Was The New York Times' decision to hire de facto Republican consultant Bill Kristol as a political columnist really such a shock? The more upsetting realization for longtime readers may be that the move actually made sense, since the Times has been broadcasting with increasing frequency -- and long before the head-scratching Kristol hire -- that it doesn't really take political opinion writing seriously. Readers need look no further than recent columns by Maureen Dowd for proof of that.
In fact, just prior to the holidays Dowd manufactured a key allegation in one of her assembly line columns attacking Bill and Hillary Clinton. After reading the fabrication I thought -- yet again -- how odd it was that the Times allows a high-profile columnist such as Dowd to routinely manufacture portions of her column; usually a portion that belittles and demeans a prominent Democrat. Dowd's practice has become so routine I doubt that she or her editors give it a second thought since, as far as I can tell, that's what the Times pays her to do: make stuff up.
So in that sense, Bill Kristol and Maureen Dowd deserve each other; they belong on the same team. As media critic Dan Kennedy noted last week, "Kristol has never shown much, if any, regard for the ethical conventions of journalism." And Joan Walsh at Salon added, "Kristol is anti-truth." One could say the same about Dowd.
The Times leadership has convinced itself that the duo will anchor some sort of opinion all-star squad, but I think more and more loyal readers and independent observers will come to the opposite conclusion: that Kristol and Dowd represent the troubling demise of the paper's commitment to serious, and entertaining, opinion journalism.
That the Times wants to view the crucial 2008 presidential campaign through the prism of Kristol and Dowd tells you all you need to know about the paper's priorities.
It's not just that Kristol is wrong about everything, including his head cheerleading role in arguably the worst foreign policy disaster in American history. We've been around that block before. (Just 12 months ago it was Time magazine fending off angry critiques when it hired Kristol to be on of its "star" columnists.) More importantly, Kristol's columns are often an exercise in thumb-sucking: They're plodding and dull. (Kristol's first effort for the Gray Lady confirmed that fact.) That's what Time editors quickly found out, which may explain why Kristol's column was nearly invisible during the second half of 2007 -- Time reportedly published just four of his columns after July.
There's simply no way that New York Times editors read Kristol's phoned-in agitprop in Time last year and turned to each other, and to publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who OKs hirings on the opinion pages, and said, "We've got to get this guy!" And that's why the newspaper's decision to hire Kristol feels much more like a political appointment than it does a journalistic hire. Nobody has ever argued that the Times operates as a pure meritocracy, but elevating Kristol to the most prestigious perch in punditry and then pretending he earned the spot on the strength of his clips is, of course, preposterous.
And indeed, even more befuddling than tapping Kristol was the sad spectacle of Times leaders staging an embarrassing kabuki dance where they insisted they hired Kristol because he's a "serious, respected conservative intellectual," as editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal told Politico.
Kristol is a serious, respected conservative intellectual? Like when during the early days of the Iraq war he taunted the Times as being "irredeemable" and suggested the paper was in need of "regime change"? Or more recently when he became unhinged and argued that the Times ought to face federal prosecution for its treasonous behavior in reporting on the war on terror?
Note that in his inaugural Times column, Kristol approvingly quoted "conservative writer Michelle Malkin," who has launched phony jihad after jihad after jihad against The New York Times. It turns out the quote wasn't Malkin's at all. She recognized the irony, writing: "Since I never usually appear on the New York Times op-ed page unless someone's calling me a fascist, I was pleasantly surprised to see the quote. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), I didn't write what Kristol attributed to me. A different MM-Michael Medved-was the author." Bill Kristol takes a stab at mainstreaming Malkin, and in his first effort, he does it in error.
Was Kristol being "serious" and "intellectual" last year when he had so little to say in his sporadically published Time column that he practically re-wrote columns in order to fill the space? Consider the two Time columns by Kristol published March 2 and October 30. Not surprisingly, both were devoted to rallying the GOP troops, with Kristol claiming that Republicans were in high sprits politically. He listed the reasons for the quiet rejoicing.
