My family lived, while I was growing up, at 29 Claremont Avenue between Riverside Drive and Broadway, in an elaborately decorated apartment building of ivory-colored stone directly overlooking the Barnard College campus and the copper roofs, weathered to a lichenous green, of Columbia University beyond. Lionel and Diana Trilling and their son, my schoolmate at Trinity School, lived on the ground floor of No. 35 Claremont next door. The Raymond Saulniers (he was then head of President Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors) lived two doors south, the Richard Hofstadters two doors north. Around the corner on Riverside Drive were Moses and Elizabeth Hadas, the Reinhold Niebuhrs, and Francis Brown, editor of the New York Times Book Review, and his wife Mary, whose son Francis Scott Brown is my oldest friend. (We’ve known each other from the age of two and a half, when we met in Sunday school at Riverside Church.) As editor of the NYTBR, Brown père was among the most distinguished (as well as the most powerful) members of literary New York. Brownie, as he was called, had a B.A. from Dartmouth and a Ph.D. from Columbia in American history. He was a liberal, I suppose; also an intelligent and eminently civilized man of taste and discernment under whom the Book Review, though rarely exciting, was genuinely interesting as well as sober, serious, and intellectually responsible, with a notable concern for works of history.
In my childhood and youth, nearly every educated person read the Times, though many also read the New York Tribune and the New York Herald, and business-minded people the Wall Street Journal. Reading the Times was part of being a New Yorker (or, anyway, a Manhattanite), like going to Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera, the Metropolitan Museum, the Frick, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim. In those days no one thought of the New York Times as “the Grey Lady in Times Square.” The newspaper was simply too strong, too dominant for that. It was recognized everywhere as the newspaper of record, and therefore essential. My parents were never without the Times, winter or summer, in New York or Vermont (as they were never also without The New Yorker, though looking back I don’t really understand why: for the cartoons, of course, but also perhaps because all their friends took the magazine, whether they actually read it or not).
When I joined National Review on January 1, 1976, the majority of the staff had returned weeks before from a visit to the Soviet Union. (Bill Rusher, the publisher, refused to join the party, declaring that he would enter the U.S.S.R. only “in a tank over radioactive rubble.”) The trip, though apparently enjoyable, was not without misadventure, owing to Joe Sobran, who fell asleep in the single Aeroflot toilet behind a locked door after overindulging in vodka, thus preventing Pat Buckley access for hours to the loo. Shortly before departure Bill Buckley, pressed by a Times reporter to explain why a bunch of right-wingers would wish to make the trip, replied, “Because the New York Times and the Soviet Union are the main centers of communism in the world, and we’ve all seen the New York Times.” Nevertheless, Buckley had many friends at the paper over the years, including the critic John Leonard and Anthony Lewis, the foreign-affairs columnist, and all the NR editors—including Rusher and James Burnham—read the paper and relied on its factual reportage, whose integrity (in most instances) we did not question. In those days, one might deride the Times’s barmy editorials while trusting to its reportorial standards. If the magazine’s editors today are doing likewise, they must be complete dupes and useful idiots, though I imagine they find most of their information on the internet.
While the paper still boasts of covering “All the news that’s fit to print,” today the Times is important less for the content of its coverage than the extent to which it has become a part of its own subject matter: the determined and unrelenting effort of American progressives to deny reality and replace it with the unreal parallel universe constructed by progressivism.
The New York Times, for a century and a half the breakfast reading for the most literate and highly educated people in America, has in the past couple of decades or so forsaken clean, spare journalistic prose, traditional rules of grammar (e.g., the prohibition against splitting infinitives), and the choice of the appropriate word. Many of its news stories and articles read as if they had been written by people for whom English is a second language—as indeed could be the case, given the numerous bylines like Kareem Fahim, Azam Ahmed, Zia ur-Rehman, Jawad Sukhanyar, and Nida Najar (all of which appeared in the first section on Sunday, November 8)—while a hitherto dignified journalistic style has descended to the level of the puerile colloquialisms typical of campus speech at second-rate public colleges. At the Times, even the art of headline writing has declined to the point where too many headlines require more than a double take to discern their meaning.
