The news has changed in the last 50 years, but it’s hard to put your finger on the difference. So I tried an experiment – comparing the editorial pages of the New York Times over the same two weeks in 1969 and 2019.
It’s not exactly fair. The goal posts have shifted a bit. In 1969, the “Editorial Board” would fill an entire page with anonymous editorials – five or six of them — and its signed op-eds were also written by the same people. Nowadays, the Gray Lady has dyed her hair, uses Botox on her wrinkles and speaks less. The editorial board publishes only a couple of editorials daily. The numerous op-eds are written by contributors from outside the newspaper.
My working hypothesis was that the newspaper whose proud motto is “all the news that’s fit to print” is wallowing in editorials and op-eds about sexual identity politics — #MeToo, transgender activism, gay rights and reproductive rights with a good dollop of sex scandals.
Well, I was wrong.
Of course I was only comparing February 1 to 14 in 1969 and 2019. There have been some contributions about gender politics this year – but they only amounted to 4 percent of the comment in those two weeks. On abortion, the Times was even more incisive in 1969 than today. The closing words of an editorial on February 6, 1969 about abortion for genetic defects were: “To forbid such abortions should be criminal, not the other way around.”
There were other quirks. Contributions about the environment were scarce in both years, but five times as numerous in 1969. Parenting and gun control are topics which appear in 2019 and were completely absent 50 years ago. Although the Times ran an op-ed last year titled, “How Trump Is Worse Than Nixon”, in early 1969, Tricky Dick didn’t look that bad. “In the area of civil liberties, the man in the White House has shown capacity for both tolerance and growth,” the Times editorialised on February 7. A bit different from the reception it gave President Trump from Day 1.
One feature of the 1969 Times which is altogether missing from today’s paper is whimsy – humorous, imaginative vignettes about issues of the day. These were nearly all written by Russell Baker, a legendary columnist who died last month. I hope that the Blackface Exhumation Warriors never read the column he published on February 4 savagely ridiculing African-Americans who claim a victim status. It’s, um, embarrassing. Very, very embarrassing.
But the main difference, 50 years later, is the bread and butter of America’s newspaper of record, news — news about international affairs, news about American politics, and news about New York politics. These took up a bit more than 70 percent of the editorials and op-eds in both years. But the shift in emphasis is intriguing.
First, the proportion of contributions about New York politics has shrunk from about 17 percent to 4 percent. Although the Times is based in New York City (and State), it seems to be losing touch with the people who live there. Perhaps the editorial board has given up on The Deplorables.
Second, the corresponding figure for international affairs has shrunk from 27 percent to 18 percent. This is a bit surprising. In both 1969 and 2019 there were and are crises, wars, and ideological battles. But the analytical skills of the editorial board and op-ed contributors are being deployed elsewhere.
Where? In Washington DC. Editorials and op-eds on American politics accounted only for about 27 percent in 1969, but 50 percent this year – nearly double. No doubt smouldering rage at the lunacy of the Trump Administration accounts for much of this.
But I suspect that there is something else at work. In the intervening five decades, the Times seems to have acquired a keener sense of its high vocation as the Fourth Estate, guiding the American elite to the correct progressive opinions. It is job-sharing with those pulling the levers of power in the nation’s capital.
Has the Times become a bit narcissistic? A bit too complacent about its relationship with “the Commons”, the first of the other three “estates”? A bit too vain about its links with “the Lords Temporal”? A bit too ambitious to usurp the pastoral role of “the Lords Spiritual”?
Perhaps. In any case, the Times seems to suffering from a case of what optometrists call peripheral vision loss. It’s as if someone with tunnel vision were looking at butterflies. There’s lots of colour and fluttering, but not much context. Compared to 1969, the newspaper’s passion for social justice, its commitment to the poor, slightly chaotic and dingy world surrounding it, seems to have cooled.
The question is Why? New York Times commentary is a high-quality product. Stylistically, it is highly polished. Analytically, it is well-informed and sophisticated. But something has been lost.
Here’s my guess. It does have something to do with the sexual identity politics which pervades the newspaper’s news pages. Although the editorial board operates separately from the newsroom, they breathe the same recycled air. And much of sexual identity politics is inward-looking and self-centred. The high tide of saving the world for peace and justice, a common theme in 1969, has ebbed. At low tide, in 2019, the mud flats of navel-gazing stretch out to the horizon.
Of course the Times policy of reducing the number of editorials and showcasing columnists and contributors has something to do with it. An editorial is an anonymous corporate sermon with little scope for individuality, a lecture by an omniscient preacher whose parish is the world. Who, in 2019 could digest six of these seven days a week? Probably no one.
Like the New York Times, we have changed. We prefer individual voices – or at least I do. But this comes at a cost. Our media responds by publishing more columns about solving my own problems and fewer about solving the world’s.
It’s a great loss.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet