Or read the transcript below:
(Transcription by J. C. Hendershot)
Interview with William McGowan by Roger Aronoff
The “Take AIM” shows on BlogTalkRadio, November 24 and December 2, 2010.
Take AIM, 11/24/10: William McGowan, Part I
Our guest today is William McGowan, the author of Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of The New York Times Means For America, a book that “exposes the Times’ unhealthy obsessions with ‘diversity,’ pop cultural news, countercultural attitudinizing. Good morning, Bill—we’re pleased to have you with us today on Take AIM!
WILLIAM MCGOWAN: Hi, Roger! How’re you doing?
ARONOFF: Doing great, thank you. Before we discuss your most recent book, Gray Lady Down, I want to tell our listeners a bit more about you. Bill McGowan is a former editor at Washington Monthly. He has reported for Newsweek International, the BBC, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The New Republic, National Review, and The Columbia Journalism Review, among others. He is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal, and has been a frequent commentator on numerous shows on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, and NPR. He’s also the author of Coloring the News: How Political Correctness Has Corrupted American Journalism, for which he won a National Press Club Award. Bill McGowan is a Media Fellow at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, and a graduate of Middlebury College. He lives in New York City. So, again, I want to welcome you here, to Take AIM. Let’s start out with a little background: How did The New York Times become what is viewed as “The Paper of Record”?
MCGOWAN: I don’t get into this deeper history in Gray Lady Down—
ARONOFF: Okay . . .
MCGOWAN: —but other authoritative books that have, such as The Trust, by Alex Jones and Susan Tifft, do the history, and establish that when it was bought by the Ochs and the Sulzberger families at the end of the 19th century, they tried, as much as possible, to inject a spirit of objectivity and nonpartisanship. The motto at that time was “Without Fear and Favor”—they would try to report the news without fear or favor, meaning that they wouldn’t cotton to any kind of vested interests at all. This, through most of the 20th century, carried the Times, particularly after World War II, very much up to the apex of the news food chain in America.
ARONOFF: Okay. Why did you decide to write this book, Gray Lady Down?
MCGOWAN: I decided to write Gray Lady Down—and by the way, Gray Lady Down has a website called grayladydown.net—because I had written Coloring the News, which was about political correctness in the news media in general, and I looked at—I’d say—the ten top news organizations in America for that book, and I saw a clear pattern that The New York Times was one of the most egregious offenders on that front. Plus, the Times had entered into a kind of spiral of institutional embarrassment and journalistic blundering, starting in 2003 with the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal, and moving through other varied, dubious journalistic and institutional embarrassments. So it seemed like it was a very ripe subject to write about, it had importance for the rest of the country because it is the Harvard of news, so to speak—it sets the tone for the rest of the news business, it sets the news agenda for most news organizations—and I thought that it was important to establish a couple of things. One was just how bad things had gotten over there. Number two: Who were the people, and what were the policies driving this decline and fall from grace?
ARONOFF: Let’s step back a minute. What about your personal political journey? When you wrote for the Times, The Washington Post, the BBC, were your views different than they have become now, as you look back, as you look so critically at the Times?
MCGOWAN: No, I don’t think so. I think you would characterize me as probably somewhere in that wide swath between neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism. I’m not a conservative, an up-and-down conservative, by any stretch. My earlier writing was not informed very much by politics, other than a civil war in Asia that I covered—my first book was about the ethnic civil war in Sri Lanka—and, if anything, I guess covering that, living and working in the Third World, opened my eyes to a lot of issues that, when I got back to the States, particularly with high Third World immigration, I saw that there were a lot of realities about Third World cultures that were not being acknowledged in reporting on Third World immigration. So, to that extent, maybe that was my transformation moment. But I think it’s important to note that I’m coming at this not as much from a political point of view as I am from a professional point of view. I’m arguing for objectivity, professional neutral detachment, agnosticism, and fact-based journalism—as opposed to a politicized, ideological, and values-based journalism. So my political opinions really don’t matter. What matters is the integrity of the analysis.
ARONOFF: Okay. When would you say the Times reached its zenith in terms of prestige and quality?
MCGOWAN: I would say under the helmsmanship of Abraham Rosenthal, A. M. “Abe” Rosenthal, who took over in the mid-1960s, and was editor-in-chief until 1986. Most people would, I guess, describe his leadership as the Golden Age of The New York Times, seeing The New York Times through such things as the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the rise of counterculture, and, also, through a very, very endangering financial crisis that they weathered by creating a more diversified paper. Unfortunately, that was called the “Sectional Revolution,” where they broke out the paper from two sections to at least four, and introduced each section with a different topic per day during the week, and through that they were able to generate enough advertising revenue to overcome their fiscal difficulties. Unfortunately, that also became a back door toward more soft news coverage and more consumeristic and countercultural attitudinizing.
ARONOFF: The period of Abe Rosenthal, the publisher was “Punch” Sulzberger, and since 1991, I believe, his son, Arthur, Jr., also known as “Pinch,” came into power, and he’s certainly a focus in your book. You write in the book that at the time that it was announced that he was taking over, there was a lot of doubt and trepidation in the newsroom, and by some of the top staffers and people who seemed to know that he wasn’t quite up to the job. Tell us a little about that.
