Joseph Epstein, one of America’s most distinguished essayists (and a man who over the past couple of decades has made his way along the well-trod political path from left to right), has canceled his subscription to The New York Times.
The difference between Epstein and the countless other readers who’ve given up on the Times is that he has both the ability of expressing the reasons for his decision in several paragraphs of clean, graceful prose and the platform to do so in a very public manner – in this case in the pages and on the website of The Weekly Standard.
In an article appearing in the magazine’s Aug. 16 issue titled “Adios, Gray Lady,” Epstein writes that while the Times once enjoyed an aura of “a certain stateliness the the possession of high virtue,” those days are gone.
“[T]he Gray Lady,” he continues, “is far from the grande dame she once was. For years now she has been going heavy on the rouge, lipstick, and eyeliner and gadding about in stiletto heels . I’ve had it with the old broad; after nearly 50 years together, I’ve determined to cut her loose.”
Far from being an impulsive act, Epstein’s break with the Times was years in the making. Though he doesn’t mention it in his Weekly Standard article, back in 1994 he wrote a lengthy essay on his problems with the paper – “The Degradation of the New York Times” – for Commentary magazine, in which he lamented the paper’s steady drift away from at least making an attempt at objective reporting to out-and-out advocacy disguised as news coverage:
[T]he news columns of the Times have become so filled with opinion that one has become all but inured to the phenomenon . Certainly, during the Reagan years it was rare to pick up a piece about the economy without finding mention of what I came to think of as that musical-comedy team of Savage Cuts and Chilling Effects: every Reagan budget cut was savage, the effect of every cut chilling. Not that one should ever read a newspaper story without a proper measure of skepticism, but in The New York Times of late the gentle whir of political axes being ground has come to serve as a kind of basso continuo to the paper’s reporting.
Elaborating on his decision to forgo the Times, Epstein writes: “For so many decades the paper has been part of my morning mental hygiene. Yet in recent years I’ve been reading less and less of each day’s paper. With the exception of David Brooks, who allows that his general position is slightly to the right of center but who is not otherwise locked into a Pavlovian political response, I find no need to read any of the Times‘s regular columnists. Every so often I check to remind myself that Maureen Dowd isn’t amusing, though she is an improvement, I suppose, over the termagantial Anna Quindlen, whom I used to read with the trepidation of a drunken husband mounting the stairs knowing his wife awaits with a rolling pin.”
And it’s not only the paper’s columnists Epstein realizes he can live without. “I’d sooner read the fine print in my insurance policies,” he wrotes, “than the paper’s perfectly predictable editorials.”
Here, too, Epstein’s dismay was already evident in his 1994 Commentary essay:
It was once the traditional but unspoken belief of American liberals that, in any grouping of political views, they occupied the Center – or certainly would in any reasonable world. For better or worse, the Times, in past days, sought that Center in its editorials; because it is not always so easily located, the paper could at least on occasion take unexpected positions. No longer.
One can now predict how the Times will come out editorially on nearly every issue, problem, or question of the day. The only amusement, or instruction, is in watching its editorial writers squirm in defending the indefensible, or rationalizing the irrational.
Reading both of Epstein’s articles – and bearing in mind they were writen sixteen years apart – one doesn’t know whether to marvel at his ineffable patience in waiting this long before finally kicking the Times to the curb or to ask, perhaps uncharitably but with only the best of intentions, Why the interminable delay?
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org