Joe Nocera is the newest New York Times op-ed columnist. He moved over from the business section this past March to replace Frank Rich on the op-ed page. In every respect he is an improvement over Rich, though that might be damning with faint praise. Let me say without qualification that I think he is a columnist who is almost always worth reading.
He was all over the Times this weekend with work that showed off his range and knowledge. Over in the New York Times Magazine he published a long “exit interview” with the imperial former FDIC Commissioner Sheila Bair. In the New York Times Book Review he provided an entertaining account of the book he had read on his summer vacation. In his column on the op-ed page he assessed “Rupert Murdoch’s fatal flaw.” It’s the last of these pieces that I want to pause over this morning.
In his op-ed column Nocera meditates on the folding of the News of the World following the phone hacking scandal. Nocera mentions that Murdoch’s company owns the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, the latter a competitor of the Times under Murdoch’s ownership. He doesn’t mention that Murdoch’s company also owns Fox News, an occasional target of the Times.
According to Nocera, Murdoch’s fatal flaw is that he loves winning — winning in the form of producing “scoops” — too much. Coming from a Timesman working for Pinch Sulzberger, that could be a slightly self-interested judgment. Considering the News of the World phone hacking scandal, Nocera renders this condemnation:
On the one hand, reporters who work at pressure-packed scandal sheets quickly become inured to crossing lines and destroying lives; it’s what they do. On the other hand, it’s still hard to believe that not a single reporter or editor at The News of the World had the sense to realize that tapping into the cellphone of a murdered teenager was deeply wrong — no matter how many great scoops resulted. That, however, appears to be the case. The Murdoch culture had stripped them of their conscience.
As for “destroying lives,” Nocera doesn’t mention any specifics with respect to the News of the World. Whose lives did it destroy? Nocera doesn’t say. As for “crossing lines,” Nocera is taking the phone hacking as an example. Are there others? Again, Nocera doesn’t say.
I pause over Nocera’s column because Nocera is complaining about the mote in Murdoch’s eye while missing the beam in his own. As for “destroying lives,” I would offer the Times’s coverage of the Duke lacrosse rape scandal as a case in point. The Times’s pitiful, ideologically driven coverage of the scandal figures prominently in Stuart Taylor, Jr. and K.C. Johnson’s Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case. One can get a sense of Taylor and Johnson’s indictment of the Times from Jeffrey Rosen’s New York Times review of the book.
In Gray Lady Down — a book of which the Times has never taken notice in its pages — William McGowan also considers the Times’s coverage of the Duke rape case. McGowan writes: “The [Times’s] reporting on the case stands as the most unjust example of an obsession with race and an insistence on spotlighting racism as the quintessential American evil.” It’s a sentence that could use some help, but McGowan’s view of the Times’s coverage as egregiously bad and harmful stands.
As for “crossing lines,” I can think of some notable ones involving larger issues than personal privacy. The Times’s coverage of national security issues during the Bush administration almost routinized violation of the espionage laws. See my post “Do you want to know a secret?” The espionage laws make for a helluva line. Crossing them is worthy of note. One might even say that it was “deeply wrong — no matter how many great scoops resulted.”
Let me put it in a way that would pass muster under the Times stylebook. One would love to be able to debate the New York Times vs. News of the World with Mr. Nocera.
UPDATE: Via Instapundit, I see that Roger Kimball has much more here. Roger makes the same point about the Duke lacrosse rape case that I do, and a few other points as well. I’d like to take Roger as my debate partner.
And don’t miss the New York Sun editorial “Suicide of the press,” which Roger has referred me to. In the event Roger can’t make it, I’ll take Seth Lipsky as my debate partner.