Civil war at the New York Times: Newsroom attacks editorial page!

It promised to be a lulu of a story: “The Tyranny and Lethargy of the Times Editorial Page,” in the New York Observer on Feb. 4 by the paper’s editor, Ken Kurson. The subhead hinted at the juiciness of it all: “Reporters in ‘semi-open revolt’ against Andrew Rosenthal.”

Rosenthal, the New York Times’ editorial page editor, gets skewered by more than two dozen current and former Times staffers, as do his assistants who write the paper’s editorials, the columnists on the op-ed page, and the “Sunday Review” he’s in charge of. The attack, from all but two named sources among the Times staffers interviewed, proceeded on four fronts.

First, there were the assaults on Rosenthal’s leadership style and his personality. He is called “bossy” and “lazy as all get-out,” and one source says that “bullying” and “petty” are his middle names. Little evidence is provided, except Rosenthal’s obsession with the word “should,” which he tries to have removed from all news stories and used only in opinion pieces.

If Rosenthal is indeed a bully (and editors, athletic coaches and many bosses in all kinds of enterprises often are), reporters should be happy that he’s a lazy one – and, therefore, does less damage than an energetic bully could. And his bête noir “should” hardly seems cause for not allowing him to join some reporters’ lunch table in the cafeteria. No wonder readers were reminded of cliquish behavior in their high school cafeterias.

Second, the paper’s unsigned editorials are described as “reflexively liberal, utterly predictable, usually poorly written and totally ineffectual,” and thus fail to make the paper’s most emailed or most read lists. Do editorials on other papers, including conservative ones, fare any better? How much attention do voters pay to editorials endorsing liberal or conservative candidates? Readers won’t find answers in Kurson’s story.

And Kurson did not bother to ask how the editorial board’s liberal stance condemns the paper’s editorials to reflect what former Times reporter Chris Hedges calls “The Death of the Liberal Class”: “The liberal class has ossified. It has become part of the system it once tried to reform. It continues to speak in the language … of tepid political reform, even though the corporate state has gutted the mechanism for actual reform. The failure of the liberal class to adjust to the harsh, new reality of corporate power and the permanent war economy, to acknowledge its own powerlessness, has left the liberal class isolated and despised. The liberal class has died because it refused to act as if anything had changed.” (“The Death of the Liberal Class,” page 153.)

The reporters who call the New York Times’ editorials “reflexively liberal” are right – but they, too, have not acknowledged why those editorials cannot be different from today’s liberal weakness itself. “Kiss me, I’m a liberal” was once a joke. “Kick me, I’m a liberal” is the new reality the Times editorials have helped create, even among the paper’s newsroom staff.

Third, Kurson’s sources blast away at their paper’s columnists, with Tom Friedman their favorite target: “He hasn’t had an original thought in 20 years, he’s an embarrassment,” one staffer said. “He’s perceived as an idiot who has been wrong about every major issue for 20 years.” Others interviewed were less polite, with one referring to Friedman’s columns as “blowhardy bullshit.” It is not possible to argue with their judgments.

Maureen Dowd receives bad grades for similar reasons. One staffer told Kurson that “she’s been writing the same column since George H.W. Bush was president.” That seems a touch harsh. Could the same thing not be said about conservative columnists George Will or Charles Krauthammer? Sure, and that suggests that few human beings (professors and experts among them) can be “interesting” or “perceptive” or “original” on many topics over long periods of time. Most of us can be all those things on occasion, and about a few subjects.

Perhaps columnists could heed the advice of an American humorist who wrote: “People who have nothing to say should at least have the courtesy of shutting up.” A panel of reporters and editors could decide, column by column, which pieces have “something” to say and fill the space vacated by spiked columns with informative and enlightening news stories.

Finally, the “Sunday Review” (once the “Week in Review”) comes under fire for “getting worse” under Rosenthal’s editorship, but the only specific criticism calls the section “less fun and more pointless.” The section to longtime readers of the New York Times now seems “more fun” and “meaningful” to the entitlement and “me” generation of younger readers the paper courts with articles on lifestyle trends. And yet it also can feature a long and important editorial, such as “The Case for a Higher Minimum Wage” (Feb. 9, page 10).

One Washington Post blog referred to Kurson’s article as a “hit piece” (Erik Wemple, “17 problems with the New York Observer’s hit piece on the New York Times,” Feb. 5). It had the feel of a “hit piece” all right, but some of the hits were on target. At the same time, it did not explore the resentment in the New York Times newsroom, where staff and budget have been cut while those of Rosenthal have grown.

And the paper wasn’t helped by an unintentional hit inflicted by Friedman. He, or his headline writers, titled his Feb. 9 column as, “Whose Garbage Is This Anyway?”


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