Entry from May 24, 2002

There’s something not quite persuasive about what Jack Shafer writes in Slate concerning the sacking of Andrew Sullivan from the New York Times Magazine by the Times’s editor, Howell Raines. Although this “makes it easy to villainize Raines as the autocratic boss who squashed the Weblogger with his mighty thumb,” he writes, we can hardly express surprise and dismay at it. For

what American newspaper — outside of the old Village Voice — would have allowed a contributor to serially and publicly deride it as long as Sullivan did the Times before bouncing him? Most newspapers are preternaturally touchy about criticism. Just two years ago, Washington Post sports editor George Solomon cut loose horse-racing stringer Dave McKenna after he accused Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser of “meanness” and wrote one unflattering sentence about Post luminary Shirley Povich in Washington City Paper. (To its credit, the Post covered the McKenna controversy in its own pages. Such self-coverage is unheard of at the Times, except when the Pulitzer-monopolizing giant flubs a big story like the Wen Ho Lee case.)

Of course one is sympathetic to the view that a newspaper ought to be able to control what goes into it, and to demand as a minimum qualification for its writers that they respect the paper’s editorial decisions. But at the same time it needs to be mentioned, at least, that institutions like the Times or the Post are monopolies in a way that even the post office or the telephone company don’t get to be anymore. In London, a writer fired from The Times can apply to the broadsheet Telegraph, Independent or Guardian, to say nothing of half a dozen tabloids. In New York, there are only a couple of tabloids and the new Sun (for which I write), which is still just getting started. In other cities the alternatives are even fewer.

Is it just possible that, when you’re the only journalistic game in town, good corporate citizenship might require a bit more tolerance of what we could call, with just the tiniest hint of mischief, diversity? Shafer goes on to note that “One can”t overestimate how seriously Times people like Raines take the newspaper as an institution, worshipping its traditions and its glorious past.” But that’s just the problem, isn’t it? The bigger and more glorious it becomes, the less it can plausibly present itself to would-be dissidents as a partisan voice like any other, entitled to insist on administrative and ideological homogeneity.

Much of the insufferable self-righteousness of America’s journalistic “professionals” as, by their own account, the guardians of liberty and objective chroniclers of our times arises out of this same absence of competition. How should we expect the creatures of the media culture, wherein they rarely meet an opinion that has not been down that well-worn liberal track, to regard conservatives as anything other than the outlandish types they in fact do regard them as? How can they not swell up with the sense of their own righteousness when Providence has so arranged it that they are in charge of the biggest and best sources of news while the unrighteous are relegated to fringe journals or web-logs?

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