Living in the New York Times World

I began reading the entirety of the first section of the New York Times at nine years old, and continued that practice, more or less, for decades.   I regarded The Times with a sort of reverence, as have many in this country and the wider world, and now see that its influence, because of its history and standing in the culture, is much wider than one might think for a newspaper, even a so-called “paper of record” that “sets the news table” for the United States.  For example I have heard, way too many times, that a friend or colleague “didn’t see [the story] in The Times” so it couldn’t be real or relevant.

With legions of people like me, whose psycho-emotional posture underwent a thoughtless daily reset by The Times for decades, its influence on the mindset of our nation cannot be overestimated.  How could it possibly be true that, as the New York Times goes, so goes the nation?  Yet it is true, and the refusal or inability to understand its influence is grounded, I believe, in two main areas of misunderstanding or ignorance: first, people don’t grasp the multitude of stance-shaping options that are open to the “newspaper of record”; and, perhaps more importantly, they don’t appreciate the power of reverence and what could be called the “cascade” of The Times.

Regarding the first factor, most readers, in my experience, simply don’t think about the importance of a newspaper’s structure…in ways analogous to their not marking, for example, the influence of architecture on their psychic state.  But the influence and potential manipulation of a newspaper’s structure is undeniable.

To illustrate: how could I, as a partisan newspaper editor and staff, guide the opinions and stance of my readers? 

-- I could ignore a story, which would convey a lack of relevance to the issue: if inquiries were made, I’d note that there are many newsworthy events in our city, nation and world but we have woefully limited space.

-- I could kill a story without explanation: it’s my prerogative.

-- Every story can have an infinite range of headlines and they act as both “eye-hooks” and summaries for readers.  I can lead the same story with “Democrats find unity at meeting” or “Democrats struggle with divisive issues”: neither is correct or incorrect but they’ll attract and affect readers differently, and leave memory traces for later review at the water cooler.  It matters little that I, as editor, write almost no stories or that those who pen the stories and headlines often have little contact with each other: essentially all of us, hired by like-minded superiors and continually nurtured and shaped in our makeshift groups, tend to have similar ways of looking at the world.  Dissenters get a polite smile but don’t last long.

-- I could finesse the affect -- the emotional underpinning -- of a story or headline, thereby managing the emotional response: “Republicans take tough but necessary stand on entitlements” versus “Republicans once again choose to deprive the needy of food”.

-- I could shift a story’s location.  It’s our job to know which page, what area of a page, what font, what color, etc., attracts a reader’s attention.  I can move a story from the number one attention-getting spot to a spot in the teens: I have a rough idea about the decrescendo in the number of readers’ eyes as they move through the front section of a paper.  I know that almost nobody under age 20 will make it to page 12.  If I give a cohort of readers 10 minutes to peruse section one, I can pretty much guarantee, through story placement, headline choice, leading paragraphs, buried information, etc., that certain stories and data will be noticed and responded to in particular ways; others will be overlooked or will simply not exist for huge swaths of the population who rely on The Times and its cascade for reliable information. 

These factors had a different relevance 40 years ago, before the near-unconscious melding of news and opinion, and before there was, for a variety of reasons, a near unanimity of political stance among news people; when there was at least an attempt by many to report the news in an unbiased fashion, and before it became acceptable, even fashionable, to employ a variety of social means to enforce a unified mindset within a news organization (does anyone recall the high-minded dueling editorials of the old National Observer newspaper?).

If I had the time and energy, I could write 50 pages regarding the subtle choices of each edition of The Times.  So trying to do so for decades of The Times would be a hopeless task: rather like trying to take ten acres of grass, analyzing and noting the growth and disposition of every blade, every day for decades. 

Nonetheless those of us watching The Times over the years can recognize patterns and inclinations that significantly impact our culture, as we could look over acres of grass and see patterns of growth, areas of vigor, stagnation, etc.

