Pretend for a moment you're a close friend of New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. The two of you are finishing off a nice dinner at say, the Century Club, about to reach for the cognac tray, when Arthur mentions that he's got a decision to make and he'd like to ask your advice. He wants to add a strong conservative voice to the Times op-ed page, and its editor, Andrew Rosenthal, has given him a list of 25 columnists for consideration.
Arthur says he's set on Bill Kristol. He's remembering how infuriated people were when his father offered a job to Nixon hack William Safire, who eventually turned out to be one of the great pundit-reporters of the past 30 years. He thinks Kristol, a neoconservative boy prince, former staffer for Dan Quayle, Republican Party strategist, and guiding spirit behind The Weekly Standard, might be a bold choice that could distinguish his tenure as publisher just as the former Nixon flack did his father's. Arthur wants to know what you think.
You promise to have a memo listing the pros and cons ready for your friend first thing Monday morning. Here's what you come up with:
- Rupert Murdoch overpaid for The Wall Street Journal in part to dethrone the Times as the primary print conduit to America's taste and opinion-makers. Hiring Kristol, who works for Murdoch both as editor of The Weekly Standard and a commentator on Fox News, would undercut one of the Australian media magnate's most recognizable "brands."
- David Brooks is the paper's only dependably conservative pundit on the page these days and is no longer considered 100 percent reliable by his ideological comrades, as he sometimes allows reality to take precedence over partisan interests. Kristol, however, remains reliably right-wing and Republican; reality be damned. He not only continues to defend the invasion of Iraq as a good idea -- which Brooks does not -- he wants to invade Iran and Syria, and possibly Lebanon. No question about it; when it comes to neocon warmongers, Kristol is the Mona Lisa, the Tower of Pisa ...
- You guys attended grammar school together, and I hear, politics aside, Kristol's a nice enough fellow.
- Andy Rosenthal's dad and Kristol's dad used to be regular lunch pals, too.
- Kristol promises not to use his column to attack the paper, and since he's been a columnist before, we can assume he'll get his copy in on time.
- Well, from the standpoint of empirical accuracy, the choice is rather difficult to justify. To be honest, based on his predictions about the Iraq War, Kristol may be the worst pundit on earth. You'll recall, for instance, before the war when he said, "We can remove Saddam because that could start a chain reaction in the Arab world that would be very healthy," and "Very few wars in American history were prepared better or more thoroughly than this one by this president." Believe me, I could go on.
- In addition to being wrong, Kristol is also a vicious McCarthyite toward those with whom he disagrees, and among his prime targets has been, um, The New York Times. Remember, for instance, when he called the editorial board "leftists" who "hate George W. Bush so much they can barely bring themselves to hope America wins the war. ... They hate conservatives with a passion that seems to burn brighter than their love of America."
- He also thinks it reasonable that you, Arthur, should be tossed in the slammer for the crime of journalism. Remember when he said, "I think it is an open question whether the Times itself should be prosecuted for this totally gratuitous revealing of an ongoing secret classified program that is part of the war on terror," and "I think the Justice Department has an obligation to consider prosecution"? (He added, by the way, that the paper was "irredeemable.")
- All this might remind you that, unlike Brooks, not only has Kristol never been a journalist, he evinces nothing but contempt for the profession and its role in the safeguarding of democracy. Sure, Safire was no journalist at first, either, but he certainly became one. Kristol, alas, not so much. (If his column in Time magazine for the past year is any indication, he will likely just phone in Republican talking points.)
- What's more, you'll have to throw out your own rulebook to hire him. As it stands now, none of your other columnists are allowed to keep a full-time publishing job outside the Times and none are allowed to be on the boards of partisan think tanks. Allowing Kristol to do so is going to make you look desperate and a little pathetic, just in case all of the above hasn't done so already.
- Come to think of it, those other jobs involve working for Rupert Murdoch, who may be evil but who's no dummy. Perhaps you need to ask yourself: Why does Murdoch, who wants to take you down, want Kristol working for you? Could it be that if he quits after a year and goes to the Journal, you will have created an enormous publicity coup for them?
Well, we all know how the story ends. But the question remains for those of us who continue to feel invested in America's most important newspaper: What is the meaning of this decision? How, given all of the above, did the "pro" side of the ledger somehow come to outweigh the "con," and what does it mean for the future of the paper and the future of journalism?
