William McGowan's 'Gray Lady Down': A Devastating Critique of the New York Times

February 14th, 2011 8:30 AM

“Gray Lady Down – What The Decline And Fall Of The New York Times Means For America” by William McGowan (from Encounter Books), is a carefully researched and devastatingly convincing critique of the New York Times losing its commitment to objective reporting.

It opens with the 2006 funeral of the paper’s famed Executive Editor Abe Rosenthal, who retired in 1986. Though bad tempered and with a propensity to play newsroom favorites, Rosenthal is considered by McGowan the last lion of the paper’s once-serious commitment to journalistic objectivity, “allergic to Woodstock” and other left-wing pieties, holding the line against the left-ward drift seemingly inherent to a Manhattan newspaper. A 1970s anecdote on a recurring nightmare by Rosenthal (waking one “Wednesday morning” with no New York Times) reminds us that concerns over the decline of newspaper reading among the young didn’t start with the Internet.

McGowan flags the “Southern guilt” of Howell Raines, the editorial page editor who became executive editor in 2001, felled by the favoritism he showed toward young black reporter Jayson Blair, who came to the Times via a minority-only internship program and proceeded to disgrace it. The most blunt parts of “Gray Lady Down” involve race: “The Times racial script...has come to resemble the journalist equivalent of reparations.” McGowan delved into the paper’s archives to show what the paper thought of Malcolm X in 1966 and came up with the striking headline “Black Power Is Black Death.” Can you imagine that at the top of the Times editorial page tomorrow?

In a brief foray into partisan politics, McGowan cites a fine media watchdog site called (ahem) Times Watch, which analyzed a month of stories the Times did on Barack Obama and Republican John McCain during a slice of the 2008 campaign and found that positive portrayals for Obama outnumbering negative ones by a 3:1 ratio. When it came to McCain, that positive/negative ratio was reversed.

“Gray Lady Down” also deals at length with what I consider the most disturbing coverage the paper has put out since I began monitoring the paper: The Duke lacrosse “rape” hoax, a sordid interlude in which the newspaper’s columnists and reporters often discarded the presumption of innocence while stacking the deck against three white lacrosse players arrested for the rape of a black stripper. The paper defended its coverage even as the case imploded and it was revealed that the players were victims of lies by the stripper and misconduct by the local prosecutor.

Even on the war on terror, a vital local issue after 9-11, the supposedly unserious tabloid New York Post had more complete and comprehensive coverage of local terror plots then did the “paper of record.” McGowanwent after the Times for scuttling two successful anti-terror programs and laid out “The Times’ alienation from military culture” in the “War” chapter.

“Gray Lady Down” reminds us of the ad the Times ran (at a healthy discount) for the left-wing anti-war group MoveOn.org, notoriously headlined “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” That ad appeared in September 2007, just as the troop surge in Iraq began to bear fruit under the leadership of U.S. Army General David Petraeus.

McGowan concluded by circling back to the departure of Abe Rosenthal, the symbol of the old-fashioned journalism he believes was exemplified under Rosenthal’s regime. He’s not a boycotter or even an enemy of the Times; most of his criticism is of the sorrowful, not angry, variety. He just longs for “a much better version of the Times than is being produced by the current regime.”

This article was adapted from a longer version on Times Watch.