June 26, 2012 · 2 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. runs the New York Times editorial pages. The Times is still a family-run paper, and though several other family members are on the board of directors, Arthur, Jr., a/k/a “Pinch” (a derogatory play on his father’s nickname “Punch”) is the publisher and chairman. Even if his love-life occasionally interferes, Pinch Sulzberger is a hands-on publisher. The Times‘ own public editor, Michael Okrent, confirmed that in 2004: “Sulzberger … bears ultimate responsibility for hiring and firing columnists,” and in 2005, Times reporters reconfirmed Sulzberger’s role: “The editorial page … is run by Mr. Sulzberger and Gail Collins, the editorial page editor….” Sulzberg’s control of the editorial pages is not a secret.
Sulzberger became the Times‘ publisher in 1992 and chairman in 1997, succeeding his father in those jobs. The editors of the rival Wall Street Journal have accused Sulzberger of keeping a fairly tight rein on the editorial pages, if not on the columnists: according to the Journal editors, Sulzberger chooses “not merely the editorial page editor but columnists, political endorsements and, as far as we can tell, even news coverage priorities.” Sulzberger, by most accounts, made a bad choice in Howell Raines, a mercurial editorial page editor who really did not like President Bill Clinton. Sulzberger rewarded Raines’ aggressive attacks on President Clinton by promoting him to executive editor, a rocky reign that came to an end in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, when Sulzberger learned that most of the Times newsroom personnel despised Raines.
To replace Raines at the editorial desk, Sulzberger hired Gail Collins, a short-timer at the paper but an old friend of Sulzberger’s then-wife Gail Gregg. Collins’ tenure as editor of the editorial pages is most notable for her acquiescence to Sulzberger in the Judith Miller contempt-of-court case. During the “Pinch and Judy” period, as Seth Mnookin wrote in Vanity Fair in late 2005, “the paper’s editorial page – run by Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and editorial-page editor Gail Collins – published piece after piece championing Miller as a highly principled American hero” for refusing to reveal her sources to government investigators probing the outing of C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame. The Times ultimately forced Miller – a long-time friend of Sulzberger’s – to retire when it became clear she had written false stories claiming Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction. Shortly before the Times negotiated Miller’s “retirement,” Maureen Dowd wrote a New York Times column in which she described Miller as “a woman of mass destruction.” You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to suspect that Dowd’s column was publisher-sanctioned; she wrote it after meeting “informally” with top Times personnel assigned to clean-up duty on the Miller fiasco.
Tom Friedman had a long career as a New York Times reporter before Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. moved him to the op-ed page in 1994. Friedman and Sulzberger surely have a fine relationship. In 2009, shortly after the Times public editor cited Friedman for violating the paper’s code of ethics by taking a $75,000 speaking fee from a political group, and while the Times was borrowing huge sums at high interest rates and cutting back staff, Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker asked Friedman about Sulzberger. Friedman said,
‘I just have a great deal of admiration for him.’ He told me that since taking his current post, in 1995, he has never been asked by Sulzberger what he was planning to write, or how high his travel expenses would be. ‘To be able to say what I want to say and go where I want to go – other than a Sulzberger-owned newspaper, you tell me where that exists today.’
Michael Rosten responded in True/Slant,
… this has to be one of the worst-timed statements in the history of public relations. The flat-worlder just got dinged by his own paper’s public editor for an ethical violation…. Really, while the lumpen proletariat of the Times’s staff await quarterly reports to be issued to see if they’ll still have jobs in 2010, Friedman is boasting that he can go wherever he want, write whatever occurs to him, and spend however much he wants to do those things without any attention to how his profligacy harms the paper’s ability to survive. And he’s insinuating that his boss doesn’t really care.
David Brooks met with both Collins and Sulzberger before the Times hired him in 2003.
Sulzberger hired Andrew Rosenthal, the paper’s current editorial page editor, to replace Collins, who went on book leave before returning as a columnist. Sulzberger’s glowing description of Rosenthal did not include mention of the fact that Andy’s father, A. M. Rosenthal, had worked for the Times for 56 years, including long stints as executive editor and op-ed writer. As a Gawker writer remarked contemporaneously, “We’d make some joke about how these kind of dynastic successions at the Times are almost never a good idea, but let’s be honest, it’s the editorial page, who gives a shit? Also, we’re pretty sure that David Brooks’ kids are writing his columns right now, so there’s plenty of precedent.”
In 2008, Sulzberger and Rosenthal made the disastrous decision, “after a long and thoughtful search,” to hire conservative Bill Kristol to write a weekly column for the Times. The relationship didn’t last any longer than Kristol’s one-year contract. Other less-than-stellar new hires to the op-ed page: Frank Bruni and Joe Nocera, who come respectively from the foods and business pages of the paper.
