of reasoning: “surely there were no WMDs in Iraq!!!”…

    …do you think that the common-sense majority of Americans will actually vote said liberals into power anytime in the near future?

    Or is pursuing such an argument worth, say, 15 years in the political wilderness while the Republicans rule the roost until the 60’s generation dies out?????

    The majority of Americans are right when they say that Saddam destroyed or exported his WMD’s on the eve of war.

    This same majority will continue to vote Democrats out of power if they press the fantasy that dear old Saddam had no such weapons in the recent past.

  2. Anonymous | June 7, 2003 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    James, who doesn’t say his last name, it would appear that Saddam did not have any weapons of mass destruction. Had you asked me before the war if he did or didn’t I would have said he probably does, but now I’d have to say it’s the other way. The problem is that our government was supposed to know, they said they knew, they asked us to believe, and they were lying.

  3. Anonymous | June 7, 2003 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    This is really just a minor quibble with your post–I have others but honestly I can neither not articulate them or back them up–but I think the Times chose ‘inevitable’ not to absolve themselves of the responsability of asking and answering questions about the war (by all means they did this, but on the wrong subjects like how long it would last, do we have enough troops, will Saddam use his WMDs, etc–not ‘are there rally WMDs’) but to show how really inevitable the war was. Perhaps it seems lame that they would use, in age of euphamisms and political doublespeak, a word that means what it means, but when they said inevitable they were telling us, the reader, that there was no amount of journalism and no amount of protest that could stop Bush’s march (Bush, after all, called a world-wide protest of millions of people a ‘focus group’).

  4. Anonymous | June 7, 2003 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    The idea that there is moral justification to attack and kill others or to change regimes by force to prevent a greater harm is prone to abuse. Great care and honesty should be used in deciding to pre-judge and apply prior restraint with bombs and guns, and I believe that what Chris and many others are saying is that they question whether George Bush and Tony Blair used such care and honesty with themselves and the countries they lead.

    The other issue raised is related. I live part time in the United Kingdom and part time in the United States. The war in Iraq reported on British television and newspapers bears little resemblance to the war in Iraq reported in the United States. Further, the BBC has been running a series over the past few weeks called “The War We Never Saw” that contains disturbing coverage of US and British violence against civilians, wide angle shots showing a small crowd (50-60 people) in an almost empty square when the “cheering throngs” pulled down the statue of Saddam in Baghdad, and frightening stories of what is happening right now in Iraq with a war supposedly over but American soldiers bullying and harrasing Iraqs for speaking out against US/UK occupation and trying to protect themselves from unexploded cluster bombs and other munitions.

    If more balanced information was provided by the US government and US news agencies I would feel more comfortable with the debate and decisions to use force to interfere with other nations. Given what I have witnessed over the past 12 months during the build up, invasion, and aftermath in Iraq I can see no other choice but to question the factual basis, accuracy and honesty of the information being reported to the American people.

  5. Anonymous | June 12, 2003 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    “James… …it would appear that Saddam did not have any weapons of mass destruction”

    That statment is so ludicrous that it makes me not respect your intellectual capacaties. Perhaps Left politics have become an orthodox religion for you– rather than a dynamic self questioning process????!!

    Further, the large mass of Americans in the political middle won’t respect such wishful naivete (‘Saddam had no weapons of Mass destruction in the recent past’) AND WILL VOTE THE LEFT OUT OF POWER FOR A LONG TIME TO COME OVER SUCH DELUDED NONSENSE!!

    COSTING US ALL in the following areas:

    1) The environment.

    2) Health care.

    3) Education.

    4) Gay rights.

    Ect, ect, ect.






  6. Anonymous | June 13, 2003 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Good mornig

  7. Anonymous | June 15, 2003 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    “The real nightmare for the Times is the plain fact that one-way print-based corporate journalism cannot prevail in a rough-and-ready information game against the interactive, almost-free, global, democratic and instant Internet. For hungry hounds of news and for “the rising generation,” in the late Times saint James Reston’s phrase, the Times will never again be “the paper of record,” as we used to call it, or the first draft of history.”

    Well, I’m not so sure about this. I first encountered a species of this kind of thought in 1991, when I was working at a local book publishing house (David Godine) as a co-op job during college. Everyone there seemed to think that the novel and publishing was dead despite the fact that more books were sold now than at any point in history, and there are more literate people now than at any point in history. Why so glum, chum?

    In terms of the Internet and the blogosphere, look at exactly how “news” is covered — the starting point is almost always a news article, frequently from the NYT or CNN or the BBC. Most news and politics blogs (and talk radio shows) are *commentary,* not reporting. That’s because individual bloggers simply don’t have the resources to go out and cover a war. They gotta keep their day jobs. If the war happens to be in their backyard, what they’ll be telling you about is how it looks in their basement and what kinds of canned goods they’ve got.

