The subtitle of William McGowan’s new book Gray Lady Down — What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means For America– all but ensured its dismissal by book-review editors who aren’t drawn to anything quite so portentous.
According to the book’s website, McGowan tried to gin up a controversy over the fact that the Times didn’t review it, despite book-review editor Sam Tanenhaus’ supposed promise to him that it would. No controversy ensued, because Gray Lady also wasn’t reviewed in Times rival Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, or in the Washington Post, or in any other major daily. Or in Bookforum, The New York Review, or any other thoughtful venue.
So McGowan has been haunting the conservative noise machine’s studios and websites, hawking his claim that while “The New York Times was once considered the gold standard in American journalism,” now “it is generally understood to be a vehicle for politically correct ideologies, tattered liberal pieties, and a repeated victim of journalistic scandal and institutional embarrassment.”
Language like that has been ricocheting around the conservative echo chamber for so long now that it almost echoes itself. So why is the decidedly un-conservative, ever-young Washington Monthly publishing a review of McGowan’s book by yours truly? And why am I writing still more about it here?
Click here and read the review to see how McGowan miscarries his mission to rescue journalism from political correctness by succumbing to another kind of ideological partisanship, one that trumps his good intentions. Then, if you care about journalism, return here to think further with me about how to distinguish attacks like his from serious criticisms of papers like the Times that do need to be made.
These days, it’s hard to tell the serious criticisms from the opportunistic, right-wing ones, because liberals as well as conservatives resist facing an unpleasant truth:
Newspapers such as the Times sometimes do accelerate the decay of American public life, not because they’re “liberal” or “politically correct,” as McGowan claims the Times is (and, indeed, it sometimes is), but because they’re housed in big media corporations, which care about marketing more than about serious journalism, which is definitely not the same thing: Even when the more liberal newspapers are assiduously “green,” or gay-friendly, or cosmopolitan, they still serve a casino-finance, corporate-welfare, military-industrial, consumer-marketing juggernaut that’s degrading American life and dissolving the republic.
McGowan insists he’d like nothing better than to restore the Times to the sober, civic-republican glory he thinks it reached in the 1970s, when the elder Arthur Sulzberger was publisher and A.M. Rosenthal was executive editor. Yet, as I show in the Washington Monthly (and a bit more below), he violates the standards of accuracy, open-mindedness, and civic vision he claims to want to restore.
Like Ahab, he’s been pursuing the Gray Lady so long and obsessively, with support from investors and commentators hell-bent on slaying her for their own pecuniary and partisan/ideological reasons, that he’s wound up blaming the deterioration of our public sphere more on Times political correctness than on the other, more powerful currents I’ve just mentioned — of casino financing, corporate welfare, and degraded consumer marketing.
These currents are warping journalism at most news organizations, no matter what political poses they strike in order to ingratiate themselves to anticipated markets. McGowan’s anti-liberalism isn’t just a line dictated by conservative-movement paymasters; it’s part of a deeper distemper, a product of the powerful currents I’ve mentioned, that’s infecting our public life.
One name for the distemper that’s sinking this man and so many others — ressentiment — denotes more than just “resentment.” The word (in French it’s pronounced “ruh-sohn-tee-mohn”) refers to a syndrome, a public psychopathology, in which gnawing insecurities, envy, and hatreds that have been nursed by many people in private converge in public, presenting themselves as noble crusades in scary social eruptions. These movements diminish their participants, even while seeming to make them big.
In ressentiment the little-big man seeks “easy” enemies on whom to wreak vengeance for frustrations that are only half-acknowledged because they come from his exploitation by powers he fears to reckon with head-on. Ressentiment warps the little-big man’s assessments of society’s hardships and opportunities. It shapes the disguises he tries on in order to wreak vengeance without incurring reproach until there are enough of him (and her, of course) to step out together brazenly, en masse, with a Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin.
Whether ressentiment erupts in a medieval Catholic Inquisition, a Puritan or McCarthyite witch hunt, a Maoist Cultural Revolution, “Tea Party” assaults at congressional “town meetings,” or nihilist extremes of “people’s liberation movements” or political correctness, its most telling symptoms are paranoia and routinized bursts of hysteria.(The Tawana Brawley and O.J. Simpson cases became psychodramas of black ressentiment — understandable, but destructive.)
