Friday, January 25, 2008

New York Times endorsement: intellectually lazy or outright dishonest?

Surprise, surprise—the editorial board of the New York Times has “decided” to endorse Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nod in the February 5th New York primary.

Pardon my tone, but any regular reader of the Times’ campaign coverage should have had little doubt that this was coming. I don’t have the exact totals at my fingertips, but the amount of stories written by NYT reporters about the presidential campaign of New York’s junior senator—not to mention the quantity that appeared on the front page—dwarfs the number about any other single candidate by a large margin.

Barack Obama was the clear silver medalist in the Times column inch Olympics, and most of Friday’s endorsement ping-pongs between the two celebrity senators. I will leave most of the analysis of that particular battle to someone else whom might give a tinker’s cuss about which $100 million campaign has best earned the right to fight alongside the Gray Lady in its pitched defense of the corporate-controlled status quo. Instead, let me turn my attention to the four (count ‘em—four) sentences that the editorial board devotes to the third candidate in the race, Senator John Edwards:

The remaining long shot, John Edwards, has enlivened the race with his own brand of raw populism.

. . . .

We have enjoyed hearing Mr. Edwards’s fiery oratory, but we cannot support his candidacy. The former senator from North Carolina has repudiated so many of his earlier positions, so many of his Senate votes, that we’re not sure where he stands. We certainly don’t buy the notion that he can hold back the tide of globalization.

Thank heavens for small favors, right? I mean, at least Edwards has enlivened the race for the enjoyment of the board. Why ruin a good diversion with a few minutes spent actually looking up the facts?

That this canard about the flip-flopping John Edwards originated in the mighty Wurlitzer of beltway bloviators and establishment media hacks shouldn’t be so shocking, I suppose—it’s not like a candidate arguing for tax fairness and a diversified media has much to offer their wheezy, private stock-owning boards. It is, however, a bit disturbing that supposedly liberal and erudite opinion leaders on the Times editorial board feel so little need to even pretend to justify their assertions.

I suppose throwing it out there makes it so. They are “the paper of record,” after all.

Except that record has nothing to do with it—at least not when it comes to Senator Edwards.

As I have noted before, with regard to domestic economics, the positions held by John Edwards have an almost tedious consistency. From his days as a lawyer, defending poor plaintiffs harmed by greedy, negligent corporations, to his work as the Director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Edwards has made speaking for the economically disenfranchised the organizing principle of his life.

In the US Senate, where his votes theoretically trouble the Times, John Edwards was rated the fourth most liberal member—ahead of such liberal lights as Ted Kennedy and Barbara Boxer. Indeed, Edwards was seen as so liberal by the North Carolina Republican Party that they dispatched a litany of attacks on his record, highlighting such threats as the Senator’s opposition to permanent repeal of the estate tax, to capital gains tax rate reductions, and—horror of horrors—his votes against President George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy.

The NC GOP also makes a big, big point of something else—something that should interest the esteemed editorial board at the Times—John Edwards voted with Hillary Clinton 89% of the time. (And let us not forget that Edwards had to represent the far more conservative state of North Carolina.)

John Edwards’s theme for the 2004 campaign was “The Two Americas”; this year, the Senator structures his platform around “Building One America.” It is a level of constancy some might almost call obsessive.

It is true that in 2002, Senator Edwards—along with Senator Clinton—voted “aye” on the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the legislation that paved the way for Bush’s Iraq debacle. But, unlike Clinton, Edwards has renounced that vote. He did so in 2005, in an opinion column published in the Washington Post. Perhaps the New York Times’ editors are not permitted to read the competition; if they had, they would have been able to understand that not only had Edwards the integrity and courage to apologize for a tragic error, they would have learned that even then, private citizen Edwards was calling for a withdrawal of troops, a push to train more Iraqi forces, and a concerted effort to engage other countries in crafting a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Over two years later, Edwards is still the candidate calling for the quickest drawdown of US forces, and is light-years ahead of Clinton in understanding why this fiasco has gone so badly for our country.