MCGOWAN: There was a feeling on Wall Street, in particular, that Arthur’s ascension into power was an example of irresponsible nepotism, that he had been groomed for this job without any real discussion within the family, and within the company, whether he was the right guy for it. There were also people who had been part of his apprenticeship—high-ranking editors, the top executive leaders on the business side—who had shepherded him, Arthur, Jr., through the various jobs he had had—and, to his credit, he did take and perform tasks ranging from running the boiler room to running the board room, so he had a very wide and very deep level of experience in various facets of the company—however, the people that he worked with, his own personal style wound up irritating and alienating many of them, so the first time his name was submitted to the board by his father, the board, basically, decided to table that decision for a couple of months so that they could get to know him better. The board hadn’t really seen him in action, other than, I think, one presentation, but they had heard all these stories, and in Gray Lady Down I relate that some of the board members just thought that Arthur, Jr. was sort of an “arrogant S.O.B.,” as they said. So they waited and then, pretty much perfunctorily—I guess there must have been some lobbying behind the scenes—a couple of months later, he was anointed and formally elevated to publisher of the paper. The day he was anointed was interesting—I borrowed an anecdote from Tifft and Jones talking about how Arthur, when he was giving his presentation in the board room, a big gust of wind blew a window up, a very heavy window, and wound up rattling a couple of portraits, which fell off the wall, and also, at the same time, outside the old 43rd Street headquarters of The New York Times—it’s since moved down the block to 40th Street and Eighth Avenue—was a large clock that said NEW YORK TIMES on it, and the bulbs on that clock blew out, so that time sort of stood still. A lot of people see those two things as ill omens for the future, and I think that the almost twenty years that have passed since then have kind of ratified those who did see ill omens in those things.
ARONOFF: Let me just tell a little, quick side-story that also, sort of, may be—what is it?—an omen at that time. Reed Irvine, the Chairman and founder of Accuracy in Media, used to go every year to the annual shareholder meeting and raise issues from things that had been reported in the Times over the previous year, and, after a while, Sulzberger, Sr. basically invited Reed to come up a day early and gave him a private meeting with himself and the editor at the time. So that was a very useful meeting. I think it might have taken a little bit of the fury out of Reed sometimes, but it was also, I think, helpful to them, and we saw, in their reporting, it reflected. But after Sulzberger, Jr. came in, he met with Reed one time, and then he basically called an end to that. So Reed went back to the way it had been. That’s just a story from our end—
MCGOWAN: I think it illustrates the fact that Punch Sulzberger, Sulzberger, Sr., the former publisher, was much more open to criticism. He very emphatically wanted to stay in touch with what they used to call the “middle register” of the Times’ readers. Punch, of course, came from a privileged background, but he was also a very dedicated Marine in World War II—and I say “dedicated,” not necessarily “decorated,” but dedicated to the point of view that America and patriotism were very important. He had a real pulse on the people, so to speak. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really seem to have been passed on to his son. His son is very thin-skinned about criticism, to the degree he’s very glib and dismisses it, usually with some kind of inappropriately dismissive or supercilious remark. For instance, when they inaugurated a section called “Styles of the Times” back in the early ’90s, it very much did not appeal to its older readers, and Arthur, Jr.’s response to the criticism was, “Well, I’ll outlive the bastards!” He tends to shoot first and take aim later.
ARONOFF: Right. One question about your previous book, and then we’ll get into the current book a little more. Coloring the News was the other book, and it had to do with the political correctness and desire to have an ethnically diverse newsroom, and that sort of led to this Jayson Blair situation—there had been all kinds of red flags that were missed. The charge is that they cared more about skin color diversity than they did about accurate reporting, and in that context, you said the Times was a “metaphor for American journalism.”
MCGOWAN: Yes. Right.
ARONOFF: How so?
MCGOWAN: I think that American journalism, for a good part of the ’90s and through the first decade of this century, has accented ethnic and racial diversity within the ranks of its own news personnel, and that personnel policy has carried over into a politicization of news reporting itself, where diversity is not necessarily just a way of widening the ethnic and racial composition of your news staff, but it is an ideological position on a lot of issues, like affirmative action, immigration, gay rights, racial compensation, and those kinds of things, so that diversity has been an obsession of the news media, I’d say, for the last twenty years, and the Times has really led that crusade. Arthur, Jr. was very much at the forefront of instilling this pro-diversity ethos in publishers and editorial organizations, and other professional organizations throughout the news industry.
ARONOFF: One of the things you get into quite a bit in the new book has to do with the Times’ reaction to the PATRIOT Act, the War on Terror, radical Islam, and how they treat that. What would you say has been their attitude toward radical Islam and the War on—what do you call it?—the War on Terror, the War on Radical Islam, since 9/11?