These gusts of collective passion touch raw nerves under the ministrations of demagogues and an increasingly surreal journalism that prepares the way for them by brutalizing public discourse. These movements’ legitimate grievances often goad them to a fleeting brilliance, but soon they curdle and collapse, tragi-comically or catastrophically, on their own cowardice, ignorance, and lies.
For all McGowan’s pretensions to be saving the Times’ soul, he, like other bearers of ressentiment, is trying to burn it at the stake. Surreal journalism like his — sometimes slick, sometimes rough — softens up the public sphere for something much worse. The journalist Michael Tomasky tried to inject some clarity and sanity into this when he took McGowan on in a debate in Brooklyn, sponsored by conservatives and aired on C-Span. Not surprisingly, this debate isn’t mentioned or linked on Gray Lady Down’s website.
In principle and often in practice, the New York Times stands against ressentiment in public discourse. The best of its journalism disrupts the self-reinforcing ignorance that drives consumers of the New York Post and Fox News and that also drives bottom-lining business jocks who hang on every word of commentary in the Wall Street Journal. No wonder we’re witnessing a battle to the death between Murdoch, who owns all three of these media engines, and the Times, with McGowan one of the combatants.
Sometimes an elitist ressentiment does creep into the Times’ own news analyses and commentary on pseudo-liberations and post-modernist titillations that enrage McGowan and sometimes anger me, too. It’s one thing to report on the degradation of sports, entertainment, and public mores, and on the spread of gladiatorial fighting, nihilist and exploitative sex, and worse. It’s another thing to seem to celebrate these trends as if they were liberating just because they’re breaking certain “bourgeois” or working-class conventions.
Some Times coverage and commentary makes that mistake, seeming to tout trends that are actually degrading and demoralizing. (Here’s a truly pathetic example that I noticed in last Sunday’s Times — written by a runner-up in the paper’s “Modern Love” essay contest, no less.)
Striking the right balances can be tricky: In a 1994 New York Daily News column, for example, I warned of danger in Times editorial-page editor Howell Raines’s penitential but imperious racial moralism, which converged with the political correctness of Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. to distort the paper’s coverage. A decade later, Raines, by then executive editor, was forced out largely by the fabrications of a young black reporter, Jayson Blair, whom he’d shielded from others’ warnings, very likely dismissing the complainers as racists for voicing their doubts.
A few years later, a chapter of my Liberal Racism focused on the folly in Sulzberger ‘s pursuing his crusade for “managed diversity” as if it were a profit-center for the paper, corrupting both diversity and journalism. The Times in those days often gave the impression that anything “black” or “gay” was inherently progressive or otherwise beyond reproach. McGowan educes wince-making examples.
Barack Obama has failed so far to head off the rise of ressentiment because he hasn’t been telling Americans enough truth for more of them to reckon head-on with the undercurrents I’ve mentioned that are swamping the republic. But his leadership in racial politics has been everything some of us yearned for in the 1990s, and his 2008 election campaign, however lucky or fortuitous, advanced the public learning curve on race. Yet McGowan is right to charge that even the post-Jayson Blair Times threw itself into an “Obamamania” that was sometimes unworthy of Obama’s own campaign and that the paper still sometimes coddles black-power poseurs, miscreants and suspect American Muslims, simply because they’re black or Muslim.
Too many of McGowan’s charges are stretched beyond credibility, though, by his own preconceptions and resentments involving race, sex, and immigration. These sometimes make him more censorious of the people and movements the paper is covering than he is of flaws in the coverage itself.
For example — and here, in order to illustrate my larger theme, I’m going to cite several of his blunders I didn’t have room for in the Washington Monthly review — while McGowan condemns the Times fairly enough for its slowness in probing the career of Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, perpetrator of the Fort Hood massacre, he pounces on other Times lapses so eagerly that he gets carried away by his own prejudices, a sure sign of ressentiment.
He assails the Times for downplaying orthodox Muslims’ intimidation of a liberal Imam in New Jersey, and the paper did take too long to report that the imam had had to flee halfway across the United States to escape his tormenters. But McGowan adds insult to injury by writing, “The fact that it took months for the story to get into the paper suggests a reluctance to admit that much of the Islamic community is filled with intolerance and violence.”
