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Middle Class Self-Government Conservative Passing Gear

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Letter to Howie

by Christopher Chantrill
April 10, 2004 at 8:00 pm

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GREAT ARTICLE in the April Atlantic, Howie.  But, hey, couldn’t you have used an editor?   I’d say that 15,000 word magazine article is approaching New Yorker levels of self-indulgence.  Surely you want to hold something back for the book?

As a conservative, you can imagine that it was delicious for me to read of the dysfunctional “culture of complaint” at the Times.  It is a bit shocking, I admit, to read that the newsroom is not a rollicking battlefield of overachievers but a sour pasture polluted by Newspaper Guild time-servers.  It’s easy to forget that every story in the Times should probably have a conflict of interest disclosure on it: “This story was reported, written, and edited by members of the Newspaper Guild, so forget about ever reading any criticism of unions, pal.”

It was encouraging to read of your valiant efforts to turn the Times around, to get in there and make the tough decisions immediately before the opposition had time to organize.  But what struck me most of all was the failure to tie the problems at the Times to the rest of the world.  Here you were, leading an old and venerable institution, owned by a man you characterize as a weak and vacillating leader, trying to break out of the slow exponential decay from former vigor to present complacency to future crisis.  Isn’t this a metaphor for the city around you?  Yet I can’t say I’ve ever gotten the feeling that you have a clue that your own institutional situation was just a microcosm of the whole welfare state that the Times supports so robustly.

Wasn’t Rudy Giuliani trying to do the same thing to the city as you were to the Times?  Wasn’t he trying to inject a tiny dose of your “culture of performance” in the vast “culture of complaint” that we know and love as New York City?  And what about New York State?  How much support did you give over the years to Governor Pataki in his occasional and indecisive attempts to rein in the vast patronage machine managed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver?  Then there’s George W. Bush.  By all accounts, President Bush sems to be bringing a culture of performance to the nation’ government, shaking up the nation’s global strategy in response to 9/11, responding to the collapse of the 1990’s bubble by radically cutting income tax rates in investment income, and actually proposing to “do something” about Social Security and Medicare.  But you know, Howie, I can’t say that I’d ever noticed the least acknowledgement of this from the editorial page that you ran for so many years.  Indeed, I’d say that, outside your crusade in the Times newsroom, you side 100 percent with the national culture of complaint.  There certainly was ample opportunity in your 15,000 words to establish your reforming bona fides if you had wanted to.

I also felt that you didn’t articulate any long-term vision for the newspaper beyond a few platitudes about the digital age.  I couldn’t help noticing last week that the Boeing Company announced that it was putting its big Wichita plant up for sale.  It wants to outsource the subassembly of its commercial jets, and “position itself as an intellectual company” rather than a tin-bender, according to The Wall Street Journal.  Coincidentally, Boeing will distance itself from its own culture of complaint, and dissolve somewhat the monopoly powers of the rather militant Aeromechanics union.   Your plans for the Times did not seem to include anything in similar vein.  Is this because you knew that Arthur was too timid to do anything, or because you never thought about it?  It’s an exciting idea though isn’t it?  How do you think an outsourced news operation would look like at The New York Times?  How would it be if you kept the brand and the “names,” but outsourced all the support?  What would the average Times reader think about it?

I’d say that The New York Times reader would find it hard to make sense of it, because the Times rarely strays from the Democratic party line in reporting on political and economic issues.  Yet, as you write, you believe its responsibility is to provide “the smartest and most affluent people in the United States” a sophisticated menu balanced between things they need to know and things they’d like to know.  Out here in conservative land we have a ton of exciting writers busily trying to make sense of this new world aborning.  But they write the kind of book that would never see the light of day in The New York Times Book Review, or if it did, would be set up for a put-down.  So the Times reader never gets to know about a lot of things that they “need to know.”  Why would that be, do you think?

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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