It's so hard to teach New Yorkers," says
columnist John Tierney of The New York Times, lowering his binoculars
and shaking his head. "I try twice a week, and it never works." It's morning in
Manhattan's Riverside Park, and Tierney and I are standing near 89th Street,
spying on dog walkers on the promenade below us and counting how many leash their
pets upon leaving the enclosed dog run, as city law requires. We're in the
data-collection stage of a mock scientific experiment conducted for Tierney's
twice-weekly column "The Big City." Here is the protocol:
Step 1: Tierney and I spend 15 minutes tabulating the ratio
of unleashed to leashed dogs (3:1).
Step 2: Tierney hands out $20 bills to law-abiding dog walkers and, as
they gape, provides flyers that read:
You are hereby awarded the sum of
Twenty Dollars ($ 20.00)
for engaging in civil behavior in a public place.
Thank you for keeping your dog leashed.
Tierney's objective is to test the libertarian hypothesis that civic virtue
can be promoted through financial incentives. To limit sample bias, the dog
walkers aren't informed that their "awards" will be billed to a New York
Times expense account.
Since the 1994 launch of "The Big City" in the New York Times Magazine
(it now runs Tuesdays and Fridays in the Metro Section), Tierney has, among other
things, dressed up in a ski mask with a fake bag of loot and tried to hail cabs
outside banks (he went five for five); advocated stealth egg-throwing to punish
urban boors for noisy car alarms ("Have you enforced a norm today?"); and escaped
from a stopped subway car and jogged along the tracks back to the station,
arguably risking his life.
Tierney's best friend and fellow conservative gadfly, Forbes FYI editor
Christopher Buckley, calls Tierney "a bit of a merry prankster" but concedes that
even his pranks have a political point. When out-of-town liberals like Rosie
O'Donnell and Hillary Clinton were attacking Mayor Rudy Giuliani for clearing the
homeless off the streets, Tierney dressed up as a bum and slouched on the
sidewalk outside O'Donnell's Westchester County mansion. A cop promptly forced
him to move on. In feature articles for the Times Magazine, Tierney has also
savaged rent control and enraged environmentalists with a 1996 cover story titled
"Recycling Is Garbage" (see "Garbage In, Garbage Out," below), which prompted
a record number of letters and a book-length refutation by the Natural Resources
Defense Council (NRDC). Indignant responses to Tierney's articles often vastly
exceed his original word count.
A major character in Tierney's prose is ... Tierney. In one strangely
personal column, he imagined turning "Recycling Is Garbage" into a film script:
I once despaired of selling my life to the movies. My reporting
had never saved a life, rescued a city or put me in mortal danger. An article
against recycling had angered some environmental groups and provoked a lot of
angry letters, and a carton of smelly garbage, but that didn't seem to be enough
for a movie.
What is this man doing at the Times? In seven years of writing "The Big
City," Tierney has built a reputation as a provocateur whose journalistic
sallies tend to target New York City's liberal elite. Underneath the urbane,
whimsical-prankster sensibility, however, is a fairly straightforward ideological
mission. Despite its title, Tierney's column is not entirely a reporter's
notebook of random musings about Gotham. It's closer to a series of briefs for
laissez-faire. In his breezy attacks on rent control, his advocacy of
school-voucher programs and workfare, and his conceit that norms can be bought,
he sides again and again with the free market and personal initiative. As a
libertarian, Tierney also celebrates what he calls New York's "tradition of
being a sin city" and has gone after the mayor regularly for moralistic behavior,
like clamping down on strip clubs and imposing smoking ordinances. This adds to
the column's plumage and the sense that Tierney is a fun guy.
Tierney is also something of a science-and-technology wonk. His ideal of
dynamic technological progress, an endlessly developed and redeveloped New York
cityscape, recalls a futuristic scene from Isaac Asimov's Foundation series:
the vast planet of Trantor, whose surface is covered by a single, sprawling
metropolis. "The whole point of Manhattan is congestion," wrote Tierney in a
column debunking what he refers to as New Yorkers' "Green Acres Syndrome."