Much of the Islamic community is filled with intolerance and hatred? Would McGowan have written similarly about the Irish-Catholic community of 1880, when a Times editorial declared, “A bad Irish-American boy is about as unwholesome a product as was ever reared in any body politic.”? Would he have applauded the paper then for saying that much of that community was filled with intolerance and violence? Or does he just have a thing about Muslims? Or (as I suggest in the Washington Monthly) about immigrants from India? Or about non-European immigrants in general?
Whatever its dimensions, this is ressentiment, and it drives distortions like McGowan’s mischaracterization of a Times “Editorial Observer” column of 2007 that cautioned against using the phrase “illegal immigrants” to denote the undocumented. McGowan presents the column as an instance of politically correct powers at the paper making sure that ugly truths about illegal immigrants are “airbrushed out of the record, Pravda-like.” But when I checked the Times for three months after that column, I found the phrases “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien” in the first paragraphs of 40 stories and four headlines. By leaving his own readers to assume that politically correct mandarins cracked down on such usages, McGowan himself air-brushes out the truth.
The only two daily newspaper reviews of the book mentioned on McGowan’s website are a polemical column from Murdoch’s New York Post, by kindred spirit Michael Goodwin, and another in the <em>Miami Herald</em>, by columnist Glenn Garvin. But McGowan has relied far more heavily on Murdochians than he acknowledges. Among the many who are quoted in the book, he does disclose the affiliations of James Taranto, who pumps resssentiment into The Wall Street Journal’s online section every day, and the more judicious Journal columnist Daniel Henninger. But neither of them nor anyone else at the Journal has written about McGowan’s book there. <em>Gray Lady’s</em> promotion seems to have been remanded to the nether regions of Murdochia. (See “Media” and “Reviews.” By the way, under “Reviews,” you’ll also learn all you need to know about McGowan’s integrity by noting how he excerpts my Washington Monthly review!)
In the book, he gives us only decorous identifications of “Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum,” “the syndicated columnist Phil Valentine,” or “military analyst Ralph Peters;” he doesn’t tell us that Pipes — a Muslim-loathing neo-con who tried hard in 2008 to convince Americans that Obama is a Muslim — is a Fox News and Murdoch newspaper regular, or that Valentine, a low-rent Glenn Beck, appears on Fox frequently; or that Peters is a strategic analyst for Fox and a New York Post columnist since 2002.
Each such omission might not matter by itself, but taken together, they blank out McGowan’s collaboration with Sulzberger’s biggest rival on earth, if not in heaven. Had McGowan’s faintly sanctimonious invocations of these supposedly disinterested experts been accompanied by mentions of their affiliations with Murdoch and the noise machine, his civic-republican disguise would have dissolved and left only an open testament to ressentiment.
Getting the facts straight is the necessary even if not sufficient condition of serious journalism — and of serious criticism of journalism. McGowan cites an internal Times memo warning editors and reporters after a debacle that if they can’t find better ways “to check a story’s key facts, names, graduation claims, etc., we should hold the story until we can verify them.” But while he’s had eight years to check his own facts, his book misspells the names of Times reporter Alex Kuczynski and of D.D. (Don) Guttenplan, biographer of I.F. Stone, (who becomes “David Gutterplan”), not just once but whenever those names appear, even in the index.
He derides an “anodyne February 2002 headline over a blasé report” that he tells us blamed landlords for illegally subdividing the apartments housing their immigrant tenants. But the story, by Manny Fernandez, ran in 2009, not 2002, and it reported honestly that tenants themselves, not their landlords, subdivided the apartments to take in extra cash. It’s hard to see how the Times is coddling immigrants here, unless one is wearing McGowan’s tinted lenses.
Diction sometimes matters, too, and surely McGowan and his book’s editors had time to catch the sentence declaring that Al Sharpton “raised the rabble” (instead of “roused” it) and the one reporting that Times Corporation board members who delayed ratifying young Sulzberger’s promotion to publisher “wanted to ensure [his father] that they weren’t rejecting him.” Surely they wanted to assure the elder Sulzberger.
If I had the time and resources that McGowan had for his book, I’m sure I could find more errors. (I mention some more of them in the Washington Monthly review.) But since Gray Lady Down has no footnotes — and since, unlike a newspaper, it can’t have letters or posted comments from readers – I’d have to spend even more time than I could to prove what I hope I’ve demonstrated well enough already here and in the Monthly.