That Edwards, Clinton, and a whole host of others made a mistake in 2002 is not news—but, in today’s political environment, that John Edwards has learned from his mistake is. Imagine, after two terms of the intransigent, incurious President George Bush, a leader that has the capacity to learn and grow.

In fact, it seems that is a quality that the Times’ writers admire:

Domestically, Mrs. Clinton has tackled complex policy issues, sometimes failing. She has shown a willingness to learn and change. Her current proposals on health insurance reflect a clear shift from her first, famously disastrous foray into the issue. She has learned. . . .

Why is the editorial board so quick to praise in Clinton what they disparage in Edwards? Why is Clinton’s “willingness to learn and change” more highly valued by the New York Times than Edwards’s overall consistency, his progressive evolution, or his ability to learn from his most notable error, and decisively change and advocate for a concerted remedy?

The greatest inconsistencies in this campaign, it seems, are the ones evident in the Times’ rationale.

And in their own historical record. Here’s what the New York Times wrote about John Edwards in its 2004 primary endorsement of Senator John Kerry:

Senator John Edwards, Mr. Kerry's only serious competitor, has been terrific on the campaign trail. He has a great speech and enormous discipline, and he makes a direct and genuinely emotional connection with people of all backgrounds. It's easy to envision him as the nominee four or eight years down the line, or on the ticket for vice president this fall. . . .

Almost everyone who has been watching the Democratic campaign would love to merge Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards into one composite super-candidate, with Mr. Kerry's depth and Mr. Edwards's personal touch with the voters.

Perhaps it is just me (though I’m betting it’s not), but the John Edwards that the Times describes in 2004 sounds very much like a candidate that the same paper accuses of being somehow different in 2008.

As for the shorthand dismissal of Edwards’s advocacy on behalf of those hurt by unchecked and unregulated globalization, you’d think that a paper whose own office is feeling the burdens of budget cuts and a hiring freeze would be more open to the Senator’s message. But, then again, what are we to expect from an opinion page that considers Thomas Friedman to be one of their liberal columnists?

Alas, the New York Times is teaching us to expect very little. From their gossip columnists turned campaign reporters (Julie? Adam? Kate?), to their disproportionate attention to big money, establishment candidates and tired, unsubstantiated narratives, the Times is the flagship of the conventional wisdom franchise we endearingly call “the press.” And because they are “the paper of record,” their habit of focusing on the horserace over the issues, and obsessing over personalities instead of platforms reverberates throughout second-tier newspapers, and serves to distort the electorate’s perceptions of the campaign just as much as any of the cable news noise networks.

Sadly, with their endorsement of Hillary Clinton—and, on the Republican side, John McCain—the New York Times does nothing more than once again, as they did four years ago, endorse the current front-runner. It is easy. It is safe. But it is also dishonest.

The blogosphere is often accused of being an echo chamber—or a collection of echo chambers—reifying and deifying its favored ideologies and ideologues. But, by picking Clinton, already the winner of the lion’s share of Times’ coverage, the paper is simply shouting in its own echo chamber—justifying their abstract perversion of fairness by confirming that their anointed frontrunner is, indeed, the one out in front. Reinforcing that status makes the Times nothing more than a defender of the status quo—one of the most pro-establishment of the establishment media.

That should probably not be a surprise. It is the Gray Lady, after all. And, given such a position, it should also probably not be a surprise that the Times would endorse Clinton and dismiss Edwards. But it is still disconcerting that such a grand old paper would not take the time to get the facts, and would then cover for its bias and lassitude by parroting establishment saws so flimsy even John Edwards’s rather combative competitors have not bothered to use them as attacks in this campaign.

In the end, frankly, the only surprise is that I—and so many others—still care what the New York Times thinks, and care about whom the editorial board endorses. Indeed, rather than harbor upset, anger, or disappointment that another standard-bearer for moneyed interests has failed to endorse John Edwards, perhaps I—we all—should hold it as a badge of honor.

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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Anonymous cybercitizen said...

And what listen did Hillary learn from her original health care debacle? When first asked about health care, Hillary Clinton said that she would tackle that "in my second term in office." But sick people cannot wait that long. It took a John Edwards to put the health care issue back on the table, and it is now a very popular issue.

1:04 AM  

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