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The Blindness of the Times

The Blindness of the Times

By William McGowan - November 16, 2010

Conceding that he took a "shellacking" in the recent mid-terms, President Obama essentially blamed the defeat on his administration's communication skills: there had been so much work to get done, he suggested, that he and his team had failed to do the job of publicizing their successes. After all, they'd passed a landmark health-care reform law, averted a Depression with a stimulus package, and worked to undo the damage President Bush had caused to U.S. relations with the Islamic world.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the White House took it on the chin on November 2 because of poor public relations-and not, as most of the evidence suggests, because its policies are out of touch with the American people. If the outcome really did come to down to communication skills, then the president and his Democratic allies made a fatal error in effectively outsourcing their message to the Don Drapers of the Democratic Party: MSNBC, Katie Couric, Comedy Central, and-as ever-the venerable Gray Lady herself, the New York Times. Conservatives have long complained about liberal media bias, and justifiably so. But the 2010 election proved, as the 1994 elections had before it, that liberal bias can be galvanizing-and, as the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger suggested, potentially "a new engine of GOP voter turnout."

Democratic sophisticates love to ridicule the GOP's "faith-based" narratives, but they seem blind to their own, which still go mostly unchallenged in mainstream media outlets. And nowhere is that blindness more impenetrable than at the Times. Consider the work of the paper's Jody Kantor, who took a year to see that the relationship between candidate Obama and American-bashing minister Jeremiah Wright was not going to play well with most Americans-Democrat or Republican. The paper resisted exploring Obama's long relationship with former terrorist William Ayers, the condescending remarks Obama made in San Francisco about Middle Americans' obsession with guns and religion, and his wife's blatant lack of patriotism-memorably expressed when she admitted that she only became proud of America after her husband started winning presidential primaries.

The Times celebrated Obama's inauguration as a coronation and encouraged readers to view him as a secular messiah, especially during his first 100 days. It heaped praise on his vapid and historically dubious Islam-stroking speech in Cairo. And the paper lauded his signing of a hugely divisive health-care bill that passed on a straight party-line vote.

The faith-based narrative assumed its most piquant form in the Times's broad maligning of the Tea Party, which emerged in early 2009, motivated by opposition to the Obama administration's staggering spending. As I explain in my new book, Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means For America, the Times dismissed the Tea Party at practically every turn as racist yahoos, a crypto-fascist "Astroturf" movement funded by fat cats-unable or unwilling to see that the Tea Party was a broad-based, grassroots movement, organized from the bottom up the way much of American politics used to be. Obama himself seemed to agree with that assessment, when he complained on the campaign trail that millions of Americans had proven imperviousness to "facts and science and argument."

The paper's complete misreading of the Tea Party movement was bad enough; then its demagogic columnists began making scurrilous accusations devoid of evidence. Charles Blow suggested that the Tea Party wanted to return to the days of white dominance: "You want your country back? You can't have it. Welcome to America: The Remix." Celebrating America's purportedly inevitable demographic change is a stock in trade of Times columnists, especially Frank Rich. Writing in March 2010 about Tea Party opposition to Obama's health-care plan, Rich wrote: "If Obama's first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House - topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman - would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play.... When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan ‘Take our country back!,' these are the people they want to take the country back from."

From the beginning, the Times's reporting on the Tea Party has been inaccurate, unfair, and irresponsible. The paper's approach to covering news has long since departed from the standard once exemplified by Abe Rosenthal, its former executive editor. Rosenthal warned that reporters and editors had to be on guard against their own prejudices, and that it was the editor's job to keep a heavy "right" hand on the tiller lest the newsroom tack left, as was its natural wont. Had the Times been more dedicated to seeking out facts in an agnostic manner, rather than expressing its own ideological values, it might have understood that it was independent swing voters-like many in the Tea Party-that had put Obama in office in the first place.

And those Independent voters were swinging away from the Democrats long before November 2, as pollsters Doug Schoen and Scott Rasmussen warned. Their polling showed, as far back as late 2009, that "Independents were more inclined to vote for the Tea Party than any other political party." Failing to supply fair-minded analysis like Schoen and Rasmussen's, in favor of what the Times feels is the correct way of seeing the world, does a disservice to the paper's millions of readers in the U.S. and overseas.

It does no favors, either, to a president who never hears what he needs to hear about our country from what is still our nation's - or at least its liberal elite's - "point of contact with reality," as Dwight MacDonald once put it. More than any other institution, it was the Times that put Icarus's wings of wax on President Obama's back. And as long as it marches in lockstep with the Democratic Party's liberal wing, the Times will also, perversely, serve as one of the GOP's best organizing tools.

William McGowan is the author of Coloring the News and Gray Lady Down: What The Decline And Fall Of The New York Times Means For America (Encounter Books, 2010).

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