Early in his career, Tierney covered science and energy for New Jersey's
Bergen Record; in the 1980s, he freelanced for a wide range of magazines,
including Discover and National Geographic Traveler. In "The Big City,"
this strain has shown itself both in his pseudo-anthropological commentaries on
New York's dating and fashion scenes and in his repeated attacks on
environmentalists. Tierney is frequently compared to the contrarian ABCNews
correspondent John Stossel, a friend of his who's gone after the organic-food
industry and Erin Brockovich. Both reporters have a legion of environmentalist
enemies; Tierney's particular nemesis is NRDC senior scientist Allen Hershkowitz,
who calls Tierney's famous article on garbage an "intellectually dishonest piece
Tierney's ability to blend ideological crusade and puckish provocation is an
important factor in his rise at the Times. The paper nominated him for a
Pulitzer last year, and there are murmurs of a promotion to the op-ed page. Along
with featured nonliberals William Safire, Maureen Dowd (whom Tierney used to
date), and Times Magazine contributor Andrew Sullivan, he's part of the
conservative counterbalance to a paper whose moderate leaders view it, perhaps
too charitably, as liberal.
But Tierney also has his detractors at the nation's paper of record. Noting
that "Recycling Is Garbage" is viewed as "archetypal" at the Times
Magazine--the Platonic form of contrarian, controversialist journalism--one
former Times editor points out that Tierney's contrarianism fails when it
becomes such a formula that its ostensible unpredictability is itself
predictable. "If you ran a piece that said murder is good," says this editor,
"you would also get a lot of letters."
The entire Tierney formula was on display in his recent Times Magazine
piece on Hasbro's new handheld video game Pox. Tierney followed market
researchers onto Chicago playgrounds looking for what marketers call "alpha
pups"--the coolest kids in the school. These kids then got free games and a $30
payment, plus additional free games to give out to their friends. Pox includes a
short-distance transmitter, allowing players to compete at a distance of up to 30
feet--say, by holding the devices under their desks in class. This promotional
strategy of disseminating the games among third-grade opinion leaders is known as
Tierney was delighted by it all. In his account of the campaign, Hasbro was
the ally of nine-year-old boys having a fun time at the expense of grim school
administrators trying to keep video games out of school. Where a conventional
journalist might raise an eyebrow at the manipulativeness of the whole
enterprise, Tierney's antic sympathies were with Hasbro and the kids. He found an
expert to debunk the idea that video games cause violent behavior and he got in a
nice dig at the concern that it's mainly boys who play these games. ("Both sexes
were still ignoring grown-ups' advice to play together, and maybe they knew
best... . While academics plotted to get boys and girls playing together on
computers, the kids seemed to recognize all along that it was a lame idea.")
Tierney wondered whether he'd want his own kid playing Pox at school but
shrugged: "Well, it was probably no worse than shooting spitballs." So there it
is: grown-ups as scolds, the market as liberator, all packaged as a cool story
with the ideology deftly added in light touches.
It's hard to criticize the Times for pursuing ideological breadth, and
Tierney is clearly a talented and inventive writer. In disarming columns ranging
from epistolary parodies to a series of mock standardized-test questions, he
seldom seems at a loss for unconventional ways of promoting his ideas. Reading
Tierney, you often get a hearty dose of libertarianism without really noticing
it. When it finally comes, the occasional screed catches you almost by surprise.
Tierney is a benign-looking man of midheight whose blue eyes
and prominent cheekbones make him look a bit like a younger version of William F.