The second factor that often eludes people is what could be termed the power of reverence, intrinsic to what I call the “cascade” of The Times: the near avalanche-like flow and distribution of information through electronic and print networks: through like-minded network newscasts, magazines, local newspaper s, blogs, daytime talk TV, late-night entertainment, statements at media award ceremonies, the celebrity Twitterverse, etc.  The cascade rolls through Saturday Night Live, Jon Stewart, The New Yorker, the mouths of third-grade teachers, Elmo, Madonna and Susan Sarandon …through Salon, The Daily Beast, Vanity Fair, Days of Our Lives, Diane Rehm, David Letterman and a multifaceted universe of others….

As The Times notices, so does the cultural cascade; as The Times inclines, so does the cascade; and, perhaps most importantly, as The Times ignores, so the cascade ignores.

Are these other groups -- The New Republic, the Lettermans, the NPRs –mindless?  Hardly…but they are vulnerable to social forces and, thanks to our culture and educational system, are like-minded with The Times.

Perhaps you’ve experienced a seminar with a revered but opinionated professor at an elite university.  Student dissension from the prevailing view, brilliant though it may be, is usually tolerated initially, but then quieted and eventually shut-down, often with reinforcing statements and gestures from other students.  A very bright and otherwise thoughtful and boisterous group begins to sound nearly uniform: topics that violate the quiet code somehow aren’t raised.  Stances advanced by the guru are woven into the topic of the day and everyone seems satisfied and unaware of the dynamics.

Or maybe you’ve seen or heard about situations where the leader of a group -- for example, a parent in a close-knit family -- modulates and shapes the direction of that group…although that shaping and modeling may never be made explicit. 

So it is with The Times, the opinionated media professor, quietly modulating the flow of information and, like the university professor, would regard formulations like those noted above as patently absurd. 

But it’s that mostly self-affirming flow of opinion and thought through the culture -- the echoing from newspapers to mainstream news organizations, to magazines and journals, daytime and late-night television talk shows, plots in dramas and cartoons, blogs and the Twitterverse, statements by politicians and sports commentators, asides or proclamations by actors on screen or at awards ceremonies, etc. -- that creates the nearly impenetrable “cascade” of data that both blinds much of the public to alternative perspectives, and makes it almost impossible for dissenters to succeed.  Standing against The Times and its cascade is like standing in the face of a 20-foot ocean wave: very few will remain standing and, after a working-over by the cascade, the remaining few are usually seriously damaged.

Because massive numbers of people -- perhaps the majority -- derive most or essentially all of their information from The Times via its cascade, and because those voters elect lawmakers who affirm their views, it could truly be said that we live in a world shaped and nurtured by the NY Times and its cascade.

Perhaps the most damaging stance of The Times, by the way, is when it stands to the side, suggesting that news stories, or corrupt, venal behavior are unworthy of attention.  So we have huge swaths of the population for whom significant stories don’t exist: Fast and Furious, details about Benghazi, Jonathan Turley in front of the House Judiciary Committee, and countless others. 

But The Times and its cascade are at their biased worst when they remain silent in the face of gross misreporting and misrepresentations, or corrupt and nefarious behavior: Bush or Reagan blaming an unknown video for a heavy-weapons terror attack would provoke derisive banner headlines in The Times…but not with Obama; similar mocking banners would follow an absurd stance by John Boehner that the contents of a massive, culture-shifting federal bill would remain hidden until after it was passed…but not with Nancy Pelosi; and as far as we know, none of The Times’ legal whizzes or bean counters saw fit to dissect the Affordable Care Act and weigh it against Obama’s claims…for…years. 

The Times would’ve howled at George W.  Bush distributing military attire to an audience at a news conference to feign military support…but Obama’s manufactured white-coat-brigade in the Rose Garden drew little more than a chuckle from The Times and its cascade; our “paper of record” should have been shrieking and bellowing…but…no.

The Times stood silent when decent, bright, energetic Sarah Palin was crucified by its cascade: apparently some misogynistic crucifixions are fine in The Times’ universe.  They also stood by as Clarence Thomas endured widespread vilification and odious attacks.

When power stands to the side, imperturbable, during a crucifixion, the message is clear to the perpetrators: crucifixion’s okay…in fact, maybe we should take this opportunity to discharge our sadistic worst: “Yea, let’s draw little pointy horns on Sarah Palin’s photos…let’s make her into a buffoon on Saturday Night Live…let’s rent a house next to her in Alaska and follow her around for a few months!  Let’s really torture this subhuman idiot!  Let’s make her squirm!  She deserves it!”  The Times and its cascade, of course, don’t notice the abuse since abuse of a subhuman idiot is deserved, after all. 

