July 17, 2005

New York Times Running Out?

NOTE: Most, and perhaps all, NY Times links require registration.

Nadagate seems to have played out, and barring a shock I don’t anticipate, has resulted in a big fat nothing.

What is Nadagate? It’s the name given by a clever writer to the non-scandal about which I refuse to blog in detail. Its main players, whose full names I refuse to type, have the initials KR, JW, VP, JM, and MC. For the blessed among you who have somehow managed not to hear of it, today’s Manchester Union Leader’s seven-paragraph editorial has all you’ll ever need to know about the non-event that has been an obsession of the Mainstream Media, and especially its Washington press corps, for two years.

The Nadagate non-scandal has inflicted further hits to the credibility of the Big Three television networks (as if they care). Perhaps more important, it is another body blow to the national viability of that centerpiece of the mainstream print media, The New York Times.

To show how silly and pitiful this has all been: The person who has coined the term Nadagate is none other than John Tierney, op-ed columnist for …… The New York Times! (HT to Poor and Stupid)

The recent chronicle of The Times’ ever-steeper downhill slide has these lowlights (many more could be enumerated, but the following are enough):

  • The firing of Jayson Blair in May 2003, after, in The Times’ words, he:

    “misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland, Texas and other states, when often he was far away, in New York. He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He stole material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression that he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.”

    The Times chronicled the sordid errors of Blair in a 14,000-word article, and told us that five reporters and a team of researchers had been assigned to investigate and document the case. At least two news executives were fired for coddling Blair and ignoring warning signs of his incompetence.

  • The paper’s coverage of what has come to be known as Rathergate, the tale of George W. Bush’s supposedly less-than-perfect Texas Air National Guard service that relied on typed memos prepared after-the-fact in Microsoft Word that CBS reporters attempted to pass off as being from the early 1970s. The Times infamously characterized these memos as “fake but accurate” in a mid-September 2004 story.
  • The false October 2004 story about the missing weapons cache in Iraq that was debunked by NBC within 24 hours.

And now Nadagate, which may be the worst of the bunch. First, for its total lack of perspective (HT to Varifrank):

In the entire history of mankind, has there ever been another story where the press could not care more and the average guy could not care less?

But more tellingly, Nadagate reveals not only The Times’ naked partisanship, which most readers and observers take for granted, but its rarely visible (yet always present) contempt for the law when attempts are made to enforce it on them.

In the course of Nadagate, a Times reporter (JM) has been ordered by the courts to reveal the name of a confidential source. JM, backed by Times’ management, has refused, even though the source has given JM permission to reveal his/her name. All appeals, including to The Supreme Court, have failed. The Times and JM still won’t comply. JM is in jail (after pleading for home incarceration–talk about chutzpah). The Times doesn’t even begin to acknowledge that it has larger responsibilities (bold is mine):

As the national “paper of record”, the New York Times has obligations not only to its readers, its writers, and its sources, as well as its brothers-in-arms in the worldwide media, but to all Americans. Devotees of the Times are invited to place their trust in the paper’s reports, its editorials — and its integrity.

It’s a shame, then, that the paper has gone so far out on a limb ….. in naked pursuit of two paramount objectives, to the exclusion of all others: uncompromisingly defending the inviolability of reportorial privilege and relentlessly excoriating the Bush administration.

But — and here’s the rub — journalists need not comply with the legal prerogatives of the investigators, says the Times, even if the Supreme Court itself declares that they must. This disconnect — in which the paper seems to believe that it and its reporters are above the law — will erode the trust that the public vests in Big Media.

Bingo. A large and growing portion of the public already does not trust Big Media, and rightfully so. Though I can’t find a link at the moment (found–see Update below), I seem to recall that The Times has gone from the most trusted news source in the world to Number 6 in just a couple of years (The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal are now Numbers 1 and 2). Speaking of responsibility, The Times’ downfall trickles down (ironic term) to the Big Three networks, and to the smaller newspapers, television stations, and radio outlets that rely on it for fair and accurate national and international news reporting. This (along with technological developments, of course) helps to explain the general decline in newspaper circulation and the declining viewership of the Big Three networks’ nightly newscasts.

On top of all of this, The New York Times is a publicly-held company (symbol NYT). It has a responsibility to attempt to earn a reasonable return for its investors.

How is it doing in that area? Two words–not well: The stock has taken a 40% dive, from its June 20, 2002 high of $52.79 to a Friday close at $31.20. The Times’ daily and Sunday circulations both declined more than 3% between March 2002 and March 2005. Its other major newpaper property, The Boston Globe, has experienced similar hits to its credibility in the past five years and has seen its circulation decline even more steeply.

Do they care? Apparently not. While there will always be tension between newsroom and business priorities (all kinds of stories have the potential of ticking off advertisers), The Times attitude appears to be “the investors be damned” (HT #2 to Poor and Stupid):

Daniel Okrent, a former Times public editor, stresses that his old employer “has the freedom to take positions that they deem to be in the interest of journalism without fear of the reaction of public stockholders.”

All of this makes me wonder how many years it will take for The Times to transform itself into an alternative newpaper read only in Manhattan and at DNC headquarters in Washington. It seems to be working very hard every day to make it happen.

If you are or are thinking about being an NYT stockholder, you can’t say you haven’t been warned.

UPDATE: Porkopolis comments below about the Fox Grapevine story on newspaper reputation. Here is the excerpt he is referring to:

Speaking of the Times, the Gray Lady has slipped to sixth in a list of the world’s best newspapers.

A global poll of journalists, politicians, and business executives named London’s Financial Times the best paper on Earth, followed closely by the Wall Street Journal and Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine. The Times was named the world’s premiere paper in 2003, when 21 percent of those surveyed called it the best, but just 8 percent made the same claim in this year’s poll.

Porkopolis also has a great piece on yet another NYT game of hide-and-seek with the truth.

UPDATE 2: Geez, you leave the computer for a few hours and get…..an Instalanche! Welcome Instapundit readers, and thanks to Glenn for the link.

Comments are moderated, so be patient, especially in the wee AM Eastern Time hours. Thanks.

UPDATE 3: An e-mailer who owns NYT and Washington Post Company shares makes the following excellent point:

I think you’ve overlooked one key factor in their seeming high-handed attitude toward the public shareholders: namely, they don’t have to care, since the companies can’t be taken over.

Check the 10-Ks for each company. Both companies are controlled by trusts for the benefit of the Sulzbergers (NYT) or Grahams (WaPo), in which a small percentage of the capital stock has super-voting rights. This allows the companies to “remain independent.” It also effectively insulates them from any pesky shareholders that would bother them with nasty ol’ proxy fights and the like.

For NYT, I did go to the 10-K, which referred me to the Proxy Statement, which confirms the e-mailer’s point (the family stock elects a majority of the Board of Directors), and contains this howler (Page 3, third paragraph):

The primary objective of the 1997 Trust (which maintained family control–Ed.) is to maintain the editorial independence and the integrity of The New York Times and to continue it as an independent newspaper, entirely fearless, free of ulterior influence and unselfishly devoted to the public welfare.

Can’t say they don’t have a sense of humor.

UPDATE 4: Pamela at Trey Jackson suggests subscribing to The New York Sun.