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THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF OKRENT! Is the Times a liberal rag? Okrent’s answer is lighter than air:
MONDAY, JULY 26, 2004

HUME’S DECLINE: Brit Hume’s decline was on full display in yesterday’s Fox News Sunday roundtable. Asked to discuss the 9/11 report, he quickly began to spin Sandy Berger:
HUME: There is interesting detail in there, Chris, about the events leading up to 9/11, things we didn't know before. There's some interesting information that may bear on something we will talk about later, which was former national security advisor under President Clinton Sandy Berger's leaving the National Archives with various documents stuffed into his socks and pants and other places, and that sort of thing.
Obviously, Hume doesn’t know if Berger left the Archives “with documents stuffed into his socks and pants.” But he couldn’t wait to recite this prime propaganda. And when Chris Wallace finally asked about Berger himself, Hume tossed off a weak speculation, then recited the propaganda again:
HUME: The other thing that we ought to note about this is—the explanation that this was, quote, "sloppiness" really makes no sense. Sloppiness is if you accidentally brush something into your briefcase or take it out with other files that you didn't mean. You don't accidentally or sloppily stuff stuff into your pants and socks.
Good boy! Hume doesn’t know if this occurred. But he does know the current hot RNC spin—and he knows what he’s paid for at Fox.

Hume’s performance was appalling. He played Fox viewers for rubes, suckers, fools. But equally appalling was the performance of pseudo-moderator Chris Wallace and the rest of the Potemkin panel. Wallace never made any attempt to challenge or clarify what Hume said, and neither did the rest of the “all-stars.” For the record, Mara Liasson offered a special Profile in Cowardice. She spoke right after Hume’s second comment—and needless to say, she knew that Hume was pimping a piece of unfounded propaganda. But she also knew that she mustn’t say Boo. Liasson never challenged what Hume had said.. Juan Williams and Bill Kristol also played silent roles in letting Hume’s pimpery stand.

So gaze on a deeply corrupted “press,” a “press corps” paid to pimp propaganda! Hume was throwing swill to the herd. And Wallace and Liasson knew their role well. Their role was to stay very quiet.

THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF OKRENT: How lightweight is our upscale press corps? Consider Daniel Okrent’s hopeless piece in Sunday’s New York Times. Okrent—the paper’s “public editor”—declares the Times “a liberal newspaper,” at least when it comes to “the social issues: gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation.” Okrent says he’ll discuss the paper’s political coverage at a later date—although his claim that the Times is “a liberal newspaper” is delivered in his opening sentence, seemingly without qualification.

So how does the Times cover “social issues”—the issues on which Okrent focuses? “[I]f you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you’ve been reading the paper with your eyes closed,” Okrent says. Liberal bias, of course, is a major topic, especially in our endless propaganda wars; for that reason, Okrent’s piece is surely destined to be quoted and spun forever. But Okrent shows no sign of being able to limn the question he has brought forward. In a word, the scribe is lighter-than-air. He’s simply not up to this challenge.

How silly is Okrent’s attempt at analysis? In his attempt to describe the Times’ unbalanced reporting, he even complains about the models he sees in the paper’s fashion coverage. (They “look like they’re prepared to murder or be murdered,” he says.). Soon after, he quotes a reader—the only Times reader he ever quotes—who offers a deathless complaint:

OKRENT: If you're like Jim Chapman, one of my correspondents who has given up on The Times, you’re lost in space. Wrote Chapman, “Whatever happened to poetry that required rhyme and meter, to songs that required lyrics and tunes, to clothing ads that stressed the costume rather than the barely clothed females and slovenly dressed, slack-jawed, unshaven men?”
To state the obvious, Chapman’s questions are largely inane, and Okrent doesn’t try to say how they relate to the question at hand. But then, Okrent seems prepared to credit almost any red-state-sounding complaint. “[A] creationist will find no comfort in the Science Times,” he even complains at one point. But should a creationist “find comfort” in science reporting? Okrent doesn’t address this obvious question. He’s too busy rushing off to his Greatest Example—the Times’ troubling coverage of same-sex marriage, which he calls a “perfect example” of the paper’s unbalanced, leftward slant.

Has the Times offered balanced coverage of same-sex marriage? We don’t have the slightest idea. Nor do we know after reading Okrent, because his treatment of this topic is as absurd as the rest of this lightweight column. According to Okrent, Times reporters have engaged in “implicit advocacy” of same-sex marriage; indeed, “potentially nettlesome effects of gay marriage have been virtually absent from The Times since the issue exploded last winter.” But here’s his attempt to list the issues the Times has rudely ignored:

OKRENT: The San Francisco Chronicle runs an uninflected article about Congressional testimony from a Stanford scholar making the case that gay marriage in the Netherlands has had a deleterious effect on heterosexual marriage. The Boston Globe explores the potential impact of same-sex marriage on tax revenues, and the paucity of reliable research on child-rearing in gay families. But in The Times, I have learned next to nothing about these issues, nor about partner abuse in the gay community, about any social difficulties that might be encountered by children of gay couples or about divorce rates (or causes, or consequences) among the 7,000 couples legally joined in Vermont since civil union was established there four years ago.
We’ll try to ignore Okrent’s weirdest complaint—that the Times hasn’t helped him learn about “partner abuse in the gay community.” Consider some of the other topics he says the Times has ignored.