I have met families where the patriarch gives his unspoken blessing to abuse: an adolescent daughter tries to rouse her dad, noting that her older brother has been “doing things” to her, “touching” and “forcing” her into things that she doesn’t want to do.  It’s a critical, dismal and demeaning moment when dad says something like: “Can’t you see that I’m reading the paper right now, honey?”  It’s also empowering for her brother….

So it is when the “news leader”, the paper-of-record is silent in the face of abuse: the cascade is energized and empowered.

The Times Sunday Magazine’s hit piece on Ben Carson is probably already being prepped in case he attempts to run for office: somehow they’ll find a neurosurgery resident who thought him racist or bullying or materialistic or, if they hit the jackpot, maybe someone can be found to say that Carson was suspected of having an affair with a neurosurgical nurse!  And The Times accountants will have gone through every publicly available financial document: they’ll find a meal at Panera that was written off as a “meeting with residents and fellows” but, of the four residents with whom they spoke, none was present at the supposed Panera meeting!  Very curious!  And possibly good for a banner headline like: “Carson Suspected of Corruption at Johns Hopkins; May Have Abused Physicians’ Account”.   Stephen Colbert can quip: “It turns out that Ben Carson was like a ‘Carson-oid’ on the bank accounts over at Johns Hopkins…carcin-oid…that’s a type of tumor…on the bank accounts at Johns Hopkins…”  (rimshot).  And Carson will be done in short order.  The details aren’t really important as long as the cascade is at hand…and a time-tested, oft-quoted totalitarian notion is kept in mind: show me the man and I’ll show you the crime. 

Some sad aspects of The Times cascade include:

-- The fact that the vast majority of those influenced by it have no clue that they’re in the throes of it.

-- Many of those influenced by the cascade consider themselves well-informed, thoroughly knowledgeable and correct: after all, if it’s not in The Times, it’s not worth knowing.  What can one say?  Come out of your bubble?  Come out of the cascade?

-- We are at a huge loss as a culture and nation because the power of the cascade and its audience is such that most of our political representatives, some of whom are independent-minded, are deathly afraid of opposing it, and consequently kowtow to it or silence themselves rather than be called out by it.  They can’t face the devastating cultural slap caused by an accusation -- concocted or not -- as it reverberates up and down the cascade.  They shudder to think that the cascade would vibrate with denunciations of their supposed racist, misogynistic, homophobic, conscripts-in-the-war-on-women, trying-to-push-granny-off-the-cliff, hating behavior. 

I’m guessing that many cascade-consistent reactions by our politicians are subliminal: they have an awareness that something very, very bad could happen to them if they step away from the cascade.  But if they ever actually process what’s happening, they probably think that their political lives would get notably more hectic if they oppose it.  There are very few politicians on the right who seem immune to or unbowed by the cascade -- Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Scott Walker, Allen West come to mind -- but they themselves are powerful life lessons for those considering violating its tenets: Walker has somehow survived repeated threats and intimidation, and Cruz hasn’t been effectively dispatched yet…but he’s new: give it time.  And those politicians who toe the liberal/progressive party line needn't be concerned: they can step away from the cascade occasionally -- Bill Clinton comes to mind -- without becoming targets.

-- There’s a psycho-emotional sheering when politicians and policies appear one way to a reasonable man-on-the-street, but the mainstream news and cultural media portray them drastically otherwise: people are left scratching their heads and wondering what they missed.  To a reasonable man-on-the-street, for example, Barack Obama seems like a charming, bright fellow…but a flim-flam or con man who’s very comfortable with lying; many of us have seen his like before: the guy who strolls into a competition and, although he’s done next to no preparation and is woefully ignorant of the topics at hand, wins with charm, clever turns of phrase and good looks.  Obama is so used to easy wins that he’s not in the habit of working hard…so when topics and problems get more complex, when he can’t breeze in and charm his way through, he fails and blames others.  To The Times and its cascade, apparently, Barack Obama is truly brilliant; to the reasonable man-on-the-street, he’s a bright, charming, well-spoken flim-flammer who plays loose with the truth…and plays a lot of golf. 