MCGOWAN: Interestingly, I think the Times did a fantastic job covering 9/11 and its aftermath, and has plugged a lot of holes in its coverage concerning the weaknesses of our immigration system that allowed the 9/11 terrorists to slip through the net and operate here. But pretty quickly, within a couple of months, it reverted back to its default positions. Two things: It took an attitude towards Islamic immigrants, towards Muslims in America, kind of anointing them as the new victim group du jour. By that, I mean that they set them up as a protected class. The reporting on Islam was always suffused with a sense that Muslims were victims of American prejudice, of a kind of essential American nativism, and the Times highlighted, to the point of, really, going along with a lot of reports on bias crimes against Muslims that were complete poppycock, that were just made up by some of the various Islamic civil rights groups. On the other front, the Times took a view of some of the Bush administration’s efforts to fight the War on Terror on the domestic front, that these were deep violations of the soul of American freedom, that they ran counter to all traditions of civil liberties, and they particularly took an animus towards the PATRIOT Act, and the tools within the PATRIOT Act that the government was given to fight Islamic terrorism on our shores, and I make the point that it really became that the Times seemed to be more concerned with the so-called depredations of our own government than they really were with the depredations of the terrorists. They saw the threat more as a government that was overreaching and trying to steal away freedoms in the name of protecting America—they saw that as a bigger threat than what these dedicated Islamic fundamentalist militants were up to in the many, many plots, some successful and others not, that were carried out after 9/11.
ARONOFF: There’s one story that relates to that that I’d like you to give us an update on. Shortly after 9/11, there was this incident where the Holy Land Foundation, which was being investigated, received phone calls from Philip Shenon and Judith Miller of the Times, and, later on, Patrick Fitzgerald, who was investigating this, wanted to see if they had actually tipped them off and warned them that they should be expecting an imminent visit from the FBI. They were basically claiming that they were just calling to inquire about it without tipping them off. How did that story end up playing out? What does that tell us about the attitude at the Times?
MCGOWAN: You know, I don’t really go into that in very much detail in Gray Lady Down, but I do know that no charges were ultimately brought, and the feeling was that it was journalistic overexuberance, and not some kind of calculated effort to submarine government efforts. The context was that the reporters got wind that the Holy Land Foundation was going to be raided, and they did make calls. Some materials were destroyed, and the Department of Justice was not able to get their hands on it, but Fitzgerald, after looking into it, declined to bring charges.
ARONOFF: Another related story is when the Times reported on the ways that al-Qaeda was getting money and transferring money around the globe, and how that was being tracked by the U.S. government. How would you characterize releasing that? Some called it treason, some just called it bad judgment, others said it was good reporting. What do you say about that one?
MCGOWAN: You’re referring to the—I think it was in 2006, June 2006—revelations that the United States government, in concert with other major powers, was monitoring banking transactions—
MCGOWAN: —surveiling banking transactions through what was called the SWIFT Consortium, which is based in Belgium. The Times ran a front-page story about this, and this followed on the heels of their revelation that the National Security Agency, which is our top electronic spying organization, was monitoring the communications of some of these terrorists, both domestically and internationally. So the SWIFT banking story, following on the heels of this other National Security Agency story, really did set a lot of people’s teeth on edge against the Times, the SWIFT story in particular. The SWIFT program was not only perfectly legal, it had completely adequate Congressional oversight, really had no complaints of abuse whatsoever, and was very effective at monitoring the transactions around the world that were used by top terrorist financiers to underwrite these plots in various places around the world. But the Times blew the lid on this story, and a lot of people did cry “Treason!” You’re asking me to evaluate that. Do I think it was treasonous? No. Treason’s pretty specific.
Do I think it was unpatriotic? That’s the more difficult question. I think that in a time of war they should have been a little bit more reflective and deferential to the government’s efforts. The government did ask them not to write about this. The Times was very glib about it, saying “Well, any terrorist worth his salt already knows that these financial transactions are being monitored, so we might as well write about them!”—which was complete nonsense. There were many, many terrorist organizations that this program was monitoring very successfully, and shutting down in the process, or helped contribute to the shutting down. So I think I would characterize—those who question the Times’ patriotism on this one, I think those questions are valid. I think what it reflects, though, is more this kind of journalistic, gratuitous, sort of “Gotcha!” kind of mentality that really didn’t take into mind enough the context of a nation being attacked, and a nation at war.
ARONOFF: Has that sort of “Gotcha!” journalism changed when the administration changed from Bush to Obama? Do they still go after Obama, would you say, the same way they went after Bush on some of the—
MCGOWAN: No. There’s a complete double standard. Unfortunately, the book went to print, I guess, the last week in September, so I didn’t get a real chance to develop this as much as I might have liked to, but I think somebody should do an analysis of the double standards, how much Obama has gotten away with that Bush was denounced and ridiculed for throughout his administrations. The Times is definitely giving Obama a “Get of Jail” pass in terms of a lot of the Bush programs Obama has actually redoubled on, in some ways. Obama has not followed through on his pledges to close Guantánamo; has not followed through on delivering the jailed terrorists to swift justice; has not followed through on a lot of efforts, both domestically and internationally, to wind down our confrontation with the Islamic world; and, on the immigration front, Obama’s probably deported more criminals than Bush has, which the Times was always decrying. But they’ve cut him a tremendous amount of slack.