- "The bad news of November 2006 was that the Republicans lost their majorities on Capitol Hill. The good news is that the Democrats are now in control." [March 2]
- "The Democrats' takeover of both houses of Congress last November turns out to have been a mixed blessing for them." [October 30]
- "The ouster of [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld and [Gen. George] Casey and the announcement of a new strategy backed up by additional troops and a new commander, General David Petraeus, gave hope to those who still think success is possible in Iraq -- which, polls show, is still a healthy majority of Republicans." [March 2]
- "Bush decided against Donald Rumsfeld but also against the Iraq Study Group, and for General David Petraeus and the surge. Democrats forecast an even deeper quagmire. Instead, we've seen progress -- which could well continue and broaden." [October 30]
- "The 2008 Republican field." [March 2]
- "Watching the Republican candidates in the debate in Orlando, Fla., I wasn't filled with dread about the general election." [October 30]
- "The 1994 Republican off-year sweep was followed by Bill Clinton's easy 1996 victory over Bob Dole. The 1986 Democratic take-back of the Senate and the 1987 Iran-contra scandal didn't prevent then Vice President George H.W. Bush from dismantling Michael Dukakis in 1988." [March 2]
- "The last time Congress flipped was 1994 -- and that GOP sweep was followed by a Bill Clinton victory in 1996. Democrats took back the Senate (and thus control of both bodies of Congress) in 1986, and George H.W. Bush won easily in 1988." [October 30]
Starting this week, readers will be able to experience the same sense of déjà vu when reading Kristol's "serious" and "intellectual" column in The New York Times. (I guess it's not plagiarism if you re-write your own stuff, right?)
And please, despite the spin from Sulzberger, this is not just like the howls of protest that rose up back in 1973 when the publisher's father, Arthur O. "Punch" Sulzberger, tapped former Nixon White House speechwriter William Safire to become a columnist. Safire went onto become a celebrated writer (by some), so Timesmen today suggest the protests lodged against Kristol are as short-sighted as the ones first staged against Safire. (The irony is that Safire's work was also riddled with partisan errors.)
But back in 1973, Safire was an unknown entity as a columnist, and the protests centered on the fact that Safire had no journalism background. Kristol, on the other hand, has a long, public track record as being a middling columnist and a miserable prognosticator who especially has been wrong about every major issue over the last five years: Iraq, Iran, the economy, the war on terror, and domestic politics.
Yet how badly did Times big-wigs want to hire neo-con strategist Kristol? So badly they threw out their employee handbook in order to extend a sweetheart deal to Kristol.
Not only does the high-profile hiring of Kristol flout a recently announced hiring freeze inside the New York Times newsroom, but a Times spokeswoman confirmed to me that Kristol will become the first political columnist hired by the newspaper in the modern era who will be allowed to keep a full-time publishing job outside the Times. And in this case, as editor of Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard, Kristol will continue to draw a paycheck from a direct Times competitor, since Murdoch, as the new owner of the Wall Street Journal, has made it quite plain that he plans on using the business daily to directly compete against The New York Times, which Murdoch claims is elitist and liberal.
Oh yeah, Kristol will be given further exemption from the Times' employee guidelines and allowed to remain on the board of policy think tanks. Could the Times have found a more tangled set of conflicts if they tried?
Perhaps the most troubling part of the Times' depressing personnel move is that the paper's publisher is under the illusion that Kristol's work will help offset the paper's liberal columnists, such as ... Dowd.
Pressed by Radar's Charles Kaiser about the Kristol appointment, Sulzberger explained, "We still have Krugman and Rich; Herbert and Collins; Dowd ... And now we have a new weekly columnist who expresses a very different point of view in a full-throated way."
Dowd is a Democrat who needs to be counter-balanced by Kristol? Let's see, as the Daily Howler has detailed, she broadcasts an inextinguishable hatred of Bill and Hillary Clinton in 2008, she fabricated an embarrassing John Kerry quote in 2004, and she ridiculed Al Gore mercilessly in 2000. Other than that, sure, Dowd's a proud Democrat.
Dowd is the kind of Democratic columnist who doesn't think twice about manufacturing material to make the Clintons look bad. One recent example came in a December 23, column in which Dowd strained mightily to create the impression that Bill Clinton campaigning for his wife represented some kind of chaotic and deeply troubling event.
He got so agitated with Charlie Rose -- ranting that reporters were "stenographers" for Obama -- that his aides tried to stop the interview.
That's simply false. And what's so remarkable is all you have to do is watch the Rose interview or read the transcript to instantly understand the claim was false. Then again, Dowd has never bothered much with research, and the odds are good she never even watched the Clinton interview. The story sounded good to her so she used it.
What actually happened on the Rose show, as Media Matters pointed out prior to Dowd's column being published, was that the host kept Clinton longer than planned, and while the interview was winding down Rose repeatedly apologized on-air for the fact that the interview was running late and acknowledged that Clinton's aides needed to get the former president to his next event.
Dowd twisted that public exchange to push a tale that Clinton's aides had to pull the plug on an interview in order to save their "agitated" boss from himself. None of that was true, but Dowd typed it up anyway.
Oh well, at least now Dowd has a new partner in crime on the Times opinion page, somebody who instinctively operates on the same level as her, and who is unrestrained by traditional journalism standards and guidelines.
Kristol and Dowd, together at last. I'm sure they'll make The New York Times proud.
P.S. Lots of progressives, myself included, spend a fair amount of time instinctively defending The New York Times from ludicrous right-wing attacks by the likes of Kristol and Malkin. I guess the question going forward is, why bother?