McGowan’s most important omission is his willful neglect of developments at other news organizations that would give some context to his assessment of the damage done by faddish Times liberalism. He doesn’t report that other newspapers are corrupted by other political and marketing strategies, such as hawking the hate-filled sound-bites that bring temporary but debilitating relief to many of the angry, patriotic people whom McGowan means to defend. Why doesn’t he assess the newspapers they actually read, such as Murdoch’s Post, instead of relying on and fronting for them?
And why doesn’t McGowan explain that market pressures are turning still other newspapers into witless titillation machines that gyrate in whatever directions their bean-counters think will boost profits, with no special ideological or partisan mission beyond their bottom lines? Recently, for example, I tried to link a book review I’d published years earlier in The Washington Post, in order to share it with other readers. The Post’s archive had no record of it, and the “Help” option directed me to a clueless, barely literate functionary, who directed me to an associate editor, who in turn referred me to Alan Shearer, director of the Washington Post Writers’ Group, who replied, “Well, you wrote the review as a freelancer, so you own it. We do not, and it is outside our Web archives.”
I reminded Shearer that “The Washington Post assigned the piece, edited it, paid me for it, and sent it out into the world for the edification of its readers. If the Post has institutional pride — let alone a responsibility to a civic mission or the historical record — why doesn’t it archive what it published?” A dozen of my <em>Post</em> reviews, like reviews by countless other freelancers for the paper, are similarly off-limits to anyone searching the paper’s archives or Google, unless I trouble to scan and publish my own paper copies of them on here, with reviews of books by Henry Louis Gates, Cornel West, Benjamin DeMott, and C. Eric Lincoln, and here, of a wonderful book about Harold Washington by Gary Rivlin. (You won’t find these reviews anywhere else.)
“Is the Post just an intellectual property-rights and profit-making machine?” I asked Shearer. “Or does it have a more public sense of its purpose?” I expected no response to those questions, and I got none.
New York Times media critic David Carr got no answers from the managers of billionaire Sam Zell’s Tribune Company to a different set of questions prompted by Carr’s reporting of the devastating fiscal and sexual indecency of corporate bottom-liners at the company’s Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Newsday, and Baltimore Sun. Carr showed managers at the Chicago Tribune degrading workplace morality and decency in ways Woodstock Nation ever imagined.
More than a few workers in Chicago are churchgoers; it’s not unusual to see foreheads marked on Ash Wednesday. Reading about how Zell’s top dog Randy Michaels instituted a pervasive atmosphere of sexual harassment along with economic harassment and dispossession, I couldn’t help but wonder why tribunes of public decency such as McGowan and John Leo, William Bennett, and Gertrude Himmelfarb would waste time worrying about Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and the legacies of Woodstock while ignoring the sickly smiles on the faces of decent, stodgy lifers at the Tribune who tried to keep their jobs with these creepy capitalists by pretending they were having fun.
New York Times liberalism isn’t the villain there or at the Washington Post. Where’s McGowan’s outrage at what corporate bottom-lining is doing to news organizations? Why doesn’t he at least note what it’s doing?
McGowan’s conservative benefactors, handlers, and collaborators bear some responsibility for his blind spots, errors, and dissimulations. As far back as 2003, the conservative Earhart Foundation — anti-“diversity,” environmentally unfriendly, national-security-obsessed — gave McGowan $10,000, through the conservative Social Philosophy and Policy Center, “for completion of a book, ‘Gray Lady Down: How the New York Times Has Lost Touch With America,'” and he has been associated with the center often since, sometimes as a “media fellow.” Yet he doesn’t mention the center or Earhart in his acknowledgments or anywhere else in the book.
He does thank Tom Tisch of the conservative Manhattan Institute and David DesRosiers, that institute’s vice president and a founder of Revere Advisors, which gives discreet guidance to corporate and other donors to projects they don’t want to be associated with in public. McGowan’s conservative backing began well before 2003: His book <em>Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism</em> (which I reviewed more favorably for the Los Angeles Times in 2002) had been supported since 1995 with nearly $50,000 from the conservative Bradley Foundation, again through the Social Philosophy and Policy Center.