ARONOFF: Right. It’s almost like they treat it like—you see those who are on the Right, criticizing Obama, and in fact he’s nowhere near that person you’re trying to characterize him as, and, as a matter of fact, he’s doing the same things Bush did—which they harshly criticized when Bush was doing it, but when Obama’s doing they use it sort of as a defense of him!
MCGOWAN: Right. Right. Very much so.
ARONOFF: So how do you explain this bias? Daniel Okrent, the public editor, said, “Anyone who reads this can see that it’s a liberal bias here,” and, as you pointed out, Sulzberger, Pinch Sulzberger, preferred to call it “urban,” rather than a “liberal” viewpoint. How do you explain the bias? Is it an accident of history? How did the Left seize this narrative of the history?
MCGOWAN: It’s a mentality that’s fed by a couple of different streams. One is the academic environment that a lot of journalists come out of has been saturated by political correctness, so they can’t help, in some ways, but be affected by that. The other thing is, journalism has been, traditionally, a liberal profession. Abe Rosenthal, the editor of the Times, famously said that, as executive editor, he needed to keep his right hand heavier on the tiller, because the newsroom, given its natural proclivities, would drift to the left. It’s a kind of self-selecting thing. Reporters just tend to embrace liberal values—not all, but many, and that kind of sets an organizational tone, and a kind of intellectual orthodoxy within these organizations.
ARONOFF: We’re almost out of time, unfortunately—I have so many more things I’d love to get into with you.
MCGOWAN: You know, I’d love to come back on.
MCGOWAN: I really enjoy this conversation. It’s very important, because Gray Lady Down—I get a lot of drive-by interviewers, and you’re not one of them, so I’m enjoying this.
ARONOFF: Thank you! Let’s just touch on one more thing: How has the Times characterized the Tea Party movement?
MCGOWAN: In as disparaging terms as possible, and as a racist organization. Basically, they’ve highlighted all these accusations of racism in order to disparage its agenda. You know, I’m not necessarily a big fan of the Tea Party—however, I completely defend its right to exist. I think, as a political analyst, I understand its wellsprings, I understand why it exists, but I don’t necessarily think it’s the right movement at this particular time. However, I will say that it is not a racist movement, and by characterizing it as that, the Times is reflecting more its own mentality than it is the Tea Party’s.
ARONOFF: Our guest today has been William McGowan, the book is Gray Lady Down. You can find it at amazon.com. Where else can people find your work? How can they get you? Listen: I would love to have you back. We’ll make those arrangements, because I could easily do another whole show on this.
MCGOWAN: I think we can. Listeners can go to grayladydown.net. There’s also a website for my last book, coloringthenews.com, and all these sites link to various ways to purchase the book through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders. Encounter Books published it, and they can buy it through the Encounter Books website as well, encounterbooks.com.
ARONOFF: All right. Again, our guest has been William McGowan. Thank you so much for being with us today on Take AIM. That’s it for this week. We will be back next week. Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone! So long!
MCGOWAN: Thank you.
Take AIM, 12/2/10: William McGowan, Part II
Today we’re continuing our conversation from last week with William McGowan, the author of Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of The New York Times Means for America. Good morning, Bill. We’re pleased to have you back with us today to continue this conversation about your book.
WILLIAM MCGOWAN: Hi, Roger. It’s good to be here again.
ARONOFF: Thanks. Last week we talked about a few of the differences between Arthur Sulzberger, Sr., and his son, “Pinch” Sulzberger—Arthur, Jr.—and their philosophies in regard to how to run the Times. We touched on how the Times treated President Bush’s War on Terror versus how its journalists covered the Obama administration’s decision to increase the use of drones and troops in Afghanistan.
Let’s start with what’s being called “Cablegate”—the release, by WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, of some 250,000 State Department cables to The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, and others. First of all, what do you make of the role of The New York Times? Why were they one of the papers picked by Julian Assange to release the documents to?
MCGOWAN: Well, they are the premiere news organization in America, and they have a track record of dubious journalistic decisions on publicizing classified material during a time of war. As I say in Gray Lady Down, I cite their so-called “scoop,” their front-page exposé of the National Security Agency’s secret program to monitor the electronic communications of potential terrorists, both domestically and internationally. The New York Times also broke the story of the SWIFT banking program—SWIFT is an acronym for an international banking consortium based in Belgium—the CIA and the Treasury Department were monitoring electronic banking activity of suspected terrorists, both domestically and internationally, with strict Congressional oversight, but the Times chose to break that news, to breach that secret—again, during a time of war. I think WikiLeaks sees the Times as an organization that is ready to be its publicist.
