BREAKING NEWS: The Times is a powerless entity!

NYTimesNot that long ago, the New York Times ran a self-referential (and self-reverential) meta story about the portrayal of the newspaper in movies. It was the kind of self-love you profess on the back page of your math-class notebook, where the spelling of your name is adorned with cute flowers and stars, if not smiling hearts and confetti.

I swallowed the story with the ease of swallowing a one-pound glazed donut, but said to myself: “Hey, if the Times can’t brag about its glory and influence, then who the hell can?” We readers (even the more foreign and more recent of us), acknowledge that the Times has the power to dictate what news is. Times columnist Nick Kristoff has been waging a war for a couple of years in trying to keep Sudan in the news. Kristoff knows the power of having his words printed in the Times–he builds contests on it. Or look at the incredibly pointless piece about the Clintons published last week. It said nothing, but this nothing was said on the front page of the New York Times so there must have been some coded messages in there (Jack Shafer did the required evisceration of that piece here).

The Times doesn’t need to be modest about what it is to the media world and the country at large–just count the number of other publications (inside or outside the media world) that monitor the Times. And it shouldn’t be modest! They are the standard, they do set an agenda and they are, more often than not, correct.

But it seems that Gerald Marzorati, the NYT Magazine editor, did not receive the memo about the Times being great and all that stuff. Marzorati prefers modesty when talking about his employer; the kind of modesty that masks hypocrisy and disdain.

Marzorati was interviewed (mp3 file) on “On the Media” about how the media covers potential presidential candidates and how it knows when to begin paying attention to them. Marzorati was a great choice to discuss the topic–in the past months the magazine has put Chuck Hagel and Mark Warner on the cover, presenting them as alternatives to John McCain and Hillary Clinton, the perceived presidential front-runners for the ’08 elections (also largely a media designation).

Marzorati started off well, explaining that the Warner piece (which stirred controversy with the doctored photo that accompanied it) was actually a position paper on democratic centrism in which the former Virginia governor was “the hook” that made it come alive. Fair enough; Marzorati emphasised that journalists and the American people tend to be fascinated by politics more than governing. He gave a similar explanation for the Hagel piece. The Nebraskan is a Republican critical of the Iraq war, he is concerned about the recent religious bent of his party, so the magazine thought it natural to ask: Could this kind of Republican become president?

OK, but the New York Times must have realized that by using these two men as illustrations of two minoritary political camps, they would elevate them to prominence. Not only that, they would also get a New York Times endorsement–not for what they believe or what party they belong to, but for being a valid candidate to consider. If the New York Times Magazine puts a politician on the cover, they must have something to say and we’d better pay attention to them. Right?

Wrong, if you ask Marzorati–here’s (full transcript) what he told “On The Media”:

“Anyone who doesn’t like what we do is always going to be convinced that the doing of it was based on a secret meeting held in some bunker somewhere where a strategy was arrived at to do it. And of course, if you put out 52 issues of a magazine, you know that’s not how things come about. The cover is not an advertisement for what the New York Times believes about anything. The New York Times doesn’t decide who to put on the cover. A small group of editors receive a number of pieces at a given time and they pick among those pieces. These things aren’t ordered up; though it’s very difficult to convince some people otherwise. We don’t make candidates. That idea that we have that kind of power, either in the country or among the readers or anything, is one the great myths; a myth that serves a lot of people’s interests. But we don’t make candidates, we don’t make presidents, we don’t do any of that.”

Excuse me? The New York Times doesn’t have the power to make or break candidates? The New York Times magazine doesn’t order pieces? The New York Times magazine has a dearth of ideas to chose from? The idea of the New York Times having political power is a myth?

Marzorati is either naive, which would be so cute given his position, or he thinks all of us are stupid. His comment was an irresponsible cop-out, the mark of a cowardly journalist who is scared of admitting the power of the newspaper he works for. I buy the New York Times because it is powerful. I buy the New York Times because I believe it can influence politics and politics. I buy the New York Times because it convinced me to trust its news columns–and you’d think the paper wants this kind of trust.

But the editor of its Sunday magazine comes out and says the Times is something of a pawn in presidential politics, that it can’t do much about it, and that all it takes for a presidential-hopeful to get into the magazine is a clever pitch that says this person is articulating ideas in new ways.

Excuse me if I’d rather gobble the one-pound glazed donut of self-congratulation. The hypocritical modesty of Marzorati’s sour dish of self-deprecation makes me puke in my mouth.

8 Responses to “BREAKING NEWS: The Times is a powerless entity!”

  1. Here’s my two cents. NYT is influential with academics, journalists, and some (but not all) politicians.

    I think whatever influence the NYT had with regular folk way back in the golden years has been slowly ebbing away. Most people don’t read it. Some intuitively distrust it (as alluded to by Marzy).

    New York Times endorsed Kerry in 2004.
    New York Times endorsed Gore in 2000.

    If ever there were some close elections to make or break…

  2. (BTW, the math-class flowers bit was priceless!)

  3. Romerican, the Times still has enough influence not to take this stupefied approach. I’m not saying that a Times endorsement makes you a viable candidate–but it still signals to other media (and the other categories you mentioned) that this is a candidate to take seriously. And all the worthless horse-race coverage snowballs from there.

    I just wished they owned up to this potential and not pretended that the Times doesn’t help create names and news.

  4. I didn’t mean to imply they had no influence. I think you’re right that they can get the snowballs started, for sure.

    At least, they don’t put Britney on the front page. (Yet.)

  5. Off topic: La multi ani!!!

  6. They totally create news. The Clinton article proves it. Everyone and their brother was talking about that story last night while they discussed Hillary’s bid for the Senate.

  7. Clinton? News? Everyone?

    Heh… I must be Romanian!

  8. […] The cynic in me was fully awake this week after I heard the New York Times magazine editor pretend that the newspaper has the influence of a pizza restaurant coupon (or even less) when it comes to presidential candidates. I got extra ammo today while reading the Washington Post coverage of the Wen Ho Lee settlement. Lee was the Alamo nuclear scientist that allegedly passed nuclear secrets on to the Chinese. After being cleared of all but one charge (59 total), he sued media organizations to get the names of government officials who leaked his name. […]

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