The editors of the Times have abandoned, together with basic literacy, so much as the pretense of reportorial objectivity (perhaps without ever realizing that they have done so). Here, for instance, is the lead paragraph of an October 11, Page 1 article headlined “From Only 158 Families, Half the Cash for ’16 Race” (subhead: “Clusters of Wealth Contribute $176 Million, Mostly to Republican Candidates”), by Nicholas Confessore, Sarah Cohen, and Karen Yourish:
They are overwhelmingly white, wealthy, older and male, in a nation that is being remade by the young, by women, and by black and brown voters. Across a sprawling country, they reside in an archipelago of wealth, exclusive neighborhoods dotting a handful of cities and towns. And in an economy that has minted billionaires in a dizzying array of industries, most of them made their fortunes in just two: finance and energy.
Not so many decades ago, that paragraph would have been heavily blue-penciled by any competent professor of journalism in the country. First of all, there is the objection pertaining to fact. Certainly, black and brown immigrants have changed the country in the past three decades. To say that it is “being remade,” however, is both wishful thinking and absurd, while the notion that “women” have been involved in such a project is more absurd still: The fact that increasing numbers of women have joined men in business and politics does not mean that the majority of them have directed their energies toward ends contrary to those their male colleagues pursue (in finance and energy, for example). Moreover, when one turns to the carryover of this lengthy article on page 34, one finds that the phrase “overwhelmingly white” is obviously misleading—and clearly meant to mislead. Of the six “white” men pictured at the top of the page, one has a Middle Eastern name, one an Irish one, two are Jewish, and the remaining two English surnamed. (The art editors, apparently, assumed the average Times reader would simply take his cue from the phrase and ignore the evidence without examining it too closely.) Second, and more important, there is that lead paragraph, which in plain fact is simply what the British call a leader, and we call an editorial. The distinction between an editorial and a news article is, of course, so absolutely basic to journalism that a refusal to recognize it is simple and deliberate journalistic malpractice.
A more subtle confusion of the two forms is perceptible in the Times’s coverage of the current migrant crisis in Europe, an account no critic of immigration from the Third World could read as anything but a smugly confident prediction of the end of historic Christian Europe. Here is the ironically named Rod Nordland on the International page of the paper for November 1:
They arrived in an unceasing stream, 10,000 a day at the height [of what?], as many as a million migrants heading for Europe this year, pushing infants in strollers and elderly parents in wheel chairs, carrying children on their shoulders and life savings in their socks. They came in search of a new life, but in many ways they were the heralds of a new age.
There are more displaced people and refugees now than at any other time in recorded history—60 million in all—and they are on the march in numbers not seen since World War II. They are coming not just from Syria, but from an array of countries and regions, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, even Haiti, as well as any of a dozen or so nations in sub-Saharan and North Africa. They are unofficial ambassadors of failed states, unending wars, intractable conflicts.
The most striking thing about the current migration crisis, however, is how much bigger it could still get.
Francis Brown’s beloved Times Book Review has been for so many years and under so many editorships (including that of Sam Tanenhaus, the neoconservative journalist entrusted by Bill Buckley many years ago to write a second biography of him) such a scandal that even the New York publishers and the rest of literary Gotham have given up on it. The NYTBR under the editorship of Tanenhaus’s female successors, including the present one, is heavily inclined toward reviews of feminist novels, preferably by women with unpronounceable names, written by other women novelists and feminist critics whose backgrounds are equally exotic. It has really got to the point where to have one’s book—one’s novel especially—reviewed in the Book Review is as much an embarrassment as having one’s engagement or wedding noted on what still call themselves the society pages, which give abundant space to same-sex “marriages.” But bad as the NYTBR has become in recent years, the greatest outrage it has performed upon journalism in particular and civilization generally is the Sunday section called The Sunday Review, formerly The Week in Review. This section, of relatively recent invention, would more accurately be called “The Progressive Review,” or “The Weekly Review of the Progressive Project.” It is here that the editors of the Times and their columnists, regular and frankly occasional, expose the agenda of their newspaper and the social, intellectual, and political movement it belongs to. While The Sunday Review never fails to nourish the panting progressive soul, the section for October 11 has absolutely orgiastic qualities.
