A Tale of Two Times

I began buying the New York Times regularly in 1956 at Fletcher’s on the Square in Bellows Falls Vermont when I started high school. The Times had always been around the house because my father subscribed to it off and on and I must have developed the habit of reading it regularly by ’56. Nothing was said about my buying it every morning when we already got it at home. I think my father quietly dropped the subscription and depended on me to bring it home. It was deemed a proper thing for a young scholar to affect. There was adolescent show in it, but I read it and respected it. Propaganda was notably absent. You could count on the Times to deliver balanced in depth coverage on a variety of topics. You still can – sometimes. Here is a classic example of the NY Times at its best done earlier this month by John Burns about Pakistan. As the title Ghosts That Haunt Pakistan implies the title puts the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in historical perspective:

For 60 years since its founding in the partitioning of British India, Pakistan has seesawed between military dictatorships and elected governments, and now new hope for stability is being placed on the chance that democracy there can be revived.

But while attention is currently focused on the failings of Pervez Musharraf, the latest in a long line of military rulers, Pakistan’s civilian leaders, too, have much to account for in the faltering history of Pakistani democracy. Over the decades, their own periods in office have been notable mostly for their weakness, their instinct for political score-settling, and their venality.

If serious journalism is, as Richard Landes says, the first draft of history then the NY Times has always stood out by giving its readers an historical appreciation of important current events. I think it is fair to say the newspaper’s insistence on including such material is what gives it weight. The primary basis for its claim to be taken seriously. And exactly what made it so satisfying to read. For me the old satisfaction comes reading this article when John Burns gets at the crux of the present dilemma when he explains why we in the West badly misread Pakistani political reality.

The legend cultivated by Pakistani politicians like Ms. Bhutto and her principal civilian rival, Nawaz Sharif, cast the generals as the main villains in stifling democracy, emerging from their barracks to grab power out of Napoleonic ambition and contempt for the will of ordinary Pakistanis. It is a version of history calculated to appeal strongly to Western opinion. But it has been carefully drawn to excuse the role the politicians themselves have played in undermining democracy, by using mandates won at the polls to establish governments that rarely amounted to much more than vehicles for personal enrichment, or for pursuing vendettas against political foes.

What has changed at the Times is that they now use their reputation for impartial analysis to foist propaganda on us. They push a political agenda with an unscrupulous disregard for the truth. The blogosphere, praise the Lord, regularly nails them for this betrayal of public trust. Sadly, it happens regularly to the newspaper that carries the reputation and the responsibility of being ‘the newspaper of record’. The latest example is this piece Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles.

Town by town across the country, headlines have been telling similar stories. Lakewood, Wash.: “Family Blames Iraq After Son Kills Wife.” Pierre, S.D.: “Soldier Charged With Murder Testifies About Postwar Stress.” Colorado Springs: “Iraq War Vets Suspected in Two Slayings, Crime Ring.”

Individually, these are stories of local crimes, gut-wrenching postscripts to the war for the military men, their victims and their communities. Taken together, they paint the patchwork picture of a quiet phenomenon, tracing a cross-country trail of death and heartbreak.

Cue the violins. It is a classic beat up. Or as the NY Post put it: “Lock your doors, America: Here come the killer vets!” The Wall Street Journal more soberly sums up the core statistical distortion thus:

The 7,000-word article contained no statistics on the size of the veteran population, or on the prevalence of homicide either in the general population or among young men, who are disproportionately represented among active-duty and recently discharged service members.

Various commentators performed their own back-of-the-envelope calculations, including Ralph Peters of the New York Post, who estimates that if the Times figures are accurate, recent war vets are only about one-fifth as likely to be implicated in a homicide as the average 18- to 34-year-old.

It turns out that these young men are better than the rest of their age cohort despite having literally been to hell and back. Right here, right now I find it necessary to say “Thank you gentlemen and to hell with the NY Times’. There is no compassion for what these young men have been through and there is no respect. And I have no compassion for a once great newspaper who’s reputation and stock price are steadily falling. A recent survey by the Department of Media Studies and Digital Culture at Connecticut’s Sacred Heart University demonstrate there are consequences for this behavior that are by no means limited to the NY Times.

A Sacred Heart University Poll found significantly declining percentages of Americans saying they believe all or most of media news reporting. In the current national poll, just 19.6% of those surveyed could say they believe all or most news media reporting. This is down from 27.4% in 2003. Just under one-quarter, 23.9%, in 2007 said they believe little or none of reporting while 55.3% suggested they believe some media news reporting.

The very sort of trust I had as a boy in the NY Times is below 20%. And even more people can see exactly what they are up to:

The perception is growing among Americans that the news media attempts to influence public opinion – from 79.3% strongly or somewhat agreeing in 2003 to 87.6% in 2007.

And, 86.0% agreed (strongly or somewhat) that the news media attempts to influence public policies – up from 76.7% in 2003.

Even when asked about positive qualities the MSM don’t do very well:

The highest positive rating, 40.7%, was recorded for quality of reporting followed by accuracy of reporting at 36.9% and keeping any personal bias out of stories (33.3%).

Other low positive ratings included: fairness (31.3%), presenting an even balance of views (30.4%) and presenting negative and positive news equally (27.5%).

Although the survey emphasizes broadcast journalism the NY Times rates a mention along with the usual suspects:

By four-to-one margins, Americans surveyed see The New York Times (41.9% to 11.8%) and National Public Radio (40.3% to 11.2%) as mostly or somewhat liberal over mostly or somewhat conservative.

By a three-to-one margin, Americans see news media journalists and broadcasters (45.4% to 15.7%) as mostly or somewhat liberal over mostly or somewhat conservative.

And, by a two-to-one margin, Americans see CNN (44.9% to 18.4%) and MSNBC (38.8% to 15.8%) as mostly or somewhat liberal over mostly or somewhat conservative.

Just Fox News was seen as mostly and somewhat conservative (48.7%) over mostly or somewhat liberal (22.3%).

I take all polls with a grain of salt, but I think there has been a big shift in public perception of the media over my lifetime. The older standards I grew up with that required a duty to the truth have faded and I think that development is a general cultural change. I certainly saw it in my own work as an academic which began in the late sixties. I noticed that it became increasingly proper to have an agenda in one’s teaching and research. As time went on the duty to truth morphed into a duty to have an agenda. Reminders about truth faded. I think people of my generation made the mistake of assuming that the commitment to truth was still present and were rudely shocked to discover that, as time went on, it was not. And I must say it – discovered even in themselves that the commitment to truth had eroded. And as I have learned the hard way – to hell with that.

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