He’s had conservative handlers at a more intimate level, too: <em>Gray Lady Down’s </em>acknowledgments give “a thousand thanks to Peter Collier, editor emeritus of Encounter Books” — McGowan’s publisher, which is to today’s conservative “Con-intern” what International Publishers was to the old Stalinist Comintern – for being “an effective taskmaster whose experience, editing, and insight through many manuscript drafts are responsible more than anything else for bringing this vessel to shore.” McGowan also thanks Roger Kimball, Encounter’s own publisher, “for his extraordinary patience and his confidence in me.” Kimball, a well-known conservative polemicist, also edits the journal The New Criterion, which has excerpted the book.
Yet I doubt that these conservative collaborators, funders, and handlers are as much to blame for what’s wrong with this book as is the ressentiment I’ve sketched here: McGowan’s lapses aren’t mercenary, or even ideological, as much as they’re psychopathological, in a way that does have capitalist and conservative antecedents but that has taken on a life of its own amid the rise of ressentiment.
As a son of a New York City police captain and a large, Brooklyn Irish-American family, McGowan has reason to resent the Manhattan, preppie subculture that Sulzberger epitomizes. In Gray Lady’s acknowledgments, he thanks his seven brothers and sisters by name, “as well as my enthusiastic nephews and nieces, cousins, aunts, and uncles,” and throughout he hews to the white-ethnic social and moral codes which he accuses Sulzberger and his cohort of disdaining.
I’m not suggesting that McGowan is a stereotypical, white-ethnic racist. He would hotly proclaim himself pro-integration and trans-racial. These days, of course, such pious professions of color-blindness are also the positions of the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, Exxon, you name it. But a few corporations, like Sulzberger’s own Times, stray so far down the “multicultural sensitivity” path that you’d almost think they were trying to re-balkanize their workforces subtly in order to divide and conquer them along racial lines.
The capitalism we have today is so protean and absorptive of racial and libidinal currents that it’s defusing the left’s charges of “racism/sexism/homophobia.” But it’s not resolving the grinding, systemic inequalities that have nothing to do with race. Apologists for this system are rearranging the deck chairs a little, as anyone can see by looking at what’s happening to American workers and homeowners of all colors. McGowan gets halfway toward acknowledging this by showing that some of the apologists’ anti-racist posturing is really a hypocritical way of shoring up class divisions by legitimizing them as “fair.” But, of course, he stops short of saying that, and of confronting the unfairness itself.
That McGowan attended the leafy, liberal-arts Middlebury College in Vermont seems only to have deepened his resentment of upscale liberals who think they’re rattling their gilded cages by accepting some tokens from below and romanticizing wrongdoers at the bottom while dismissing brave “first responders” like the McGowans. Elite Manhattan liberals’ blithe assumption that urban white ethnics and Southern rednecks aren’t good citizens because their stand-pat, neighborhood loyalties submerge individual “merit” and independence was up-ended by 9/11: Suddenly, the group solidarity and self-sacrifice that first responders had learned in parish schools and sports leagues awed their frightened beneficiaries. McGowan has said that he walked over the Brooklyn Bridge to lower Manhattan that morning to volunteer in the rescue efforts.
If some of those virtues have curdled into ressentiment, it’s at least partly because people in Sulzberger’s class have been doing far too well in our casino-finance, corporate-welfare dispensation to be all that serious about reconfiguring it to redress the inequities it imposes on McGowan’s class and clan. Tellingly, though, that’s not really McGowan’s complaint. What enrages him is that Times liberals aren’t serious enough about defending the present regime, whose unsustainable inequities he avoids facing even more than they do. He excoriates their lofty posturing against white working-class racism, sexism, and homophobia, which shifts most of the blame for the larger problems, of which these are symptoms, onto people like him.
McGowan’s white-ethnic “Reagan Democrats” are far from alone in their inclination to blame elite liberals and poor scapegoats for their shrinking horizons, instead of standing up to the powers that are really pressing them down. Many political writers, including Jewish neoconservatives, are drawn or driven, by their own culturally inflected insecurities and resentments, to play roles like McGowan’s on our darkening, late-republican stage.
