Entry from August 1, 2003

Great news! Our troubles are over! The New York Times is at last to appoint an ombudsman. A report prepared by a special task force formed by the New York Times under its assistant managing editor, Allan Siegal, to look into the Jayson Blair affair has recommended not only an ombudsman but an ethics czar as well. So that’s all right then.

But Siegal, according to Howard Kurtz’s report of the matter in The Washington Post, doesn’t want his ombudsman to have a job description exactly like that of Michael Getler, who does the job at the Post. “There are features of Getler”s job we did not incorporate,” Siegal told Kurtz, “such as a weekly column in the paper and a weekly memo to the staff.” The new executive editor at the Times, Bill Keller, had added a cover note to the report which worried that quite such sweeping powers as Getler had “would foster nit-picking and navel-gazing.”

You’ve got to laugh. As if the whole idea of the task force and its report were not itself an exercise in nit-picking and navel-gazing. As if all the internal attacks on the Times’s culture of insularity were not the best evidence that the culture of insularity shows no slightest traces of dissipating. As if anyone, anywhere might imagine that the report’s call for greater “openness to dissent” at the Times were anything but a joke.

Times employees, that is, might win the right to disagree with Howell Raines, or Bill Keller, on matters of editorial policy, but to how many of them would it occur seriously to disagree with them on matters of substance?

It is in the nature of the Manhattan media culture to be blind to its own political uniformity, and its bland assumption that anyone with a right to be taken seriously thinks pretty much as it does on any subjects that matter. An amusing instance of this ideological predisposition had appeared in the Times the day before the report was released when its readers were no doubt heartened to learn that, “After more than a year of nonstop visits to Iowa and New Hampshire on a threadbare budget, supported mainly by volunteers who had connected over the Internet, [Howard] Dean, who began as an antiwar gadfly, has in the past month burst from his obscurity to rank among the top contenders in a crowded field of Democrats for the party”s presidential nomination.”

The article, by Jodi Wilgoren and David Rosenbaum, pays tribute to Dr Dean’s “stunning surge as the top fund-raiser among the potential Democratic candidates in the second quarter” and his rivalry with those hitherto thought to be stronger candidates like John Kerry and Dick Gephardt. But the gravamen of the article is that, despite “his early and intense opposition to the American- led attack on Iraq, his call for universal health insurance and his signing a bill that created civil unions for gay couples in Vermont,” he’s not really the liberal that people think he is. In fact, part of the putative excitement of his campaign is owing to the fact that, in the words of the headline, Dean is “Defying Labels Left or Right.”

Who knew? You or I might suppose that supporting gay marriage in all but name and universal (i.e. government paid) health-care and opposing — intensely, forsooth — the war in Iraq were pretty infallible indicators of a leftward tilt, to put it no stronger. But in Vermont — where, as the Times helpfully informs us, the “political center of gravity lands left of the nation’s” — Dr Dean is apparently regarded as being practically a conservative for supporting business and the N.R.A. and ticking off some environmentalists.

In short, he is “a pragmatic politician” or “more pragmatic than ideological. He is less George McGovern than John McCain, less Eugene McCarthy than Jimmy Carter.” There is just a mention, set apart in brackets to indicate its dubiousness, of the Democratic Leadership Council’s stigmatizing of Dean as an advocate for a “far left” agenda, but The New York Times clearly knows better. Its calm, dispassionate, objective account of his candidacy cites approvingly the good doctor’s own view of what he learned from the legislative battle over “civil union” for gays in Vermont: “I realized you could win by standing up for what you believe in.”

Just imagine what would be the attitude of your typical New York Times reporter to that same statement in the mouth of a Republican candidate. If it were reported at all and not merely dismissed as boilerplate, you would be able to hear the sarcasm as you read it. But neither Miss Wilgoren nor Mr Rosenbaum is likely to be aware of any disparity in their treatment of this candidate or of their own credulity in happily branding him “pragmatic” and label-defying.

In the same way they go on casually and with sublime unconsciousness of self-parody to mention that, in addition to the millions Dean has reportedly raised from little people and first-time contributors, “he also has had conventional fundraisers in Provincetown, Mass., and on Cape Cod. On the West Coast, his supporters include Rob Reiner, Martin Sheen, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Nora Ephron and Larry David.” What, no Ed Asner or Barbra Streisand? I guess he must be just too right-wing for them.

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