Here are the contents, front to back, no article, no editorial, no column omitted: Front page (beneath a large color photo of a Latin American woman and her two half-naked children): “Refugees at Our Door: We are paying Mexico to keep people from reaching our border,” by Sonia Nazario; “The Asian Advantage: Why one group succeeds as other minorities [and whites] lag,” by Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist and honorary director of the Eleanor Roosevelt School of International Social Work.
Page 2: “Why Can’t We Sit Still Anymore? The idea that a person should not move seems to have taken a hike,” by Pamela Paul, editor of the NYTBR; “Download,” a column by Kate Murphy, interviewing a planetary geologist on his cultural interests; a comic strip satirizing American war policy and military action in Afghanistan.
Page 3: “The Republicans’ Ugly Revolt: Jeb Bush is in big trouble, Ted Cruz lurks. What a chaotic, incendiary season” (illustrated by a pitchfork punching a ballot card), by Frank Bruni, the homosexual lapsed Catholic Times columnist; “What Really Keeps Women Out of Tech: The geek image does more damage than we think,” by Eileen Pollack, author of The Only Woman in the Room.
Pages 4-5: “The Men of the Vale,” by Thomas Roma, a photographer whose special subject is “The Vale of Cashmere” in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, “a meeting place, where black, Latino and other gay and bisexual men have long sought one another out to fulfill their wish for community and to satisfy sexual desire”; “The Refugees at Our Door,” carried over from Page 1; “How Much Is Too Big? Raising the minimum wage to $15 might backfire,” by Allen B. Krueger, economist and former chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors.
Page 6: “Will You Ever Be Able to Upload Your Brain? Your mind, in all its complexity, dies with you. And that’s that,” by Kenneth D. Miller, professor of neuroscience at Columbia University.
Page 7: “Deforestation and Drought: Cutting down trees leads to climate change,” by Jim Robbins; “Corporate Welfare for the Kochs: The conservative billionaires don’t always practice what they preach,” by Joe Nocera, New York Times columnist.
Page 8, Editorials: “Why Is Money Still Flowing to ISIS?”; “Teaching the Truth About Climate Change”; “The Unlucky Millions Paying More for Medicare.” Letters.
Page 9, Op-Eds: “Moms and Guns: Can we look for help to the people who know our children best?” by Timothy Egan, columnist for the Times; “The Asian Advantage,” carried over; “A Tea Party Speaker: Why it will take an ideologue to govern the House,” by Ross Douthat.
Page 10: “Should We Bank Our Own Stool?: We need a way to restore microbial balance,” by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, “a science writer”; “Canadian Violence, From the Prairie to the N.H.L.: The legacy of the remote frontier over a century ago lives on in professional hockey,” by Pascual Restrepo, a Ph.D. candidate in economics at MIT.
The newsstand price of the daily paper is $2.50. For six dollars the Sunday edition gives a good deal more of the above scattered through the various sections, plus a little news, most of it datelined somewhere in the Third World. My wife, a native of Westchester County, still insists on taking the Sunday paper in its hard-copy version. Never really having caught the spirit of New York, and having been gone from there for nearly four decades, I glance every week at the front section, the Book Review (as a reminder of why it has been so hard to find a New York publisher for the past 30 years), the Arts section, the Business section, and, of course, The Sunday Review—mainly to reassure myself that the American left continues to fall further and further behind the American right, bad as it is, in terms of its engagement with reality, morality, and ordinary human sense and decency.
What would Lionel Trilling, Moses Hadas, Reinhold Niebuhr, Steve Saulnier, Richard Hofstadter, and—especially—Francis Brown think of the Times today? (His son hasn’t looked at it in years, he tells me.) What would Orwell make of it? My guess is he’d content himself with the reflection that Americans, still more or less free men and women after 1945, have since been in dire need of reshaping by the editors and staff of the New York Times and its contributors to conform with the Grey Lady’s restless and formless idea of what humanity is, and what it ought to be.