These keyboard warriors, who’ve been crewing up in recent years on conservative ships that are run as tightly as the old Stalinist Comintern, often mistake those ships for vessels of bold thinking and high purpose. Others embed themselves in more “neutral” or even nominally liberal outlets, including the <em>Times.</em>
And so The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin; the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka; the Murdoch scribblers Eve Kessler and Eliana Johnson (and her father, the Powerline bogger Scott Johnson); the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol and Hugh Hewitt; the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, and the neo-connish blogger-activists Ronald Radosh, David Horowitz and Ira Stoll consider themselves brave truth-tellers against liberal orthodoxies that once bamboozled them or their elders. They’re so preoccupied with escaping those orthodoxies that they’ve jumped from a frying pan into a fire, without actually changing their morphology of mind.
Even when the rigors of Con-intern message development make them sound a bit like old Comintern Daily Worker writers trying to justify the Stalin-Hitler pact the day after its signing, each of these throwbacks is proud of staying tough in adversity, being part of a team. Like McGowan, each starts out with justified indignation and commendable courage, but also with insecurities and resentments. And, like him, each gets swept up by darker, swifter currents that are running in society as well as in himself. Ahab, too, began as a pious young Quaker, only to end up possessed by his prey.
Every so often someone breaks free and tells the truth. Reagan budget director David Stockman has done it in his exposes of voodoo economics since defecting in 1986. David Frum is trying to do likewise. Sometimes, a loyalist blurts out the truth almost despite himself: The muckrakers Jack Newfield and Paul DuBrul once provoked a Democratic Party machine City Councilman in New York to defend his subservience to corrupt bosses this way: “You think it takes courage to stand up for what’s right? No! What takes real courage is to come in here day after day and stand up for what’s wrong!”
Being that kind of stand-up guy can be alluring not just to bag-men or mobsters but to others carrying heavy loads of internalized, culturally inflected self-loathing passed down a generation or two from family pasts in immigrant Irish or Eastern European Jewish tenement neighborhoods, African-American ghettos, and even rich but repressed WASP enclaves. While some are well paid for their services to the Conintern, some live on their misplaced purity and passion, and most of them, unlike that too-candid City Councilman, no longer know what they do.
If they could step back for six months and reckon quietly with themselves and recent developments around them, instead of spinning and re-spinning their <em>ressentiment</em>, they’d still find plenty to blame on the <em>Times.</em> But they’d also have to blame the more powerful enablers of their own wired perversity.
Both left and right have credible claims on certain republican truths, and, at any historical moment, one side’s claims may be the more liberating in its uphill struggle against the other side’s institutionalized premises and cant. But each side tends to cling to its own truths so tightly that they become half-truths that curdle into lies, leaving each side right only about how the other is wrong.
Usually, these one-sided surges crest with the support of less than a majority of the population, and then they recede. They certainly recede in a basically sound society, which, like a healthy person, strides on both a left foot and a right one, without stopping to notice that at any one instant, all of the body’s weight is on one and not the other. A good society needs a left foot of social provision for equality — without which neither the individuality nor the communal values that conservatives cherish could flourish — and a right foot of irreducibly personal liberty and responsibility, without which even the most brilliant social engineering would reduce persons to clients, cogs, or worse.
When left or right get stuck in their imagined upswings, it’s because those who’ve been harnessed to them out of ressentiment clamor to shift all the society’s weight onto one foot until it swells almost beyond repair. The morphology of one’s mindset doesn’t change with this kind of “flip” from left to right, or vice-versa: The real problem, George Orwell wrote, is “the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.”
That’s what accounts for the uncanny resemblance of so much American conservative opinion journalism to the Stalinist kind that Orwell exposed when he wrote <em>Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm</em>, and 1984. The tactics and tropes of today’s neo-conservatives mirror uncannily those recounted with rueful humor in The Age of Suspicion, by my cousin James Wechsler, an anti-communist liberal who graduated from Columbia in 1937 and edited The New York Post during its liberal heyday, until 1977, when Murdoch took over and turned it into a daily reminder that Australia was founded as a penal colony.
It’s easy enough to be right about how the other side is wrong, and McGowan savors the moment, a decade ago, when Times editor Raines had to watch him accept a National Press Club award for the more creditable Coloring the News. Looking over at Raines — who was in the audience because his own son was getting another award — McGowan said, “It would have been easy to turn an eye of polite indifference to this book as some in the profession have done.”