Buckley. Over lunch at a pricey Manhattan eatery called City Hall, a place where
the urinals are packed with ice cubes, Tierney is helpful, self-effacing, and
funny. "He's a pleasant fellow, everybody will tell you that," observes the John
Jay College historian Mike Wallace. "This doesn't preclude vigorous differences
Wallace would know. The co-author of the massive New York City history
Gotham, he was appalled by a particularly egregious Tierney column on the
Triangle Shirtwaist fire (a piece prompted by a Ric Burns documentary on New York
that featured Wallace as a commentator). Tierney conceded that the tragic fire was
triggered by "unsafe conditions at one factory" but deplored the way the event
has come to be considered the catalyst for historic occupational-safety
regulations. While pooh-poohing subsequent OSHA-style reforms, Tierney called the
turn-of-the-century garment industry a "dynamic economy" in which immigrant
workers "could walk across the street to a competing company or a whole new
Tierney's Triangle Shirtwaist column reads as a formulaic retrofitting of
free-market thinking onto a particular historical event--and shows how Tierney
the slick contrarian can lapse into Tierney the pamphleteer. For example, Tierney
cited a 1908 study by the U.S. Immigration Commission that found the average
salary for an immigrant garment worker to be 8 percent above average. This,
Tierney argued, contradicted the fairy-tale "capitalists versus workers" story
told by Burns in his documentary. But as Wallace pointed out in a rebuttal to
Tierney's column (they later debated on public television), garment work was
seasonal, sometimes lasting only half the year. So most immigrant garment workers
ended up far below the poverty line. Contrary to Tierney's libertarian idyll, a
century ago the Triangle workers couldn't easily move to "a whole new
industry": As women, their main alternatives were domestic service, other
grinding factory work, and prostitution. When women's opportunities and
conditions finally did improve, it wasn't the work of the free market but of
social movements and legislation.
Generally, though, Tierney's columns are more subtle. Sure, he's advocated
the privatization of Central Park ("turnstiles at the gates will take some
getting used to") and the secession of Manhattan--extreme versions,
respectively, of free-marketeering and localism. But these were Swiftian
modest-proposal pieces, written half in jest as a way of throwing out
off-the-wall ideas to push people's buttons.
Independence [for Manhattan] would present a few logistical
problems, of course, but we shouldn't be deterred. It's not worth staying in a
bad marriage just to avoid the paperwork of divorce. We've been abused for so
long that we have a hard time imagining life on our own, but all we need is a
little confidence. All we need is a small first step--say, a trial separation from
Staten Island, with joint custody over the ferry. And then, if we can make it
without Staten Island... .
Up from Liberalism (to Mars)
Tierney's politics were once approximately those of the liberal Times
editorial page. He was born into a large Irish Catholic family, the son of
academics. The Tierneys moved a lot, from outside Chicago to Indiana to
Minneapolis to South America and finally to Pittsburgh, with a year spent in Spain
along the way. (Apparently there's a family gene for journalistic mischief:
Tierney's brother Patrick recently authored the wildly controversial Darkness in
El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon.) Tierney was a
liberal in his youth but says frustrating experiences trying to get a summer job
in one of Pittsburgh's steel mills helped sour him on unions.
Tierney idealizes danger and exploration in his writings, often rather
blithely. This interest has an ideological side: For libertarians who prize human
industry and initiative, exploration can be a hallowed undertaking. In a 1999
cover story for the libertarian magazine Reason in which he advocated exploring
Mars, Tierney wrote:
Mars gives libertarians a rare chance to be for something, to
present a grand vision of freedom instead of merely trying to fend off the
latest excesses of big government. Building the future is a splendid alternative
to the drudgery of deregulating and privatizing the present.
Tierney casts his urban forays as mini-adventures, as expeditions. When he
went around New York ticketing people for antisocial behaviors like
littering--the confrontational flipside of his dog-walking experiment--it was
almost as if Tierney was thrill seeking. "Wearing a black-and-white-striped
referee's shirt and a badge identifying me as a Civil Referee," he wrote, "I took
to the streets looking for incivility and hoping not to be killed." Presumably, a
few close calls were welcome.
Tierney's enthusiasm for Martian exploration is of a piece with his
sometimes gushy futurist techno-optimism, an outlook that dates at least to 1985.
Tierney was preparing to go to Kenya to report on the population crisis for
Science. He was getting sick of Malthusian doom scenarios of shortages and
famine, so he called the late libertarian economist Julian Simon, author of The
Ultimate Resource (a 1981 book on the potential of humanity). On population
issues, Simon was an undying optimist who believed that Malthusians were guilty
of Chicken Little-ism. When pressed, human ingenuity would find ways to feed as
many mouths as necessary.
Tierney funneled Simon's futurism into his prose. In a much reprinted 1990
Times Magazine piece titled "Betting the Planet," Tierney described the wager
between the "Cornucopian" Simon and The Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich ("the
Malthusian") over whether a quantity of five metals--chrome, copper, nickel, tin,
and tungsten--would become more or less valuable over the course of a decade.
