Off the Cuff: February 2006

Valentine’s Day is the 14th of this month, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about one of my lost loves. This love affair began many years ago, even before college. I’d fly out of bed so that I could spend the first hour of every day with her — my affair was with the New York Times. When I was a newlywed and barely had bus fare, we still had the Times delivered. I’ve been on beautiful outposts in the Caribbean and gone nuts on Sunday morning because nobody got the paper flown in. Always — boom! — up early, get the paper, check the front page. Recently, though, I realized that everything had changed for me. I could live without her. Oh, she still comes, every morning. And I still read her. But it isn’t the same.

I have the distinct feeling that the collective mind-set of the Times took a devastating blow when George Bush was first elected. And then — oh my God! — he was reelected. Now, as I’ve noted in this column, I am not a great fan of the President. But the ethos of the Times seems mired in the same funk as the Democratic Party: outraged at our government on many fronts, yet powerless to do anything except complain. That outrage has infected the tone and judgment of the New York Times.

The paper has always been politically liberal, but over the past several years, its editorials have veered sharply left, as have most of its columnists. What has infected both is a hopeless venom that undermines the critical eye. A recent op-ed by Bob Herbert, “The Lawbreaker in the Oval Office,” began, “The country has set the bar so low for the performance of George W. Bush as president that it is effectively on the ground. No one expects very much from Mr. Bush.” That sort of sweeping indictment has spread not only to other leftist columnists like Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, but to the tone of news itself. As Iraq was voting for a parliament a couple of months ago, a front-page analysis titled “Path Forward, With Many Ifs” began with a direct hit: “It took a thousand days after he ordered the invasion of Iraq for President Bush to describe in considerable detail his strategy for transforming the country and the region, and to lay out the benchmarks that he said Wednesday would lead to ‘complete victory.’” Any doubts about where this “analysis” was headed?

The Times’s view is not subtle, not when aggressive female interrogators at Guantanamo Bay are “sex workers,” or military desertion is “un-volunteering,” or when a dead soldier’s letter is selectively quoted to soften his pro-war view. Or when a column by David Brooks, straightforwardly outlining the options facing President Bush on intelligence gathering, is headlined “When Big Brother Is You.” In fact, the Times is undermining itself. A recent post-Katrina editorial quoted President Bush: “‘We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.’” Then, the editorial posed a question: “Did the president really mean anything by those fine words?” Yes, the Times has every right to criticize the President, but when I can feel the editor’s snide dismissal as he writes “those fine words,” and when an unmistakable cynicism starts leaching into every aspect of the paper’s political coverage, I no longer trust any of it.

I still get the Times. The coverage of the arts and science and the wonderful, quirky slice-of-life articles make it worth the price. But I’ve stopped listening when the subject has anything to do with politics. That’s a major rift in my love affair with the Gray Lady, and not a healthy thing — that our national paper of record has turned, politically, into a one-dimensional rant.