He told the Neiman Foundation soon afterward that “Many journalists were all too ready to read racial ill will into the book’s critique of the diversity crusade or to dismiss it as a ‘right wing’ screed and describe me as a conservative ideologue with an agenda….. They did their best to discredit it with blithe dismissals or unfounded charges about the book’s ‘dubious scholarship.’ I had been told to expect such treatment, and while it certainly did not outweigh the positive responses, something about the abusive tone and inaccuracies of these broadsides was disturbing.”
I understand how he felt. I recognize the temptation to rush into the conservative noise machine’s well-funded echo chambers. But the temptation has to be resisted, because the machine is accelerating and rationalizing the degradation of public debate and the dispossession of families and hopes like McGowan’s.
It’s because he won’t acknowledge this that he’s fallen so hard and sadly into its coils, his fate anticipated, ironically, in the 1978 Hollywood movie “Gray Lady Down,” in which a nuclear submarine sinks off Cape Cod. The New York Daily News said that the movie “capture[s] the intensity of living under water.” Had it reviewed Captain McGowan’s book, too, it might have noted a very similar intensity.
McGowan unwittingly mimicked the worst of the old Comintern’s Popular Front last year when he tried to promote his book in a little gossip item that ran in Murdoch’s <em>Post. </em> The item was about NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams’ buying rounds of drinks for fellow NBC-staff softball players after a game. But McGowan helped the Post gossip columnist to praise Williams as a man of the people by recounting, as the Post put it, that the NBC anchor “‘tipped the waitress in cash — more than 30 percent,’ said our spy.”
Our spy? Well, it just so happened, the Post columnist noted, that “William McGowan …. was there celebrating his delivery of the final manuscript of his New York Times book, Gray Lady Down” and that he and Williams “talked about the journalistic importance of staying close to regular people, and [Williams] told me about dropping out of community college and also about being a volunteer fireman on the Jersey Shore. Total class act.”
A total working-class act, anyway. Here McGowan and the New York Post gossip columnist themselves sound like characters out of the proletarian theater of the old Stalinist Comintern. That faux populism has been taken up by the Con-intern, from Rush Limbaugh to Glenn Beck; McGowan, who internalized the Murdoch playbook years ago, is using it here to promote his book attacking the Times, in a newspaper that seldom misses an opportunity to do just that.
nlike McGowan and the New York Post, though, the left wouldn’t have touted a celebrity’s tip to a waitress as a substitute for siding with her and others to demand better wages and working conditions. It’s not Brian Williams who’s at fault here; McGowan and the Post are celebrating “the people” on a celebrity’s time, for their own ideological and pecuniary reasons. It’s quite like the old Hollywood Popular Front hypocrisies that provoked Ronald Reagan to spend the rest of his life trying to turn the tables on those he felt had conscripted him into an ideological agenda. Similarly, and ironically, I can imagine Brian Williams telling McGowan and the <em>Post</em>, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
For some fresh air I commend not just my Washington Monthly review but the whole magazine, founded by Charles Peters and edited by Paul Glastris. In 2007, <a href=”http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2007/0712.ednote.html”>Glastris bore witness against “The Politics of Resentment”</a> in a brief, rich, moving editor’s note, prompted by a profile the magazine was running of (drum roll….) <em>Norman Podhoretz</em>, the very apostle of neoconservative ressentiment!
The Monthly has given the American public sphere such civic-republican tribunes as James Fallows, Michael Kinsley, Mickey Kaus, Jonathan Alter, Nicholas Confessore, Joe Nocera, Katherine Boo, Suzanna Lessard, Nicholas Lemann, Nicholas Thompson, Robert Worth, Steven Waldman, and others who trained there just after college and whose editing and bylines now command wide respect.
Some of them, blessed with the opposite of ressentiment, may be a bit too inclined to hope for the best from what this country is becoming instead of being more scathing about it. But compare this roster with the conservative talking machine’s by visiting McGowan’s “Media” and “Reviews” sections, and you’ll wish that there were even more Washington Monthly alumni in the news media. As you read the magazine along with them, savor a small irony: Many years ago, a young editor-in-training there was a recent college graduate named William McGowan.
The lesson: Never give in to ressentiment. And never take media criticism from a man like this at face value.