jimsleeper.com » Who Needs the NY Times? We all do. Still.

Who Needs the NY Times? We all do. Still.

By Jim Sleeper, July 9, 2009

Sometimes the smartest thing for news-media revolutionaries to do is pause and admire what the New York Times does wonderfully well, when it does do it.

I’ve excoriated the blunderbuss of Eighth Avenue often enough to say credibly, I hope, that sometimes it reminds us that serious journalism requires more than instant videos, twitter alerts, reader feeds, and bolt-of-lightning insights. It demands climbing a tenement’s stairs the second time to be sure of what’s there, or making that last call to an elusive or forgotten source on one’s list, or seeing the look on a campaign manager’s face as you pop your question.

At times, in other words, there’s no substitute for an experienced reporter’s going there and bringing both public memory and professional skill to the job — especially when the story seems obvious and familiar. Telling the truth always takes time and resources.

Corporate bottom-lining now cuts against giving reporters what they need, and it’s maddening that so many serious journalists at other newspapers are being starved or corrupted. New media like TPM are striving to fill the breach and often succeeding.

But three pieces in yesterday’s Times show what it is we all need to achieve. If you missed them, here they are, and here’s why they matter.

Nina Bernstein’s front-pager yesterday blew open this country’s scandalous post-9/11 immigration policies by all-but resurrecting a “disappeared” immigrant whose hopes and life were crushed by administrative stupidity.

Bernstein has done this before, but now her record is cumulative and damning. Imagine how much time and intrepidity she needed to give a voiceless, forgotten man some vindication by showing what was done to him, paid for and licensed by you and me. Were it not for the Times’ agenda-setting heft and prestige, this story – assuming anyone else had resources and skills to tell it – might have raced around the net without the same impact.

But what about the instantaneity and broad, democratic synergy of the net? Hasn’t it left newspapers in the dust? A Times reporter once told me she was working for the best horse-buggy manufacturer in the world — excellent, but outmoded and stodgy.

Maybe, but news organizations’ capitalism-driven crisis doesn’t prove that stories like Bernstein’s — or Michael Powell’s similarly fine-grained, explosive work on predatory mortgage fraud — are passe. If bloggers really mean to rejuvenate such journalism, we can only gain by pausing to recognize how much the legitimacy and sheer reach of the Times still count. (That’s what makes me so angry when the paper betrays its mission. Recall my posts on Sam Tanenhaus and David Brooks, not to mention the paper’s publisher, who is sometimes as loopy as the disgraced Washington Post’s juggler-in-chief, but save all that for another time.)

In the same day’s Times that carried Bernstein’s piece, Roger Cohen, who stayed in Iran at great risk thanks to a true journalist’s passion and courage, finds himself haunted now by a need to keep on bearing moral witness to the passion and civility he saw in Iranians yearning for freedoms we take for granted. Cohen reminds us that sometimes going there and getting the story means returning with more than the story: A great news organization makes room for grounded moral witness, too.

The Times also made room for journalism as a bearer of public memory as well as moral witness in Bob Herbert’s column about the Vietnam War, prompted by the death of Robert McNamara, a chief architect and advocate of that war and — 58,000 American deaths and millions of Vietnamese deaths later — an apologist for himself.

Appearing on the same page with David Brooks’ latest armchair maunderings about “dignity,” Herbert, who was drafted into McNamara’s war, puts dignity and indignity into indelible perspective for anyone tempted to rationalize or ideologize the war rather than to acknowledge an American military-industrial regime’s betrayal of our republic. Thanks to serious journalism, enough Americans grew vigilant and brave enough to push back and force a reckoning.

Recent developments in Iran remind us that a republic needs journalism like Bernstein’s, Powell’s, Cohen’s, and Herbert’s in big public settings, not just in fragments and viral sweeps. So all honor to the Times for providing it, sometimes almost in spite of itself and thanks mainly to its reporters’ own intellectual and physical courage and moral imagination. Do them and journalism justice now by reading these pieces and resolving to deliver and demand more like them.