Sunday, September 30, 2007

Press Best If It's Independent And Unpredictable

Time magazine has lost credibility by slipping too far to the left, as this week's edition demonstrates. The New York Times, wisely, runs many independent columns and articles which are not as predictable as those in Time magazine. This is helping to preserve the NYT as the nation's leading newspaper at a time of ideological fervor and bias in much of the American body politic. Yes, the New York Times has a fervently liberal, and sometimes too shrill, editorial page, but it offers other views besides -- on the Op Ed pages, in the New York Times magazine and in the news columns, among other places.

The L.A. Times could learn a lesson here. The Times has independent columnists not afraid to occasionally stray from liberal orthodoxy, such as Tim Rutten and Steve Lopez. But its new metro and investigations editors, David Lauter and Marc Duvoisin, based on their past records, might be too bland and predictable, respectively. The paper has to take care to preserve its credibility, and the best way to do that is to strengthen its dedication to independence. Since, Lauter and Duvoisin are fundamentally talented, maybe they will be more provocative, better questioners, and less inclined to conventional liberal wisdom in the future, now that they have more authority.

Columns in the L.A. Times, Time magazine, and the New York Times over the weekend led me to think about independence and its advantages.

First, Saturday morning, came an outstanding column in the L.A. Times Calendar section by Rutten, the paper's media columnist. He looked back on the trip to the United States last week of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. the president of Iran, who Rutten unreservedly depicted as "one of the world's truly dangerous men...a man who hopes to see Israel 'wiped off the face of the Earth, 'has denied the Holocaust and is defying the world community in pursuit of nuclear weapons."

Warning of the dangers of consorting with dictators, as Columbia University did in inviting Ahmadinejad to speak, and a bevy of the nation's leading media, including NBC's Brian Williams, did last week at a New York dinner with Ahmadinejad, Rutten asserted, "...the totalitarian impulse knows no accommodation with reason. You cannot change the totalitarian mind through dialogue or conversation." It was particularly useful for Rutten to go back into Columbia University's history and show how it had cuddled up next to the Fascists of the 1930s. Now, it has invited another fascist, Ahmadinejad, to appear before the student body. The fact that Columbia's president read him the riot act doesn't erase the stain of doing so.

Rutten concluded. "After being duped by the Bush administration into helping pave the way for the diastrous war in Iraq, few in the American media now are willing to take the Iran problem on because they don't want to be complicit in another military misadventure. Fair enough -- but that anxiety doesn't exempt the press from being realistic about who Ahmadinejad really is and the danger he really does pose to all around him."

Contrast this with the foolish column in this week's Time magazine by the magazine's political colunnist, Joe Klein, who railed against those who have the temerity to compare Ahmadinejad with Hitler.

"The neoconservative campaign to transform Ahmadinejad into Hitler or Stalin, to pretend that he has the ability to destroy the world, to make a hoo-ha over letting the little man speak, is a cynical attempt to plump for war," Klein wrote. He insisted that, "The Iranian President's words (last week) had no practical, only symbolic, global import. He has very little real power in Iran, none over foreign policy or the nuclear program."

But, it seems to me, since Ahmadinejad has been allowed by the Mullahs who really rule Iran to be their point man throughout the world, it may well be too sweeping to say he has "very little real power," and, before dismissing comparisons with Hitler, Klein should have considered that, if his country obtains nuclear weapons, Ahmadinejad and Iran will have more actual power to disrupt the world than even Hitler ever had.

This was not the only place, where Time magazine fell into a swoon last week to the far left. The magazine introduced a new foreign affairs columnist, Samantha Power, who the Time managing editor, Richard Stengel, described surprisingly as an "unpaid adviser to Sen. Barack Obama." In her first column, Power castigated the Bush Administration on the old ground that it has failed to admit to the U.S. many refugees from the Iraq war. She began with the statement that Iraq is generating 60,000 refugees a month, who "are voting with their feet against the surge of U.S. forces by fleeing their homes."

Wrong. Iraqis are fleeing the country to escape sectarian violence generated by our enemies in Al Qaeda and other groups. The American surge, in fact, has stablized at least some Iraqi neighborhoods, and allowed people to return to their homes. In any case, after spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives on this God-forsaken country, why should we admit its citizens to this country, where they might cause trouble?

This was not an auspicious start for a new columnist. And the question arises, have they hired someone with an agenda?

Time also had a pointless piece about how Laura Bush had snubbed Ahmadinejad at the United Nations, devoted a shamefully small article to the rebellion last week in Burma, and ran another article to deploring half-heartedly that Obama is not making more headway against Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

It is sad what this magazine, thinned badly in recent years by its inability to sell advertising, has already become, and the 2008 presidential campaign has not even fairly gotten underway. At a time when journalists should be keeping their heads clear, Time is often adopting knee jerk positions in its columns and articles.

In the New York Times, by contrast this morning, the normally liberal columnist, Frank Rich, has a trenchant piece critiquing Hillary Clinton and expressing concern that a Democratic victory is by no means a sure thing next year. The headline on the column asks, "Is Hillary Clinton the New Old Al Gore?"

Rich's article follows one in the New York Times magazine recently that raised questions about Clinton's innate caution on Iraq war issues, and truthfulness about some of the positions she has taken in the past. These articles are doing a public service, exploring in depth a candidate before the primaries begin and she is thrust even more into the spotlight.

Meanwhile, the NYT's "public editor," or ombudsman, Clark Hoyt discusses reader reaction to his revealing piece last week -- see my blog of Sept. 23 -- about how the Times had undercharged the antiwar organization "MoveOn.org" for an ad depicting General David Petraeus, U.S. commander in Iraq, as "General Betray Us," and raising the question whether this attack ad was a slander out of accord with Times policy against not accepting personal attacks in advertising.

Hoyt says frankly that most of the 350 readers who responded to his article disagreed with him and supported the ad. But he still defends the position he took.

"Many readers felt I wanted to limit a robust public debate on the war in Iraq," Hoyt writes. "Far from it, I believe deeply in free speech and that there can't be too much debate about a war that so divides the country. But there's an important distinction between the right of people or organizations to say something and what The Times is willing to accept in its pages.

"The Times has an entire manual devoted to guidelines for ad acceptability. The newspaper won't take ads from Holocaust deniers, or racist ads or even advocacy ads it deems in poor taste. Yet they're all protected speech. Another guideline bans 'attacks of a personal nature.' Did the words 'General Betray Us' in the MoveOn.org ad violate that standard? I think they did, but many of you disagreed."

He then goes ahead in his column to run a sampling of letters, and refers readers to more of them on the Times Web site.

To carry on its pages a column reflecting negatively on a probable Democratic presidential nominee, and one the New York Times would certainly endorse, and to employ a truly independent Public Editor like Hoyt fortifies the newspaper's credibility and induces, I think, readers of all political stripes to take it more seriously.

Other papers, and Time magazine, should follow the Times example. The American people, if they do, will be better informed.

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