ARONOFF: What do you think of the Times’ explanation for releasing them? Many have noted how, during the “Climategate” scandal, in which many leading scientists in the global warming movement had been suppressing data and doctoring it and otherwise corrupting the science, the Times’ explanation for not revealing the contents of the E-mails was that they weren’t “intended for the public eye,” that’s what they said—yet here, in this case, there’s obviously plenty of things that weren’t intended for the public eye, but they have no problem. What does that say?
MCGOWAN: I think it’s hypocrisy dressed up behind a fig leaf of self-serving legalism. The Times’ explanation for that apparent contradiction—and, I would say, real contradiction—is that they, on the advice of legal counsel, during the Climategate episode, would refrain from printing or posting the documents because they were between individuals. Their legal counsel told them that the Constitution protects the exposure of government secrets, but doesn’t protect the exposure of private E-mail, and they deemed the Climategate memos and cable or E-mail traffic as private in nature, and therefore they would have run a legal risk. Which is, I think, complete nonsense! When you look at what the Times has exposed itself to now, legally, by publicizing the WikiLeaks Cablegate materials—they’ve exposed themselves, as they did with the National Security Agency story and the SWIFT banking story, to possible prosecution under the Espionage Act for the publication of classified materials. So they might be in a pretty big pot of hot water right now, depending on what the Obama administration decides to do.
ARONOFF: Do you sense any possibility that there’s been any sort of—I don’t know if collusion is the word, or meeting of the minds—somewhere between WikiLeaks, the Times, and the Obama administration? When they released the first batch, which was, really, more damning of the Bush administration and how they had handled the war in Afghanistan, it sort of cut off just before the Obama administration—but this one clearly falls in their lap. I’m wondering if they thought that they had made a deal that kind of made them look good, and now it’s kind of backfired on them. Do you have any sense of that?
MCGOWAN: That the Times made a deal?
ARONOFF: Yes, that perhaps they—in other words, there really isn’t much transparency with what has gone on between WikiLeaks and the Times and the administration—
MCGOWAN: No, not at all—as a matter of fact, the Times—well, you know, I don’t think the administration was involved very much, other than asking the Times to redact certain things. According to the Times’ account, they went to the Obama administration with the materials that they were going to go with, and asked them for guidance on what would endanger national security, and the Obama administration made some recommendations, some of which the Times followed, and others they didn’t. But as to the question of whether the Obama administration should have gotten out in front of this more, and said, “Look: We really don’t want this to come out”—you know, I don’t know why they didn’t.
ARONOFF: Mm-hmm. Last time, we talked about the double standard between how the war was covered under Bush, and how Obama’s done many of the same things and they’ve had a totally different approach to it. So I wonder, on this Cablegate—imagine if this had been the Bush White House. For instance, if his State Department had ordered that people at the U.N. be sort of “looked into,” that their credit card numbers and Social Security card numbers be gotten, and some of these things—do you imagine there would be a different reaction from the Times and other media if this had been the Bush administration? Do you think the Obama administration is getting off easy with their treatment?
MCGOWAN: I don’t think so.
MCGOWAN: You see—I mean, the very first day of the Times’ coverage of these WikiLeaks, it was a front page story about the so-called “asking diplomats to operate as spies” by getting private information from foreign diplomats at the United Nations—which I don’t really think is such a big deal, but it was on the front page—and then they had an editorial in which they mentioned that as well. I don’t think it would have been too much different. They’re pretty hard on Hillary Clinton’s State Department for asking its employees, its diplomats, to do this.
ARONOFF: What do you think is the correct assessment of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, and how our government should respond to him? Is he a journalist, as he calls himself? A Left-wing activist? A terrorist? How do you see this?
MCGOWAN: It’s hard to get a read on him. I don’t think he’s a terrorist, but I do think he’s a cyber-warrior against the United States—I mean, he’s gone on the record in several interviews, saying that his intention is to pull down the information infrastructure of the United States government, military and diplomatic wings. The guy is kind of a crazed, mad genius Doctor Evil type, a power-mad, grandiose narcissist. As to whether he’s prosecutable, that’s a legal question that still needs to be answered. Certainly he’s prosecutable on what he’s currently being charged in Sweden for, which is rape involving two women. Interpol has issued an arrest warrant for him, but as to the question of whether he can be prosecuted under U.S. laws, anti-terrorism or espionage laws, that’s sort of a gray area. He’s not a citizen of the United States, and he’s not operating in the United States. So I don’t know if the law is set up to get him.
ARONOFF: Daniel Ellsberg has been on a lot of shows lately in full praise of what Assange is doing. Give us a quick comparison between this event and the Pentagon Papers that Ellsberg had leaked to The New York Times.