Alas, we are likely to never get a straight answer from Arthur Sulzberger, who recently ensured that his personal papers will be kept under wraps until 2057, and who rarely makes himself available to unstructured questioning from reporters. Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal, speaking to Politico, dismissed all criticism of this "serious, respected conservative intellectual" as "intolerant," "absurd," and indicative of a "weird fear of opposing views." Despite post-Jayson Blair promises of greater transparency, the Times itself offered no new coverage of the controversy, and none of Kristol's colleagues on the page apparently thought it wise to weigh in, either.
The only discussion of the decision available to Times readers could be found in Public Editor Clark Hoyt's weekly column. Hoyt, who is not answerable to the executive editor or the publisher, did question both Rosenthal and Sulzberger about the decision and explained to readers in his column on Kristol that he personally believed it to be a mistake, albeit a minor one. Unfortunately, however, Hoyt took the opportunity to mock virtually everyone who objected. Noting that he had received roughly 700 messages -- only one of which was favorable -- about Kristol's hiring, Hoyt excerpted just two of these, each one apparently picked to portray objectors as simultaneously ridiculous and unhinged.
As one of Kristol's many liberal critics who does not fit Hoyt's portrayal, I'm tempted to point out rather gleefully that Kristol embarrassed both himself and his paper with his very first column. He misattributed a quotation from one right-wing pundit to another with the same initials. But the merits of Kristol's columns for the Times are actually trivial when weighing the larger implications of the decision itself. Remember, Kristol is not merely a conservative, he's a McCarthyite. He's not merely critical of the so-called "liberal" media, he equates honest journalism with treason. Why, when the Times could have chosen any conservative columnist in America, did it feel compelled to pick him?
The answer is that the Times' real list of "pros" for choosing Kristol had nothing to do with journalism, and even less to do with its loyal readership. Sulzberger had every right to believe that the predictable fury caused by naming Kristol would actually prove a plus. It would earn the paper a great deal of furious argument in the blogosphere, which would, in turn, attract readers, particularly conservative readers, and hence advertisers. This would thereby improve the paper's balance sheet following the failure of "TimeSelect." It would also put a dent in the paper's reputation as an organ incurably "liberal," which many Times salespeople consider to be a drag in the world of corporate advertising.
But in an age when the traditional audiences for daily newspapers are disappearing more quickly than Greenland's glaciers, such thinking will likely turn out to be a grievous mistake. Successful media enterprises are reinventing themselves online as communities of shared concern, and the Times has taken steps in this direction, creating numerous blogs, offering chat opportunities, and sponsoring festivals and other means of reader participation. But by choosing Kristol, and then refusing to take the criticism seriously, Sulzberger and company are demonstrating their lack of concern for the deeply held values of the natural community of Times readers.
The Times' readership is special, and it treats its newspaper that way -- taking it personally, for instance, when the paper allowed itself to be bamboozled by the neocons on Iraq, and then when the publisher, unaccountably, stood behind the primary bamboozler, Judith Miller, when she went to jail in order to protect her administration sources. The paper let Miller go and claimed to have learned its lesson, but its willingness to invite Kristol to continue her mission on the op-ed page indicates the opposite. Now that the storm has passed, the paper is returning to business as usual. Administration liars and their apologists are treated on equal terms with those who risk their careers and livelihoods to tell the truth.
My guess is that most readers of The New York Times take Kristol's disgraceful accusations against their newspaper far more seriously than do Sulzberger and Rosenthal. (And I hear 699 or so letter writers agree.) Readers understand this hiring to be a message that their concerns are, shall we say, immaterial. As a former close friend of the publisher's told me, it was as if Sulzberger and Rosenthal were saying, "The New York Times isn't yours; it's ours, [and] we'll tell you what's good for you."
In an especially eloquent New Years Eve editorial decrying the various crimes by the Bush administration, the editors wrote of what they termed their "sorrowful sense of estrangement" from a country that, at times, they could no longer recognize. No doubt it is too grandiose to compare one's daily newspaper to one's country, much less the hiring of a discredited propagandist to the infliction of torture on innocents. But Times readers may have felt a twinge of something quite similar from the paper they will likely no longer think of as their own. In an age where information itself is free and available everywhere, that's an awfully perilous business plan.