For decades, The New York Times has tried to manage the image it once created for itself as a “progressive” newspaper. On various occasions, its ineptness at this game has been so patent that its reputation as the “paper of record” appeared irreparably tarnished. Its support of George W. Bush’s campaign to invade Iraq in 2003 is just one prominent example. Nevertheless, since no other US newspaper can compete with its brand, The Times not only holds pole position in reporting the news but is also assured of winning the race on most headline political stories in the US news cycle.
Thanks to its stable of high-profile editorialists, its specially cultivated relationship with government insiders and the intelligence community, and its occasionally thought-provoking in-depth features, The Times commands the respect of an elite, “politically-aware” class of readers. Even when the paper’s editorial stance appears totally skewed on a major issue, its position will be deemed worthy of attention. Despite multiple failures, this particularly applies to US foreign policy.
Influence Has Become Democracy’s Influenza
The key to The Times maintaining its image as a voice of progressive values lies less in its willingness to air progressive ideas than in the persistent belief Americans have that the Democratic Party is more progressive than the Republican Party. In other words, because Democrats read The Times, it has no need to sound progressive. Like the Democratic Party itself, The Times’ editorial policy over at least the past three decades has increasingly distanced itself from most traditional progressive themes, particularly on foreign policy.
Still, the newspaper feels the need to at least seem progressive. It finds itself faced the difficult task of navigating very real pressures within the Democratic Party. With the arrival of a new Democratic administration and the continued suspense concerning what its policies will actually look like, The New York Times is now making an effort to assess the trends.
In an article on March 11, Michael D. Shear, Carl Hulse and Jonathan Martin provide an example of tracking the trends. “Even as Mr. Biden’s stimulus victory lap will be embraced by the left,” they write, “he remains in the cautious middle so far on foreign policy, easing off on punishing the crown prince of Saudi Arabia for ordering the killing of a Washington Post journalist and imposing only modest sanctions on Russia for the poisoning and jailing of Aleksei A. Navalny, the opposition leader there.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
The position that defines how Democratic politicians may hold onto power and mainstream journalists hold onto their jobs. Only Republicans politicians and journalists may be allowed to deviate from it.
Citing the notion of cautious middle would seem to imply that, in contrast, there may also be an incautious middle. But the concept is difficult to imagine. The expression sounds like a pleonasm. The whole point of placing oneself in the middle is to avoid being conspicuous. This raises the question of what The Times means by “cautious.” Does caution mean using one’s rational faculties to steer clear of danger, or does it signify abandoning one’s own principles and beliefs for the sake of survival?
The two cases cited leave the reader wondering. Presidenthas promised no punishment for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), whom the CIA blames as the man directly responsible for the murder of US resident Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who worked for The Washington Post. In contrast, Biden has imposed “modest sanctions” on President Vladimir Putin’s government and directly maligned Putin himself for the poisoning of a Russian citizen with no connections to the US. Does Biden think MBS has a soul? How afraid is Biden of Saudi Arabia? Should this really be called caution?
Then there is the question of defining what The Times means by “the middle”? When polls show that a significant majority of Americans wish to see single-payer health care, the withdrawal of US troops from the Middle East, a $15 minimum wage and increased taxes on the wealthy, does it have any meaning to call Biden’s position — who appears to oppose all of these issues — “the cautious middle”? Perhaps The Times imagines Biden’s foreign policy position should be called “the cautious middle” because it sits somewhere between MBS and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, or between India’s Narendra Modi and the UK’s Boris Johnson.
The independent journalist Matt Taibbi, who has never sought the middle but always taken seriously the notion that the media’s first responsibility in a democracy is to stand up to power and challenge its orientations, has noticed how, with the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House, most of the press — and in particular The New York Times and the Washington Post — have abandoned any pretense of critical appraisal of the sometimes incomprehensible caution of the new administration. He compares their reporting to “embarrassing, Soviet-style contortions,” bordering on hagiography.
He notes how Biden and his Democratic colleagues are not alone in seeking shelter within the “cautious middle.” So are most journalists, even Republican stalwarts working for the media. He cites the case of New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks who, as a philosophically-focused Republican, “spent his career penning paeans to ‘personal responsibility’ and the ‘culture of thrift,’ but is now writing stories about how ‘Joe Biden is a transformational president’ for casting aside fiscal restraints in the massive Covid-19 bill.”
Taibbi speculates that Brooks may be undergoing the same “evolution” as Biden, leading him to some kind of safe haven where those who have some power over his future — his employer, The New York Times — want to be sure he will not deviate from the party line. Taibbi compares Brooks to a lot of people in the corporate press “who are searching out the safest places on the op-ed page, the middle of the newsroom middle, in desperate efforts to stay on the masthead.”
Being in the cautious middle is now perceived by many to be the key to survival in the new political-media complex, even if being in the middle rhymes with irrelevance, inefficacy and refusal to implement or even take into account the will of people. The political middle is no longer the position in the center of people’s real interests or even of the spectrum of popular opinion. The middle appears to exist as a theoretical point of absolute stasis in which changing as little as possible while finding ways to reassure the discontents by acts of verbal bravado defines a decent strategy of governance.
In 2008, Barack Obama ran as the anti-George W. Bush candidate. Once in office, Obama maintained most of Bush’s heritage, from disastrous tax cuts for the rich to maintaining and prolonging the Bush wars that he had railed against. Biden has come into office as the anti-, ready to bring things back to a middling “normal” presumably defined by the status quo of the Obama period. Just like Obama, President Biden appears to have accepted the new “middle” defined by his predecessor rather than realizing his own stated ambition during the 2020 campaign to become a “new FDR,” the Democratic president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in the 1930s decisively overturned the policies of his Republican predecessors.
For the moment, Biden is showing no signs of listening to the needs of the populace beyond offering a quick fix of injected cash ($1,400). And, apart from the symbolic move of rejoining the 2015 Paris climate accord, Biden has maintained nearly all of Trump’s foreign policy legacy, including refusing to cancel Trump’s sanctions on Iran that followed the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with the Iranians. A mere reduction of those sanctions might have modestly pointed toward a return to the status quo ante-Trump. In his various actions concerning China, Iran and Saudi Arabia and even Venezuela, Biden appears to be paying homage to Trump’s leadership rather than blazing a new path in international diplomacy.
In a famous moment during a vice-presidential debate in 1988, Democrat Lloyd Bentsen cut his young opponent, Dan Quayle, down to size with a remark that followed Quayle’s attempt to compare himself to President John F. Kennedy. Bentsen reminded Quayle that he had served under the assassinated president before concluding, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Bentsen was a child of 12 when Roosevelt began the first of his four terms as president. If he were alive today, Bentsen might have the gall to say to Biden: You’re no FDR.
*[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 The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.