MCGOWAN: The Pentagon Papers were sort of dead matter. I mean, they were a historical record—twenty years of classified information and cable traffic pertaining to the Vietnam War. They were published in 1971. Effectively, by that time, the war was winding down, even though it didn’t officially end until 1975. But I don’t see any parallel at all to the degree that this—this is real time. This is releasing real-time classified material, real-time secrets, official secrets, during a time of war. It cuts to the issue of—the Times, for instance, published the Pentagon Papers only after they decided that there were no live military secrets, no current military secrets, within the Papers. That’s the only reason they went with them. In this case, they’re exposing, as I said, real-time diplomatic traffic that has a lot to do with the War on Terror, and they seem to think that it’s more important for citizens, individual citizens, to know this rather than for the government to shroud this. My point would be, diplomacy serves democracy, but it’s not necessarily a democratic process. It needs veils of secrecy in order to be effective. What the Times has done has ripped that veil apart, and it’s exposed the inner workings of our diplomatic processes in a way that embarrasses us. It renders our diplomats’ credibility and trust null. It makes it extremely difficult to continue with certain diplomatic efforts like rescuing some loose nuclear material within Pakistan, continuing on with our drone program that operates out of Yemen. It’s going to cause a lot of problems on the Arab street with the information that some of the Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, are just as nervous about a nuclear Iran as Israel is. It makes it seem like certain Arab leaders are doing the bidding of the United States, which never plays well on the Arab street.
ARONOFF: One final question on this topic: Do you see a pattern in the publications that he picked to release these 250,000 or so cables to? In other words, The New York Times, The Guardian—they were given these documents, and then they can go through and decide which ones they want to report on and all that. Do you see a pattern? What is the impact of WikiLeaks on global journalism?
MCGOWAN: In a sense, WikiLeaks has become the reporter, and the news organizations have become the publicist for WikiLeaks, because WikiLeaks does set the agenda. They decided what documents were going to be released. They were very, very selective. I think that organizations like the Times and the Guardian become aiders and abetters of an organization that is not operating in the best interests of the world, not operating in the best interests of the human rights activists whose names were mentioned, not operating in the interests of the Afghani and Iraqi civilians who cooperated with the U.S., and, essentially, is operating as an anti-American organization.
ARONOFF: Let’s talk about another subject in the news. This is this Portland, Somali-born, Oregon State University student Mohamed Osman Mohamed. Talk about the coverage of this incident where he was attempting—he thought he was blowing up a bomb near the Christmas tree lighting in Portland. How have you seen the coverage of this story?
MCGOWAN: I see it as a blueprint, or as a template, for its coverage of these homegrown Islamic radical plots in general. In Gray Lady Down, I have an entire chapter devoted to the coverage of the War on Terrorism, the Times’ coverage, and you see, again and again, when these plots emerge, such as the Times Square bomber and the attack—or the planned attack, the conspiracy to attack the fuel lines running into JFK International Airport, you see several elements. The Times tends to highlight this idea of federal agents “entrapping” gullible or manipulable young Islamic radicals. They highlight the possibility, or the worry for, a backlash against Muslims—the worry within the Muslim community for this backlash. And they kind of ignore the whole question of loyalty—why an American citizen, or an American national, would embrace this kind of radical Islamic jihadi worldview. This kid out in Portland has said he had been planning this thing for four years, and he wanted to kill as many Americans as he possibly could. I don’t think that that is a sign that the kid had very much loyalty to America, but they just dance around the subject of the religious motivation behind these attacks. They always do this, and there’s always these reminders and qualifiers and caveats that this guy’s kind of an exception, he’s a bit of a freak, he was a confused teenager—you know, confused teenagers do a lot of things: They talk back to their parents, they might smoke pot, but getting involved in a plot to blow up as many people as he possibly could at a Christmas tree lighting event is not something that most confused teenagers do.
ARONOFF: Right. I’m actually looking at an article from the Times from November 28th. The headline: “Suspect in Oregon Bomb Plot is Called Confused.”
ARONOFF: That’s the point you’re making. It does say that his parents were the ones, they believe, that first contacted the FBI, because they noticed he was becoming radicalized, but when the FBI went to the mosque that he attended, when they tried to talk to a number of people, no one would talk to them. That’s part of the problem, I think.
MCGOWAN: It’s also part of the problem that the city of Portland itself withdrew from cooperating with federal authorities a number of years ago because they felt that the cooperation with federal authorities fostered civil rights abuses. They’re rethinking that policy now.
ARONOFF: So this idea of “entrapment,” this is a common theme in these stories, that they really seem to try to lead the readers to conclude Hey, if it wasn’t for the FBI sort of creating this whole thing, this likely never would have happened!
MCGOWAN: It’s interesting. In other cases—I mentioned the conspiracy to blow up fuel lines at JFK International Airport, there was another case where an informer working for the government was in the middle of a plot involving four Muslims in upstate New York who were planning to blow up synagogues in New York City—juries don’t buy it, basically. This “entrapment” defense hasn’t worked. Most jurors see that the intent, despite the fact of what might be perceived as government manipulation, is much more dangerous than the government manipulation itself.
ARONOFF: Your chapter in your book, Gray Lady Down, on the Iraq War—I found it fascinating. One question is about their coverage leading up to the war, and the role of Judith Miller. You go into that quite extensively. She, of course, later figured into the Scooter Libby case. She was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, largely reviled—even banished to Fox News—for her reporting on Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, and then later, under Bill Keller, who became the editor in June 2003, you point out that the Times printed a huge mea culpa related to her reporting. First, do you think that the sort of self-incrimination of the paper was justified? How did the Times’ reporting change after that?