(Ehrlich lost.) The article took a David-and-Goliath angle, depicting Simon as a
daring underdog and Ehrlich as the established purveyor of conventional wisdom.
This particular way of shaping a story--centering it on the exploits of a
"libertarian hero" figure--recurs in Tierney's writing. But how many times can
David slay Goliath before becoming Goliath himself? Despite conservative
intellectuals' pose of being lonely outsiders in a hostile liberal culture, the
realities of power have shifted. The liberal New York Review of Books is still
required reading in the Hamptons, but the Manhattan Institute has the inside
track at City Hall. Over the course of his two mayoral terms, Rudy Giuliani has
significantly shifted the political burden of proof onto those who advocate a
stronger safety net and bigger city government. Yet the right still seems to get
away with playing cultural underdog.
Some of Tierney's attempts to inject economic thinking into his
journalism fall flat. In his piece on recycling, he wrote: "And what about the
extra space occupied by that recycling receptacle in the kitchen? It must take up
at least a square foot, which in New York costs at least $4 a week to rent. If
the city had to pay for this space, the cost per ton of recyclables would be
Passages like this make me nervous as I sit in Tierney's Upper West Side
apartment before we leave for Riverside Park. Holding the empty bottle of my
finished Orange Mango Nantucket Nectar, I wonder: Should I just throw it out, out
of respect for my host's libertarian dissent? Or should I wait to get outside and
find the right disposal option?
When I finally ask what to do, Tierney shows me to a closet where, to my great
surprise, a recycling bin is taking up its pricey square foot of space. I toss in
my bottle, thinking dazedly: John Tierney recycles. John Tierney
recycles. But, he explains, it's only because city law requires it. Tierney
practices intellectual provocation, not civil disobedience.
When Tierney and I return to his apartment after the Riverside Park
experiment, the building is a dark monolith of scaffolding. Tierney's landlord is
adding extra stories. All new buildings in New York must be built with sprinkler
systems; older buildings undergoing major renovations must have them put in. So
Tierney, who opposed the sprinkler law to begin with, had to put up with
installation. "As far as I know, the neo-boiler-room decor of our apartment makes
me unique among the veterans of the sprinkler debate," he wrote in a column
recounting his sprinkler ordeal. "I wasn't able to find any pro-sprinkler
politicians or journalists who have personally experienced the joy of sprinkler
Later, Tierney takes me on a sprinkler tour. It's midmorning, and the
household is awake; Tierney's wife Dana and his two-year-old son Luke are sitting
in the kitchen with his mother-in-law. When Tierney comes in, Luke demands that
he take off his jacket, and so Tierney's left wearing corduroys, a shirt and tie,
and his "Civil Referee" jersey.
While this is happening, I take in a few apartment motifs. In the bookcase,
there's a plush hardcover copy of The Explorers, by Paolo Novaresio. On
Tierney's desk sits a small wooden box with a picture on its lid of a galleon
amid icebergs--a scene of the South Pole explorer Ernest Shackleton's ship
Endurance locked in an ice floe. It recalls Tierney's gloss on why we should
colonize Mars: "It is in going to new places and forming new societies that you
come up with great ideas."
Maybe it's just the ghost of Julian Simon talking, but I decide that this is
Tierney's most winning trait. Tierney sees his own writing as a Shackletonian
process of exploration; his best columns read as gleeful journeys of intellectual
or comic discovery. They're fueled by a rhapsodic libertarian ideology, a faith
in progress and human abilities that could be called naive--or far worse. But
even this has its good side. As the former Reason editor Virginia Postrel
observes, at least Tierney's not a cranky libertarian of the sort who's
constantly griping about taxes and big government. It simply doesn't fit his
But buying into Tierney's professed nonpartisanship is a lot harder to do. So
is sharing in the Times's rather contrived liberal enthusiasm for its
conservative contrarian. Tierney comes off looking the best when you compare him
to other self-styled underdog and "independent" journalists who are nastier and
more conventionally conservative, like Fox News's Bill O'Reilly of The O'Reilly
Factor. O'Reilly's columns run in the hysterically right-wing Washington
Times; Tierney's in the hallowed New York Times. O'Reilly is an
overbearing windbag; Tierney is soft-spoken and funny. Next to O'Reilly, Tierney
comes off as flexible and independent-minded.