To a reasonable man-on-the-street, Hillary Clinton seems to have an average to low-average Ivy League mind and galumphs along, uninspired…while an adoring media and public gush and overlook missteps and misrepresentations.  Mitt Romney seemed like a stellar fellow: honest, hard-working, self-effacing.  In the cascade, he was an elitist, money-grabbing misogynist.

A very successful given for The Times and its cascade is that any politician (or any troublesome person or policy) can be quickly and effectively destroyed; it’s quite easy to do and there have been innumerable episodes and victims, almost exclusively conservatives, Republicans (and their agendas), or those who oppose the so-called “progressive” plans: we have the idiotic, nonsensical Sarah Palin; the dog-abusing, money-grubbing, hasn’t-paid-his-taxes-in-ten-years Mitt Romney; the incoherent, moronic,  international hooligan George W.  Bush; and many, many others.

The Times and its cascade are so effective at hamstringing, crippling and destroying politicians, in fact, that there’s almost nobody willing to stand up to them.  When that attack machine is combined with the increasingly unseemly, even lawless attacks on non-compliant citizens by federal officials -- IRS actions; use of other federal agencies like the EPA to slow, undermine or stifle dissent; very public verbal attacks by prominent politicians on ordinary citizens or other officials…like Presidents Clinton and Obama repeatedly assailing Rush Limbaugh, or Senators lambasting Chief Justice Roberts from the Senate floor to sway his vote on Obamacare -- it has become a formidable and intimidating force indeed. 

But Americans have faced other formidable forces and seemingly insurmountable odds before: the preeminent British Colonial army; the increasingly dominant and resourceful Nazi war machine; the huge and powerful Soviet Union.

Patriotism today is not banding together to oppose the Redcoats at Concord’s North Bridge, or charging Omaha Beach against an withering Nazi barrage.  But it does require the courage to stand unyielding in the face of immense social pressure. 

A notable problem is that we’re not taught to oppose social pressure: many of us know about fighting off physical attackers, but when the newspaper that you’ve adored, the comedians and movies that you’ve enjoyed, the commentators who populate your favorite airwaves, and the professors from the university that you’ve respected all tell you that you’re wrong and perhaps even detestable, you feel alone and nonplussed.  You quietly figure that all of those self-assured news organizations, media and intellectuals probably trump your ideas and “old school” beliefs, and you begin asking yourself if you’re out of step or out of touch with the times and the culture.

I’m here to reassure you and to call for a new patriotism of resistance. 

We need politicians ready to resist the media-government onslaught, people who will look inside themselves and speak honestly from their consciences, no matter the recoil and denunciations from the cascade.  Be aware that there is a difference between physical and social courage; haven’t you met people who dominate their adversaries and seem more than willing to jump in and pummel others in a fist fight or verbal altercation, but who are bowed and wither in the face of a stern look from their mother or wife?  If I had to choose an old-man partner for a tag-team fist fight, I might choose John McCain, but I think of him as almost incapable of standing up to certain types of press criticism.  We can no longer afford representatives who shrink or collapse in the face of name-calling and castigation by their political adversaries and the press.  They must expect to be called racist, misogynistic, homophobic, etc., but look to their consciences, their family, friends, and clergy -- not their opponents and the press -- to judge themselves.

And we need government employees with the courage to resist the media-government onslaught.  When a supervisor assigns you to perform a task that you consider a flagrant violation of the spirit of fairness, you should both resist the assignment and make your position public…for the sake of all of us.  Reflect on the courage of the operators of the Underground Railroad and others who’ve sheltered the shunned and reviled: they resisted malicious legal authority.  As a culture we can no longer survive detached, unprincipled, automaton-like civil servants.

And we need citizens who see the cascade for what it is: an ideologically biased cultural prism that, through its thoroughgoing, omnipresent and enveloping messages and directives, seeks to create a uniform stance and punish those who will not conform.  And if you are targeted by a subdivision of the government, announce your situation to all who will listen…despite the disinterest and reticence of the cascade. 

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