So there’s all that.
The Times editorial board regularly churns out editorials that follow liberal ideology, and Sulzberger himself has expressed opinions that would be characterized as socially liberal. (He also is pretty good at showing his disdain for poor people.) But nowadays “liberal” social issues – women’s rights, gay rights, environmentalism, etc. – are hardly controversial among conservative elites, especially among those in the Northeast. The Times‘ local readers certainly have liberal social values; according to a 2010 academic study, “The New York Times … readership is the most liberal of any of the news outlets studied that held themselves out as an ‘objective’ news source.” So running liberal editorials is simply good for business.
But what if Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., isn’t liberal when it comes to economic policy issues? What if, for instance, the well-to-do Sulzberger likes the Romney-Ryan policy of lowering taxes on the rich and cutting social safety-net programs? Is there some way he could persuade his liberal readers to see the rectitude of a Republican economic agenda? Perhaps. One way to get around the paper’s liberal editorial slant: a high-minded effort to publish “a variety of opinions.” Although the New York Times‘ regular columnists all serve at the pleasure of Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. – within whatever constraints legality, “decency” and their contracts impose upon the paper – the paper at least maintains the pretense that its leadership does not meddle with the content of the columns. That is, the paper’s editorial policy lets it avoid responsibility for its columnists’ views. So a conservative management in a liberal town has the best of both worlds: columnists have the imprimatur of the Times to disseminate their conservative views, and the Times can pretend the paper doesn’t share conservative views it is publishing every day. Why, the only reason the Times even publishes David Brooks is because it is so liberal and open-minded! Neat.
I don’t know what Sulzberger’s views are, but I do know he has been quite open to hiring and retaining columnists with conservative and center-right economic views. These other-than-liberal points-of-view don’t all come from the designated conservative stable, either. Tom Friedman’s repeated columns claiming globalization is the cause of low wages and President Obama doesn’t have a plan to fix the economy feed very nicely into Mitt Romney’s economic theories. So does Joe Nocera’s flakking for fracking. Frank Bruni’s embrace of the Bush family – especially of George I – most certainly pleases the Romney camp, too. The public perceives these columnists to be liberals (Nocera says he is a liberal), but their opinions belie the label.
The chimera works with guest columnists, too. For the second time in five weeks, the Times has published a Sunday guest column by Campbell Brown, the wife of former Republican operative and current Romney advisor Dan Senor. As I wrote last month about the first of these two columns, “Parenthetically, in the eleventh paragraph, Brown wrote, ‘(I should disclose here that my husband is an adviser to Mr. Romney; I have no involvement with any campaign, and have been an independent journalist throughout my career.)’” The paper never identified Senor by name and described Brown merely as “a former news anchor for CNN and NBC.” The title of Brown’s column was “Obama: stop “condescending to women.” Brown complained that Obama was pandering when he said nice things about women. Then she went into a bit about her female relatives’ not needing government jobs or caring about women’s reproductive rights. Somewhere in there she assured readers that Mitt Romney was “no Rick Santorum” and he understood that women’s issues were economic issues.
Sunday, Brown was back at the Times with another op-ed column, this time claiming that Planned Parenthood is “doomed to failure” because the organization has turned on Republicans. Oh, cart, where is thy horse? In this instance, neither Brown nor the New York Times bothered to mention her connection to the Romney campaign. Now, according to the Times, Brown has become “a writer who was previously a television news reporter and anchor at CNN and NBC.” As Kathleen Geier of the Washington Monthly wrote, “I can’t remember, in all my years of Times-reading, another person getting two op-eds in the Times within a 5-week period.” Geier writes, “… the op-ed itself … is one of those sleazy, totally disingenuous ‘I’m a pro-choicer but’ arguments by someone who is trying to concern troll Planned Parenthood out of existence.” Geier goes on to decimate Brown’s phony arguments.
(In May 2010, by the way, former New York Times columnist Bill Kristol publicly urged Brown to run against U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer [D-New York].)
Frequent New York Times critic Driftglass often tells his readers, as he did in this criticism of David Brooks, “There is a Club. And you are not in it.” Driftglass’s remark made me think of Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and Campbell Brown. This 2005 New York Social Diary page describes, “Busy Days” wherein “… over at MoMA…, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and his cousin Arthur Golden hosted [an event], followed by a dinner at Osteria del Circo…. Among the Big Bright New York crowd: Clarissa Bronfman, Campbell Brown….”
There is a club. And Campbell Brown is in it.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com She is not in the club.