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Going Timeless: Learning to Live Without the ‘Paper of Record’

Last year, President Bush caused something of a scandal when he made an admission to Fox News’s Brit Hume: He is not much of a newspaper-reader or TV-watcher; he prefers to get his news from his staff, with no opinion mixed in. For many people, this revelation was further proof that our president is a dolt, too abnormal to serve in that job.

I have an even more shocking revelation: Many people in this country don’t read The New York Times, and by “people,” I don’t mean Ma and Pa, I mean major writers and journalists, plenty of whom live in Manhattan.

Mark Helprin, the novelist and essayist, does not live in Manhattan – he lives in Virginia – but he might still be expected to read the Times. He does not, however. And when certain people find this out, “They look at me as if I had just slaughtered Mary’s little lamb.” They are incredulous, and perhaps a little frightened. How can someone, especially on so high a level, function without The New York Times? Helprin manages, reading many newspapers and magazines – just not the “paper of record.” He stresses that one should never read anythingout of habit; if reading becomes habitual rather than helpful, give it up.

My National Review colleague David Frum tells about the time he was working out on the treadmill, reading The Economist, as he had weekly for years. And “suddenly it hit me: I hate this magazine. I have hated it for a very long time.” He tossed that issue aside and never looked back. (Needless to say, he is still made aware of certain articles in The Economist: such as hostile reviews of his books.)

William F. Buckley Jr. once remarked – as a prelude to some complaint about the Times – that doing without that paper would be “like going about without arms and legs.” The Times is still the essential news habit of much of elite America (pardon the term). And, of course, this paper affects all of America’s media, whether individual Americans know it or not.

“No one here in Duluth reads The New York Times,” I sometimes hear, “so why should I pay attention? Aren’t some of you guys obsessed?” But what our Minnesotan fails to appreciate is that everyone who supplies him his news, whether in print or over the air, does read the Times. And is profoundly influenced by it. The paper is in the bloodstream of this nation’s media.

Nevertheless, more and more public-affairs types are going without it, and they don’t feel ignorant. Moreover, they feel liberated. I have a friend who, many years ago, gave up reading anything about race. Anything at all. That was just a personal policy, formulated and stuck to. And he said that he found himself happier. So it is with many people who have gone Timesless. We are talking mainly about conservatives, of course, but their beef is not so much with the Times’s bias as with its partisanship (if you will accept the distinction). Oh, yes, and with its pretentiousness.

Michael Barone, the all-knowing Washington political journalist, stopped reading the Times in August 2002. (Like many ex-Times readers, however, he still sees the occasional article on the web, or checks in with a preferred columnist.) Barone finds that he is saving a lot of time. He also finds that he is on a surer news footing: Too many of the Times’s stories were questionable, “and I thought, ‘I have to go on television, I have to be accurate, and this isn’t helping.'”

A number of writers and editors feel they need to look at the Times just to know what the Gray Lady is up to. Says one major New York editor, “I read it for the same reason you had to look at intelligence reports on Germany in World War II.” 

A noted Washington-based political journalist says, “I consider reading it an odious professional duty.” He complains not just about the news and editorial pages. (The radical journalist George Seldes, in one of his books, had a chapter called “How To Read the Editorial Pages.” It consisted of one word: “Don’t.”) No, “it’s the arts pages and the food pages and the headlines and the captions – it’s every nook and cranny of that paper.”

It will probably not surprise his critics that Rush Limbaugh doesn’t read the Times; he hasn’t “for a couple of years.” First, “there is no longer enough difference between the editorial pages and the news pages, particularly the front page.” Second, “I found myself questioning the accuracy of the paper based on my own knowledge. I too often wondered, ‘Hmmm, is that true?'” Third, “The New York Times is just one of many nearly identical components of the mainstream media. The point is, I know what I’m going to see or hear anywhere in the mainstream media. They are all a giant cliche now. I know them like I know my whole naked body, not just the back of my hand.”

What about the fear that, if you don’t read the Times, you’ll miss out on some “national conversation”? Among the scoffers is Peter Kirsanow, a Bush-appointed member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission: “I’ve gone long, blissful stretches without reading the Times and have found that during such periods I remain as well informed as when I read it regularly ? but without the residual anger, anxiety, and irritability. Since reading the Times is not mandatory where I live in the mid-Atlantic states – even among the elites – I’m not viewed as illiterate simply because my conversation for the day hasn’t been directed by R. W. Apple or Maureen Dowd.”

Speaking of the sticks: Sometime in the mid 1990’s, the Times wrote a blistering editorial about Jesse Helms. The senator’s new, eager press secretary quickly drafted a letter to the editor, and took it in to the senator. Helms, of course, had not seen the editorial. He glanced at the letter and said, “That’s nice, son. Do whatever you want with it. But understand something: I don’t care what The New York Times says about me, and no one I care about cares what The New York Times says about me.” Therein lay some of the senator’s power.

Aside from bias, partisanship, pomposity, or other defects, some just find the paper dull. The southern (and decidedly un-dull) writer Dave Shiflett says, “I still read the Times, but not like I used to. It’s simply a bore most days, despite its evangelical political mission, which should at least liven up its prose. No such luck. A dull evangelist is easy to ignore, especially when there are so many vibrant news sources available. There’s simply nothing special about the Times, or at least special enough to warrant a wade through what is, on a daily basis, the flattest selection of prose published anywhere outside the State Department.”

The proliferation of media has lessened the importance of the Times; so have the newspaper’s mistakes (which include too great a kinship with the Democratic National Committee). To be sure, there are some unmissable individuals in the paper, such as John F. Burns in Iraq. But, seemingly every day, journalists and others are discovering that they don’t have to consume the whole deal.

A final story. Michael Ledeen, the foreign-policy analyst, hasn’t read the Times in years ? but when young, he did read a columnist named John Crosby in the New York Herald Tribune. Crosby did not like radio. He wrote that one of his great pleasures in life was to look at the radio schedule every morning and then realize, throughout the day, what he was missing. For example, he’d be in the park with his granddaughter and say, “Becky, guess what we’re not listening to on the radio now! Isn’t that great!” Says Ledeen, “I feel the same way about The New York Times. When someone says, ‘Did you see such and such in the Times today?’ I can always smile and say no.”

And yet some of us can’t wean ourselves away, and may never. Lou Cannon, the veteran journalist associated with the Washington Post, says, “My view of the Times is that it is what it is, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” So true of this great paper, and of much of life. 

About the Author: Jay Nordlinger is managing editor of National Review, where this column originally appeared.

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