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"Good Business Sense"
By Ed Driscoll · July 24, 2004 12:19 AM · Oh, That Liberal Media! · The New, New Journalism

In December of 1992, there was a joint "Diversity Summit Meeting" of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Newspaper Association of America. As William McGowan writes in his essential book on the media, Coloring The News:

This get-together had the unmistakable air of a tent revival, full of grim jeremiads, stern calls for repentance and holy roller zeal. Diversity had been fast becoming one of the most contentious issues in American society and in American journalism, responsible for polarizing, if not balkanizing, more than one newsroom around the country. Yet only one side of the issue was present in this crowd. Speaker after speaker got up to declaim in favor of diversity and to warn of editorial sin and financial doom if this cause was not embraced.

The Newspaper Association of America is a publishers' organization, concerned with advertising, circulation, and other business-related issues. The American Society of Newspaper Editors has a different brief, concerning itself with the broad issues of news coverage and the newsgathering processówith journalism proper. The nature of their relationship is often likened to that between Church and State; when the two sides are in agreement, it is often a cause for anxiety, at least among the journalists who are always fretting about the perception that they are sacrificing editorial integrity for the sake of ad sales or circulation figures. But on that day in December, the two sides were definitely on the same page and no one was worried about a loss of objectivity.

From one corner came a declaration that diversity was crucial if the news industry was to realize its mission of "service to democracy." From the other corner, a promise "not to stop until we have met our goal of an industry that reflects the diversity of our society." Most of the big-shots in that room hadn't gotten their hands inky in years. But if they had tried to distill the essence of the meeting, their headline might be: "Diversity: Makes Good Editorial Sense; Makes Good Business Sense Too."

Sitting on a bench in the back of the hotel ballroom where guests of the conference were allowed to observe proceedings, I wondered whether I had fallen into some kind of parallel universe where reality was turned inside out. Journalism, as I had known it, was distinguished by its gratuitous cynicism, brash iconoclasm and ready impertinence. As Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has said, practicing it well requires a "religious belief in absolutely nothing, a conviction that nothing can be taken on faith." But in this room at least, the normal rules of engagement seemed to have been turned on their head, and all the gospel hours of "testifying" that I was hearing produced a sense of cognitive dissonance.

On another level, though, the zealotry was entirely understandable. In the preceding few years, the cause of diversity had become a crusade across the length and breadth of the American media, and would be a defining and dominating force in journalism in the decade to come. Almost every day after that 1992 meeting, one could hear echoes from it in newspaper stories and nightly network broadcasts. Diversity was the new religion, and anybody who wanted to be anybody in the news industry had to rally behind it.

At news organizations both large and small, print and broadcast, managers were rushing to change "the way we view each other and the way we view the news," in the words of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times. They were embracing an array of measures designed to increase minority representation both on their news staffs and on their news pages. In a profession historically wary of championing social causes, diversity had become the social cause, a path to salvation that would both improve the quality of American journalism and make it more attractive to art increasingly diverse set of readers.

According to McGowan, during the meeting, Sulzberger said, "Diversity not only makes good moral sense, it makes good business sense too".

Perhaps if he meant diversity of ideas, including those of non-liberals, he'd be on to something. But like academia, diversity in the media meant little more than an increased obsession with skin color and sexual orientation, not an increased emphasis on diversity of ideas and opinion.

While Sulzberger felt that diversity made good business sense, Howell Raines, whom Sulzberger chose to replace Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld when he stepped down just before September 11, 2001, took it one step further, saying that same year that the Times' diversity campaign, "has made our staff better and, more importantly, more diverse". In other words, for Raines, diversity was more important than quality for the world's most influential newspaper, in the world's most important and competitive city.

Two years later, the Jayson Blair scandal rocked not only the Times, but the entire newspaper industry, ultimately resulting in Raines' firing. And simultaneously, and not coincidentally, an increasingly large number of Weblogs and Websites were fact-checking the Times to within an inch of its life, and finding numerous faults in its coverage--which, even as the paper was claiming diversity was its most important goal, was becoming not only increasingly leftwing in its bias, but under Raines' watch, becoming an activist paper trying to shape the news instead of merely reporting it, resulting in its embarrassingly silly run-in with the Augusta National Golf Course.

Even before the Blair scandal, sales fell remarkably at the world's most influential newspaper. (As Bernard Goldberg writes in Arrogance, the Times' reporting influences not just what you read in other papers, but what you see on TV as well. Many, many TV news stories begin as Times articles, which TV networks simply hand to their reporters and say, "craft a TV story out of this".) Coming after 9/11, this was a period of intense news activity. As Ken Layne wrote in May of last year:

The New York Times' circulation fell 5.3 percent, nearly triple the drop of the next biggest loser (the Washington Post at 1.92 percent). In six months, the NYT's weekday circulation dropped by more than 60,000 copies. That means the number of papers sold dropped by an average of 10,000 every month between October 2002 and March 2003.

This was not exactly a slow news period: North Korea admitted it had a nuclear weapons program, the D.C. sniper was on the loose, a French tanker was attacked off the coast of Yemen, terrorists killed hundreds in Bali and the Philippines, Republicans swept mid-term elections (save for the Democratic sweep in California), ANSWER led protests around the world, "Old Europe" fought its last battle, there were massive anti-mullah demonstrations in Iran, Trent Lott went down, UN weapons inspectors went nowhere, Venezuela went crazy, Columbia didn't make it home, the Axis of Weasels was exposed, everybody got worked up about a nightclub fire, there was that little War in Iraq, etc.

Did the replacement of Howell Raines improve The Times' bottom line?

Not if you count their stock price, which hit a one year low on Friday.

As Glenn Reynolds (who was once dubbed "The New York Times of the Blogosphere") writes, "Was it something we said?" Well, yes it was. The new, new media rolls on, continuing to shed light on what Mickey Kaus dubbed the liberal cocoon, and bringing true diversity to news and opinion. And unlike at the Times, the Blogosphere's biases are usually right out in the open, allowing readers to pick and choose those writers whose worldviews best match their own, or exposing them to opinions that's never, ever get in their local newspaper--especially if it's the Grey Lady.

Can the Times break out of their cycle? Without serious change, it doesn't look good. As I wrote last month about newspapers in general:

Their primary readers are increasingly, exclusively the left. And they either had to have seen this coming, or be clueless as to the unintended consequences of the direction that they set out in. So as not alienate their remaining readers, it becomes increasingly more important to keep them in the liberal cocoon. And the cocoon narrows that much more--on both the readers and the press.
And the shareholders.


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