Then again, maybe Tierney's just much better at pulling off the aisle-crossing
act. He professes to be guided only by evidence. "I've seen people who have
turned out to be wrong, older experts who pursued something with the best of
intentions. My hope is that that won't happen to me. That if I start seeing stuff
where the real world contradicts my theory, then I'll be able to change."
So far, Tierney hasn't changed. When I ask him if he's an equal-opportunity
debunker, he says, "I'd like to be." Then he brings things back to his pet issue:
"I could write something about the good side of recycling. And there are some
benefits." He pauses. "But everybody else writes that."
The Neocon Times
Last year the Times asked Tierney's pal Christopher Buckley to write the
citation nominating Tierney for a Pulitzer Prize. When Buckley requested
guidance, he received a note suggesting that he might point out that Tierney's
column belied the paper's reputation as a purely liberal organ. "They were
offering him as their credential for evenhandedness," suggests Buckley.
For the record, the Times insists that Tierney is not their token
conservative. Tierney came up through the Times working originally as a reporter;
it's not as if he were recruited on an affirmative-action policy. John Landman,
Tierney's Metro editor, objects when I inquire whether Tierney might be there to
provide balance: "Now, if you're asking me, am I proud that John Tierney's part
of the Metro Section, you bet your ass I am. But not 'cause of his ideology.
'Cause of his skill."
Tierney's closest equivalent is not William Safire, who was indeed brought onto
the op-ed page for ideological balance, but Maureen Dowd, another Irish Catholic
writer with a fondness for mockery. "The snotty style is in these days," observes
New York University communications professor Todd Gitlin of the pair. Another
journalist-media critic, former New York Daily News columnist Jim Sleeper (author
of Liberal Racism), describes Tierney and Dowd as "safety valves"--outlets for
dissent from the Times's liberal values. Sleeper stakes out political terrain
somewhere between the Times editorial page and Tierney, whose writings he
admires. For more steadfast liberals, however, the conservative columnists at
the Times are less safety valves than emblems of the paper's shift away from its
All of which suggests how far both the Times and Tierney have come over the
course of the Giuliani era. When Tierney started his column, the paper had just
supported David Dinkins for mayor instead of Giuliani. "By having John write a
column, it was at least a partial redress," says Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at
the Progressive Policy Institute and former editor of the conservative Manhattan
Institute's City Journal. Whatever the case, in 1993 and 1994 a confluence of
factors catapulted conservative gadflies into power and influence in New York:
Giuliani, the Manhattan Institute (whose ideas he relied on), Tierney at the
Times. The spirit of the moment, appropriately enough, may be best captured in
words spoken by Giuliani and quoted by Tierney in his 1995 Times Magazine profile
of the mayor. "I absolutely love, and maybe I overdo this a little," Giuliani
told Tierney, "to suggest something new and then watch the reaction to it.
Sometimes I'm not even sure we should do it, but I love to watch the reaction
from the so-called intellectuals."
In this quote, Tierney almost seems to be channeling his own journalistic
doctrine through the mouth of the mayor. Tierney's supporters insist that his
column will take on new relevance in the post-Giuliani era, when the city could
swing partway back toward its liberal roots. Yet as the conservative impact
lingers at the Times and New York's other power centers, the ascendance of
Tierney's ideology may undermine his formula. His brand of contrarianism could
seem less and less fresh--having become part of the conventional wisdom.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
John Tierney's best-known piece, "Recycling Is Garbage," was
Tierney was cautious to include disclaimers in "Recycling Is Garbage,"
Curbside pickups. In a lengthy section of "Recycling Is Garbage," Tierney
Forest depletion. Tierney also took on the environmentalist dictum that
Landfills. Tierney asserted that municipal solid-waste landfills are, by and
In addition to the EDF's 17-page rebuttal, Allen Hershkowitz wrote an
For all the controversy it aroused, Tierney's garbage article had little