Two of the conservative opinion world’s heavyweights, humorist P.J. O’Rourke and Wall Street Journal writer James Taranto, both have responded in passionate, even moral fashion to the New York Times’s often disgraceful coverage of the Tucson shootings, in which six people were killed and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was severely injured.
In their view, the Times used the tragedy to play political blame games against conservative politicians and talk show hosts. O'Rourke condemned the Times for "shameful," "ugly and offensive" reporting, while Taranto accused the Times of "reckless disregard for the truth."
First, some highlights from P.J. O’Rourke’s scathing take on the Times’ decline in the January 24 edition of The Weekly Standard, “The Times Loses It.”
It was a weekend of great sorrow. On Saturday, January 8, an insane young man tried to kill Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, injuring her horribly. The man then fired his gun into a small political gathering, murdering a nine-year-old girl, a federal judge, a congressional staffer, and three of Giffords’s constituents. Thirteen other people were wounded. In the midst of life we are in death. There is, in this world, no making sense of such events.
Among the worldly, however, there is a temptation to make nonsense. Thus it was that on Sunday, January 9, the New York Times provided a further grief, much less important than the death and mutilation of innocents but shameful nonetheless.
The Times ran, as its second lead, above the fold on the front page, a story about the Tucson shootings headlined “Bloodshed Puts New Focus on Vitriol in Politics.” The article, by Carl Hulse and Kate Zernike, contains almost nothing newsworthy. Nor can it be called news analysis, beginning as it does with an attempt to create a self-fulfilling prophecy: “The shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords...set off what is likely to be a wrenching debate over anger and violence in American politics.”
O’Rourke tried to discern the reporters’s motives:
...maybe Hulse and Zernike are old hacks in the pocket of certain political interests that feel threatened by populism. A member of the populace – however deranged – has shot a liberal – albeit one who is independent and selective in her liberalism. Even this most pathetic of excuses will serve. Ordinary Americans skeptical about the powers, prerogatives, and expense of certain political interests shall be execrated.
O'Rourke wasn't finished.
A great deal of other ugly and offensive writing went off on a tangent from the crime scene and wound up published in the Sunday New York Times.
Some was in the guise of commentary, such as Matt Bai’s dredging up of a quip by Sharron Angle, “I hope we’re not getting to Second Amendment remedies.” Gabrielle Giffords is a gun rights advocate.
Some was in the news coverage: “Democrats denounced the fierce partisan atmosphere in Ms. Giffords’s district.” Voters in that conservative locale chose Giffords over a GOP candidate backed by Tea Party supporters.
Worse came in Monday’s Times. News analyst Jennifer Steinhauer wrote, “Arizona has shifted from a place on the political fringe to a symbol of a nation whose political discourse has lost its way.” It’s worth remembering that another place the Times considers to be on the political fringe is Staten Island.
In the matter of self-serving, bitter, calculated cynicism, there wouldn’t seem to be much left to prove against the Times. Judging by what I’ve heard from my fellow conservatives, the issue is decided. The New York Times is a worthless, truthless, vicious institution. But I disagree. I think things are worse than that.
James Taranto’s rebuttal of sorts to O’Rourke came in his Tuesday afternoon “Best of the Web” filing at the Wall Street Journal, with the facetious title “Leave Kate Zernike Alone.” But Taranto used his quasi-defense of Zernike, the Times’s Tea Party beat reporter, to unleash an excoriation of the paper’s coverage of the shooting.
We hope it won't do too much harm to Kate Zernike's reputation at the office if we say a word in her defense.
Taranto quoted the opening a review he did for Commentary of Zernike’s 2010 book "Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America.”
The author of Boiling Mad is a New York Times reporter, and the title suggests a hostile view of the Tea Party movement as a cauldron of undifferentiated rage. The book itself is a pleasant surprise. Kate Zernike has produced a largely fair and measured account of the populist rebellion against Barack Obama's aggressively liberal presidency.
"Boiling Mad" wasn't perfect. We faulted it for weak analysis and occasional tendentious liberal asides. But it convinced us that Zernike, whatever her political leanings, is a fair and honest reporter. If yellow journalism appears under her byline in the Times, it is the fault of her editors and the paper's corrupt culture.
(Times Watch was less impressed with “Boiling Mad” and its obsession with rooting out Tea Party racism.)
Taranto gets to the heart of his case, accusing the Times of acting with "reckless disregard for the truth."
Most telling is Sunday's column from Arthur S. Brisbane, the Times ombudsman, who finds two things to fault in the paper's handling of the massacre.
But he says not a word about the journalistic atrocity of attempting to advance the "uncivil rhetoric" narrative even after the facts of the case had proved it false. In so doing, the Times acted with reckless disregard for the truth, the legal standard for defamation of a public figure established in the landmark 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan.
To be sure, the paper's malicious falsehoods are not legally actionable as libel. But that is only because in its attempts at character assassination, the Times used the low-precision weapons of innuendo, insinuation and generalization, thereby making itself invulnerable to the courtroom counterattack it might have faced had it dared to publish explicitly false statements of fact.
The moral degeneration of the New York Times is a study in the corrupting effects of power. Over the years, the men who run the paper came to view the preservation of their authority as agenda-setter or gatekeeper or "mediator" as their primary mission. On Jan. 10, 2011, they made it clear that they are willing to go so far in the pursuit of that goal as to contravene the real purpose of journalism, which is to tell the truth.