MCGOWAN: I think the Times bought into the notion that was very much advanced by the Left that its reporting—its erroneous reporting—on weapons of mass destruction was what led us into war, that they bought the administration’s line, Judith Miller was too close to some of her administration sources, and if that reporting had not appeared in The New York Times, then possibly we may not have gone into Iraq. I think WMDs were an important reason we went into Iraq, but it wasn’t the only reason—there were all sorts of other concerns. But that became the perception, that the Times’ misreporting on WMDs—erroneous reporting on WMDS—was what put us into Iraq, and their reporting after that was a kind of effort to do penance—and to adopt very much of an anti-war posture, and to filter a lot of what they wrote about Iraq—not everything, but a lot of what they wrote—through a filter of the “Vietnam quagmire” script.
ARONOFF: Right. You talk about that—let me just mention a few things that you talk about there that sort of go through that prism, and give me just a quick summary of them. One was the Haditha so-called “massacre.”
MCGOWAN: That involved a group of Marines that had taken some fire—I think there was an IED involved—and it was unclear exactly what happened, but a number of militants and civilians were killed. This was deemed a “massacre,” and they did story after story—I think they did 37 stories on it—and, in the end, the worst charges that were brought were, basically, a slap on the wrist. But yet they continued to push this thing, calling it the “Haditha Massacre.” There were other examples where they put the most pejorative read on things that were not worthy of that. At a certain point, columnist Frank Rich talked about our retreat from Fallujah, the first campaign against Fallujah, which was a stronghold of Sunni terrorists and al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and foreign al-Qaeda. We did withdraw, but it wasn’t as if we were withdrawing because we were getting beaten—it was more out of deference to the fact that a lot of civilians were getting caught in crossfire, and we didn’t want that to put a stamp on our effort in Iraq as a whole.
ARONOFF: Another one was one that you identified as the “Killer Vets” story.
ARONOFF: What was that one with the Times?
MCGOWAN: That was a series that ran concerning the number of veterans who came back from Iraq and, the Times alleged, got involved in violence and murderous criminal activity, and they, if I remember correctly, identified over 120 cases where this had happened. But it was not a systematic, statistically valid survey in the least, and, compared to the population at large, the numbers were actually lower. We’re talking about how many men and women cycled through Iraq in those years before that series ran? And 121 cases? Some of them were road accidents and not intentional, first-degree murder situations. The story basically was part of an effort, a broad effort, to paint our military in pejorative terms, and to put the stamp of the “Psycho Vet!” on the men and women who had served in Iraq.
ARONOFF: You refer to John Burns, who has been a long-time reporter for the Times, in the context of this Vietnam lens, and some of the reporting he did, specifically regarding the climate for the upcoming election. I actually knew him—I was a freelancer back in South Africa in 1978, and he was down there covering three countries by himself. I’ve always thought he’s a great reporter, and this is something—they have some excellent reporters, but I’m wondering about the relationship between the reporters and the editors. In other words, sometimes the reporters—you read some really great material in their articles, but they don’t necessarily fit in with the overall narrative that the paper seems to be putting forth, and so the relationship between these reporters in the field and the editors back home, and how that shapes the stories.
MCGOWAN: I would read John Burns’ reporting in that way. I think John Burns is an incredible reporter, and a very brave man. I remember reading that story, and it seemed out of sync with a lot of other reporting that he did, and, also, some of the appearances he made on television—Charlie Rose. My sense is that the copy desk got hold of it and needed to inject some pessimism in it.
ARONOFF: Okay. Another thing I’d like to touch on is how you would describe the Times’ coverage of the situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians. People say, “Well, this is a Jewish-owned newspaper,” and assume that it must be pro-Israel. Is it?
MCGOWAN: The Times has always had an ambivalent relationship to Judaism. Its owners are Jewish, but some have converted to Episcopalianism. Historically, they did not want to be seen as a “Jewish newspaper,” and because of that, they minimized coverage of the Holocaust, for instance—there were very few stories about Hitler’s genocide. I think someone wrote a book recently, saying there were only five or six small stories about one of the 20th century’s biggest stories. The Times—even though it, for a while, was supportive of Israel—I think, has shifted somewhat, and reflects more of the European press’s hostility to Israel, and its sympathy with the Palestinian cause. Now, that’s not to say that the Palestinians don’t have a case, and it’s not to say that the Israelis haven’t made big mistakes. I mean, the settlement issue is huge, and is probably the biggest impediment to the peace process. But I think you see a little bit more sympathy than the Palestinians actually deserve, and there’s a little bit of a double standard when it comes to the violence that each side inflicts on the other.
ARONOFF: All right. I could debate you on that issue about the settlements, but we want to move on—we’re running out of time here. Talk about the Times today, financially speaking. They recently—or within the last couple of years—had to put up their headquarters as collateral, and they got a large infusion of cash from a Mexican businessman. How has that worked out? Did he buy any editorial control? What is the condition of the paper today?
