FAIR OBSERVER DEVIL'S DICTIONARY

The Latest Fantasy Promoted by The New York Times

When Adolph S. Ochs, the owner of The New York Times, launched the famous slogan "All the News That's Fit to Print," he could not have imagined that, more than a century later, once his newspaper had mastered all the tools of modern marketing, its actual policy could more accurately be described as “all the establishment fantasy that’s fit to push down the public’s throats.”
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NYT

NEW YORK CITY – APRIL 13, 2015: Image of front page from The New York Times Sunday newspaper. © littlenySTOCK / shutterstock.com

July 12, 2023 04:41 EDT
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The 1897 slogan still appears on the masthead of the printed edition of NYT. But the content that appears routinely in its columns has drifted further and further away from what the public is used to thinking of news.

NYT is a paper with a mission, much like a religious organization. It is more interested in what its readers believe than what they need to know. NYT appears to believe its fundamental mission consists of rallying the public around themes it deems capable of unifying the nation. Unity trumps truth.

The problem is that, contrary to its conviction, an imposed unity is aggravating friction rather than reducing it. Even more seriously, such a policy implies actively excluding from view all alternative theses. When alternative accounts exist, people in a democracy can think and decide for themselves.

Opposing or even ignoring alternative and possibly truthful accounts – as NYT recently did with former NYT reporter Seymour Hersh’s telling of the Nord Stream sabotage story – easily becomes  the equivalent of totalitarian propaganda.

Over the past seven years, NYT has consistently demonstrated its commitment to themes that for many were already obviously untrue at the time and were proven unequivocally to be untrue later. Russiagate is the prime example. NYT went whole hog on that. But there is also the Havana Syndrome, which, as we have regularly documented, NYT desperately wanted the public to believe was a devious Russian assault on American diplomats. That lasted for more than five years, until the day that the CIA decided that, whatever it was, it was not an attack by a foreign power.

Much that is similar can be said about NYT’s reporting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but just like the Iraqi affair and the Havana Syndrome, it may take years for the truth to come out.

The latest propaganda campaign can be called the delegitimization of Robert F Kennedy Jr as a Democratic presidential candidate. In this case NYT  is working in the service of the establishment of the Democratic Party and its incumbent president, Joe Biden. It is nevertheless building on a precedent: its coverage of candidate Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries of 2016 and 2020, when the newspaper made sure that its readers perceived Bernie as an extremist.

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg unwittingly recently offered a brilliant demonstration of that same trend. Towards the end of an opinion piece with the tendentious title; “Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the Coalition of the Distrustful,” Goldberg offers this shamelessly rhetorical question and her own equally rhetorical but deliriously delusional answer to it.

Commenting on the idea expressed by her “old boss” David Talbot that Kennedy’s intention to expose the deep state’s implication in the assassination of his uncle, John F Kennedy, and his father, Robert Kennedy, might be a salutary act, she summons her best rhetorical skills to dismiss it: “Who wouldn’t want to reach into the past,” she asks, “and undo the errors and accidents that have brought us to this miserable moment?”

Then she offers her equally rhetorical answer: “As politics, it’s a harmful fantasy; movements that promise to restore a halcyon era of national unity always are.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Harmful fantasy:

The name the New York Times gives to ideas that compete with or contradict any of the series of codified harmful fantasies that it promotes, apparently on the grounds that it is safer for people to believe in its own simplistic fantasies than grapple with the messy truth of history.

Contextual note

Human personalities tend to be complex. Robert Kennedy Jr has a hundred biographical reasons to be thought of as a complex personality. That complexity in itself should be deemed a news item. But in politics, complexity is systematically frowned upon. In today’s overgrown democracies politicians see nuance as an unwelcome intruder.

But journalism, the vaunted fourth estate, can and should take an interest in nuance and it often has done so in the past. Once upon a time, a “newspaper of record” saw nuanced truth as at least equally “fit to print” as unnuanced propaganda. That glorious epoch of journalism has clearly passed. Propaganda has replaced news. It stands as the key to security and social harmony, the glue that holds society together.

Goldberg clearly qualifies a concern for nuance and an interest in the historical truth as harmful fantasies. She claims, with no evidence, that the supposed intention of those interested in nuance is neither a concern for justice or national healing, but nostalgia for a bygone era.

Goldberg’s argument boils down to the idea that the mistakes and crimes of the past simply do not merit our attention because elucidating them will not restore lost harmony. It may even create further dissonance. In one sense she’s right. Learning about systemic injustice and criminality will disturb the current harmony, which is based on deliberating and systematically erasing awareness of the contradictions that define the reigning system.

Goldberg’s thoughts are totally consistent with the NYT’s editorial policy, which clearly aims at creating the belief that an absence of an interest in both history and justice are the required conditions for guaranteeing the tranquility of the existing order.

Historical note

Over the past century the editorial agenda of the NYT has radically evolved away from its stated ideal. Instead of covering the literal meaning of news – reporting all the “new facts” –  the paper has taken upon itself the idea of reporting the latest policies of the state, and more particularly the federal government. Its role is quite simply to articulate the reasons that justify those policies. This is particularly true when the state is in the hands of an establishment Democrat. To support that mission, it has increasingly relied on, not just the state, but the “deep state,” the intelligence community (IC).

The old democratic idea of the fourth estate reflected the belief that the press was the public’s channel for receiving the facts on the ground taking place in the world or in a specific locality. Until recently newspapers clearly distinguished between factual reporting – the news – and editorials, which might reflect a diversity of points of view and partisan takes on the news.  It was true even then that news articles were never exempt from observers’ bias, but the standard everyone recognized stated that the news was built around the idea of “reporting” or recounting actions that have been observed by perceptive reporters. A news article about a murder or a military campaign might contain some reflection on possible motives, but journalists understood that their job was to describe as accurately as possible what appeared to be factual.

The moment when a change in the entire orientation of NYT’s commitment to journalistic truth occurred in 2002 and 2003, during the buildup to George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The newspaper’s commitment to propaganda that many observers recognized as such at the time was so flagrant that in 2005 she was forced to resign. Ironically, that was also the year Chris Hedges, who had opposed the paper’s position supporting the war but had been consistently silenced, was forced to resign.

Miller’s stories based on lies culled from the deep state misled the public. But the supposed authority of the newspaper of record allowed  Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld to appear on television citing Miller’s story as proof of the Bush administration’s criminal policies.

Could the editorial board have learned a lesson from this episode? Yes, of course. Has it learned that lesson? Columnists such as Michelle Goldberg and Paul Krugman (“Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a crank.”) reveal that nothing has changed. Or rather, everything has changed… since the time when news, rather than propaganda, defined what was fit to print.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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