    In short, new forms of media don’t generally collapse or overtake old forms of media — TV did not kill radio, radio did not kill newspapers. The Internet will not kill any of the above. The only thing that may change is the physical format the above media types may come at you in — LPs, transistor radios, morphing into MP3 players and satellite data transmissions. But it’s still radio, TV, “the newspaper.” And in many cases, the physical format remains unchanged for decades and even centuries because no better solution presents itself. The best example of this phenomenon is the book. The display resolution of paper is excellent, its durability relative to cost is superior to everything else including digital media (which isn’t forever! I print out my kid’s baby photos, because I don’t think anyone will be able to read the file format I use now when he’s in college).

    New media do *change* previous media, and I think you’re on to something with focusing on the op-ed page, because that’s the part of the newspaper that is most “under threat” from the blogosphere. Although TV didn’t kill radio, it did take over the role of storytelling from it — dramas etc. moved from radio to TV. The blogosphere may take over the opinion-manufacture-and-distribution-biz from newspapers. But they’re unlikely to take over “news.” Money matters in that biz, and bloggers don’t have any 🙂

  8. Anonymous | June 23, 2003 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    What are you doing here, Chris?

    Go back to WBUR and take over the dis-Connection again. The Connection used to be the NY Times of talk shows, now it’s an earnest College paper: all earnestness and no wisdom and no sense of irony.

    I used to love criticizing you, but then there was something worth criticizing. Dick Tracy isn’t even worth criticizing. All he deserves is what he’s getting: a turned off radio. Is it any wonder WBUR needs to schedule extra fundraisers. They don’t know it but they need you. And I need an intelligent lefty I can criticize.

  9. Anonymous | June 23, 2003 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    You can’t skip over the Jayson Blair debacle without acknowledging the Affirmative Action problem. Doctrinaire liberals like Howell Raines take a moralistic stance, then become virtual caricatures of its worst excesses. Jayson Blair would have been uncovered and out the door a LOT sooner if he’d been white. The filtering that white liberal guilt generates in those situations has become laughable. Fairness and genuinely equal treatment should be common sense by now. Raines lost his integrity in full view of his newsroom and the general public.

  10. Anonymous | June 23, 2003 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    At first I held that the U.S. military should be allowed twelve years to account for Iraq’s WMDs, same as the UN got. Now I feel the pressing nature of the issue, and am only willing now to grant them one tenth as much time, dated from the end of the active combat phase. So, let’s see what we’ve found a year from now. Fair enough?

    And if U. S. intelligence turne out to have been wrong, you still have to prove that they were lying, if you want me to believe they were lying.

    And no fair moving the goalposts. The antis said that Iraq had no connection with terrorism. We found terrorists and terror training grounds in Iraq, which prompted the hasty insistence that they had nothing specifically to do with Al Qaeda. Do not back and fill, please. No one on any side of the issue should be afraid of the truth. The antis can always, if they are proved wrong on the WMD, simply go back to their 9/11 stance, and just say that oh well America deserves whatever the terrorists dish out anway.

    And it is not an altogether bad thing for the terrorists and the euroweenies to have to think twice before they cross us again, n’est pas?

  11. Anonymous | June 25, 2003 at 10:22 pm | Permalink


    If you think that the war against Saddam and his regime was “unnecessary,” then you keep your head where the sun never shines!

  12. Anonymous | July 18, 2003 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    As a liberal who supports the war in Iraq, I find the liberal focus on the WOMD question a little unnerving. I don’t know of any thinking liberal who, going into the war actually believed that the real reason we were going in was to because Saddam had WOMD and was threatening to use them. There were a lot better and more subtle reasons why it was a good idea to get rid of Saddam Hussein. First, he supported suicide bombers in Isreal. Second, we was a horrible dictator that we couldn’t ever have normal relations with, and if September 11 taught us one thing, it is that we need to over the long term, build a footing in the Arab world. We could never do it in Saudi Arabia because of the monarchy and other strong religious forces. Syria has too many legimimate gripes against Isreal to do it there. Egyptian government is our friend, but is totalitarian and corrupt. Baghdad has been the center of the Moslem intellectual world for a very long time, and if we can bring about a democracy in Iraq it will be the greatest long-term security we can build. I acknowledge that always a certain group will radicalize against change, but if you look at the poll taken a couple days ago, a majority of the citizens want the US to stay and rebuild the country. Iraq was a gamble and it may be a great failure but I respect George Bush a lot for taking the chance on a great success rather than fail conservatively.

    Tim Burns

  13. Anonymous | July 23, 2003 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    Tim you are a liberal who’s foreign policy views I respect!!

    I like your realpolitik analysis despite the fact that it may ruffle some anti-imperial feathers.

    And an added note: Good riddance to Uday and Qusay!!

    Well deserved praise should go to the young men (and perhaps women?) who put their lives on the line today in order to take those two monsters out.

    Especially my thoughts are with the young soldier who took a round in the chest (and thankfully lived) in order to help rid the world of Uday and Qusay Hussein.

    This young man is a hero by any standard and deserves praise for his courage.

    Phil Murray

  14. Anonymous | September 16, 2005 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Realy good site!