MCGOWAN: It has cashflow issues. That’s why they turned to this Mexican billionaire, Carlos Slim Helú, for a loan of, I think, somewhere upwards of around $200 million. The loan was structured on rates of interest that were almost usurious—I mean, it was like going to a check-cashing place to get this kind of money. They were paying huge amounts of interest on it. So it was an act of desperation. I don’t think it really bought Helú too much editorial control—I don’t think it bought him any editorial control at all, actually—but it did seem to soften some of the coverage towards him, and some of the more dubious activities of his operations in Mexico.
MCGOWAN: But the Times is not in great financial shape, like all newspapers. But let’s just keep in mind that in 2003, before the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal cropped up, the stock was trading at over $50 a share. At one point, the stock went below $4 a share, which was actually below the price of a Sunday edition at that time. The stock has rebounded slightly, but not anywhere near its $50-some-odd a share just seven years ago, and I think if any other CEO of any corporation in America presided over that kind of slide in stock value and revenue like Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the current publisher, he’d be out—but because it’s a family-owned newspaper, he was the anointed successor from his father, “Punch” Sulzberger, they can’t touch him.
ARONOFF: One more thing: The New York Times book reviews. A: How have they treated you, your previous book and this one? And then The New York Times Book Review, the magazine itself, politically speaking—Talk a little bit about that, and then we’re going to have to wrap it up.
MCGOWAN: Last time, with Coloring the News, they didn’t review it, and the editor of the Book Review at that time, Chip McGrath, was so indiscreet as to go on the record with the San Francisco Chronicle’s media reporter when asked about it. He said, “I don’t know whether reviewing a book that’s so critical of a newspaper like ours is proper in a newspaper like ours.” So, essentially, he basically said, “This is unfit to print because it’s too critical of the Times.” A couple of years ago, at a literary event in New York, I ran into the current editor of the Times Book Review, Sam Tanenhaus, who very sincerely pledged that, this time around, I would get a review of this New York Times book. He has since reneged on that, and he’s invoked the most transparent of fig leaves to justify that. It’s basically, I think, he’s just covering his bottom and avoiding troubles with angering his boss.
ARONOFF: Yes. You pointed out how the Times’ book reviews give rave reviews to books with Left-wing or anti-American themes, and virtually ignore conservative books, even ones that sit for a long time on its own bestseller list.
MCGOWAN: Right. And, in the meantime, they’ll review books with such transgressive themes as the former ballerina who wrote a memoir celebrating sodomy. They’ll review books about the sexual prowess of black men. It’s almost comical, how they either studiously ignore conservative titles, or they give them extremely snide and snarky reviews, or, third, they allow reviewers who may have been conservatives at one point—Jacob Heilbrunn and a guy named Damon Linker—who are trying to kind of move away from the conservative or neo-con community, they give them the opportunity to review these conservative books and dump on them in the most horrifically uncivil and snooty and dismissive kind of ways. For instance, a couple of books about Norman Podhoretz, who’s the famed editor of Commentary Magazine, were just insulting, to the degree of calling him a “crank” and an “isolated crackpot.” The point I make in Gray Lady Down is, you can agree with Podhoretz or not in his politics, but this is a major figure in American letters, and certainly he deserves a little bit more respect than what he got in the pages of the Times Book Reviews. They really go out of their way to make conservative intellectuals appear faulty or crackpot.
ARONOFF: Again, the book is called Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of The New York Times means for America. Just give us a quick summary: What does it mean for America?
MCGOWAN: I think it’s sad to the degree that the Times was, at one time, the preeminent news organization in America, and still is, to a certain degree, in that it sets the agenda for the rest of the news media, and it’s a very important forum for policy debates among the policy elite and for educated, informed citizens. But the problem is, because it’s lost so much credibility due to its journalistic blunders, its political bias, and because of its pending insolvency or parlous financial condition, it means that we won’t have as vital a New York Times as before. I’m not a Times hater at all, and I do not wish them ill. I don’t want to see them go under. I’m a reformer, not a revolutionary, and I guess I write out of a spirit of loyal opposition, because I’ve read the Times all my life, and I started my career writing for them—not as a reporter, but as a freelancer, and in prominent places in the paper. So I have a lot of sympathy for them, but, boy, they are really, really fouling their own nest in a way, over and over again, that has repercussions, and I don’t think it’s great for this country to lose a vital forum like the Times. Even though The Wall Street Journal is coming on as a great competitor on the national level, I think we still need a vital New York Times. If these times demand something like The New York Times, they demand a much better New York Times.
ARONOFF: Our guest has been William McGowan. You can find his books at Amazon. You can find this book at grayladydown.net, is it?
MCGOWAN: That’s it, Roger.
ARONOFF: .net, okay. It’s been a great pleasure and honor to have you here for these last two shows. Thank you so much. It’s a great book—I highly recommend everyone get a hold of it and read it. And that’s going to be it for this show. Bill, thank you so much.
MCGOWAN: Roger, thank you very much. I really appreciate it. Hope to talk to you again.
ARONOFF: Okay. Take care.