2003-01-04 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

The New York Times Meets It Match
By Stuart Mirsky

By Stuart Mirsky

The New York Times Meets It Match

Anyone who reads the big daily papers regularly knows that the New York Times has a very particular point of view. They are not only a liberal paper, they do everything in their power to deride and diminish the non-liberal viewpoint. And this is not only manifest in their editorial page and their columnists but on every page of straight news reporting they offer. I recall, particularly, how they slanted the coverage back when George Bush Sr. was running against Bill Clinton for a second term.

Although we were coming out of what had been the mildest post war recession in our experience, you'd have never known that from the Times' coverage. Not, that is, until the day after the vote, with Clinton safely elected, when the Times suddenly printed an article saying how the economic indicators had turned up! Of course they'd been turning up for nearly a year at that point as anyone reading the financial papers already knew. But that news wasn't deemed "fit to print" on the Times' view while the election was being contested, since "bad" economic news worked against the Republican incumbent, George H. W. Bush, and for his Democratic challenger.

Similarly I recall how the Times ran a cover page with two photos, during that election, one of candidate Clinton at the top, limned against a rising sun, his arms outstretched, surrounded by an apparently adoring crowd. The second of Bush, walking alone in the rain, having just alighted from Air Force One, hunched over in a trench coat, lost in thought. If pictures are worth a thousand words this juxtaposition of a triumphant Clinton and a seemingly abandoned Bush spoke volumes.

The only problem was that the Bush picture, setting aside the selection of the photos themselves (a news judgment, right?) and the placement on the page (Clinton above, Bush below) was not really representative of what it purported to depict. Bush Sr. was shown not in the center of the photo but at the far right, walking across an empty field. Why this placement? Because the editor who made the selection obviously wanted to create the image of a lonely and failed incumbent.

How did you know? Because presidents never walk alone but are always surrounded by a bevy of Secret Service agents. The fact that that the picture had been cropped to remove the contingent of Secret Service agents in a way that put Bush at the far edge of the frame enabled the newspaper to use it to depict a lone and seemingly dejected candidate. Juxtaposing this with the triumphant picture of Bill Clinton above, sent a powerful subliminal message to the Times' readers.

Of course, these are only two examples of the Times' disingenuous strategy of slanting the news. One only has to read the paper routinely to see how it does more than just report facts on any given day. Now it can be argued that no one can ever be perfectly objective and I think this is quite true. However, there is such a thing as pulling far away from the mainstream and using the tools of reportage (as opposed to expressions of editorial opinion) to alter and redirect the public's thinking. The Times has long since crossed this line and, because it has had so little competition in the non-tabloid arena, it has pretty much had a free hand to do as it liked.

Now, however, a new newspaper has come on the scene to contest with the Times for the non-tabloid reading population. The New York Sun, reviving an old and respected name in New York papers, has been out for something like a year now and is already making its mark. The Sun is not yet well-known but I've noted how its reporting and substance have grown in breadth and stature since its first tentative editions. The Sun is not shy about its reason d'etre, either. It loudly and frequently takes the Times to task for its biased reporting. (One recent article showed how the Times and the Washington Post both reported on the same study and how the Times slanted the statistical claims in order to provide a headline that was actually at variance with what the data actually showed. The Post reported the same study more evenhandedly.)

Of course, like any paper, the Sun has an agenda. They are conservative where the Times is liberal. They are in favor of a strong American administration response to terrorists whereas the Times is mealy-mouthed and equivocal about this. They are supportive of the Bush administration's efforts to deal preemptively with states and groups that have declared their enmity towards us while the Times worries about unilateralism and American overreaching and our never offending other nations or groups. The Sun is in favor of lower taxes at all levels of government while the Times, to paraphrase a recent comment from the Sun, never saw a tax increase it didn't like . . . or a tax decrease it didn't despise.

In sum, the Sun is the necessary other paper, the competition the Times has long needed. The existence of the Sun, even when it is over the top (as it sometimes is), is a necessary antidote to the monopolistic excesses of the nation's premier liberal paper. While the Times has been urging Bloomberg to raise our taxes, the Sun has been running an editorial series flagging real ways that government can be re-structured to close the dreaded budget gap -- ways that would enable local government to continue to function optimally without dunning New York City taxpayers or creating an adverse economic climate for businesses and workers.

As of December 31st, the Sun has come up with proposals for $6.364 billion in annual savings vs. an estimated budget gap of $6 billion. Their proposals include ending various perqs, reducing agencies' fleet sizes, contracting out city bus lines, cutting and consolidating a variety of city offices and agencies, streamlining the city's antiquated and user-unfriendly procurement process, offering school vouchers, reforming Special Ed., restructuring a variety of city employee work rules, privatizations, etc. There are, naturally, groups that will oppose any and all of these ideas. More, many of the ideas might not work out the way they are described. But the point is that the Sun is looking at this and not just reacting with the knee-jerk call for higher taxes that characterizes that other paper. Whether or not any of these ideas are ultimately valid enough to pursue, the fact is they are looking in the right places and telling the mayor and all New

Yorkers to look there as well.

You don't get good results when there's no competition and this applies as much to newspapers as to city government. We are all better off for the advent of this new paper. And the Times may soon find it has to sit up and take a little more notice of its upstart competitor. Who knows, maybe they'll even start to get a little more real and fair in the coverage they provide?      

Stuart W. Mirsky, a long time Rockawayite, recently retired from city service where he last served as Assistant Commissioner for Operations in a Mayoral agency. He is the author of one historical novel and is now at work on another.


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