First, Okrent praises the San Francisco Chronicle for reporting a bit of congressional testimony about child-bearing patterns in the Netherlands. (As it turns out, this was testimony by the Hoover Institute’s Stanley Kurtz, on April 22.) Okrent complains that the New York Times didn’t cover this appearance. But the New York Times was hardly alone in failing to report this testimony. Indeed, the openly conservative Washington Times didn’t report the testimony either. According to a Nexis search, neither did the conservative New York Post, or the conservative Boston Herald, or any other paper in the country—conservative, liberal or moderate. (The Associated Press took a pass on this too.) How strained, how tortured is Okrent’s “analysis?” The Chronicle was the only newspaper in the country reporting on this marginal testimony. But Okrent puts this topic at the top of his list, telling readers that its absence from the New York Times shows how unbalanced the newspaper is. As an attempt at real analysis, this is foofaw, pure and simple.

But Okrent is just getting started. Second, he praises the Boston Globe for “explor[ing] the potential impact of same-sex marriage on tax revenues.” Question: Can this possibly be a serious element of the same-sex marriage debate? In fact, a Nexis search makes it hard to tell what reporting Okrent refers to. On April 4, the Globe did present this single sentence: “The impact that gay marriage will have on the state’s tax revenues is also uncertain: The Department of Revenue could not provide an estimate of what it might cost to grant to gay couples certain tax benefits available to married couples.” But that, again, was a single sentence, closing out a long report on a different subject. On June 23, the Globe went further, devoting three sentences to this crucial topic. Here was the paper’s blockbuster passage, at the end of another long piece on another unrelated topic:

RAPHAEL LEWIS: The Congressional Budget Office yesterday released an analysis of the potential budgetary effects in the event that gay marriage is legalized in all 50 states. Both Bush and Kerry oppose same-sex marriage, and it appears unlikely that gay marriages will be allowed in all states in the near future.

The study said that the estimates were “highly uncertain,” but concluded that “same-sex marriages would increase [income] tax revenues.”

Simply put, this is total trivia. Nor is it clear how this trivia tilts; why is the Times a shill for gay marriage when it fails to tell its readers that same-sex marriage might increase tax revenues? And again, the failure to report this matter hardly singles out the Times. Again, a Nexis search indicates that the Globe was the only paper in the country reporting this “highly uncertain” finding. Nor can we find any sign that the AP reported this CBO finding.

How does the Times cover social issues? How has the Times covered same-sex marriage? We’d love to see a serious attempt to answer those questions. But questions like those are hard to answer, and Okrent isn’t up to the task. He makes a sweeping assessment of the Times, followed by a utterly lightweight “analysis.” His report will make for great agitprop. It’s worthless as anything else.

But there is a bit of good news here. As he finishes, Okrent tells us that he’s leaving for a well-earned, month-long vacance. “I’m going to spend August in a deck chair,” he types, at the end of this hopeless column. Alas! To judge from this utterly lightweight piece—a piece that will drive propaganda forever—we get the sense that the great public ed spent July in that deep deck chair too.

HOPELESS: “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” That’s the headline on Okrent’s piece, and he answers quickly: “Of course it is.” But in recent weeks, Okrent has written a long complaint about the paper’s “credulous” coverage of Bush Iraq policy, and he criticized a front-page review of Bill Clinton’s new book—a review which “featured a vocabulary of critical invective that might have knocked the breath out of even a Clinton hater,” he said. Does Okrent know his paper’s 15-year history of trashing all things Clinton and Gore, even on the editorial page he claims to be ultra-liberal? There is no reason to think he does. Okrent’s analysis is lighter-than-air, like much of the Times’ greatest work.

WHAT’S IN A WORD: But then, how silly is Okrent’s analysis? Here’s another of his complaints. Yes, he actually wrote this:

OKRENT: The Times has chosen to be an unashamed product of the city whose name it bears, a condition magnified by the been-there-done-that irony afflicting too many journalists. Articles containing the word “postmodern” have appeared in The Times an average of four times a week this year—true fact!—and if that doesn’t reflect a Manhattan sensibility, I’m Noam Chomsky.
Gasp! Four times a week! Suitably troubled, we ran the word in the Nexis archives, and we’d have to say we were underwhelmed by our results. In the past month, the word “postmodern” has appeared in the Times fifteen times, in line with the troubling tale Okrent tells. But four of the fifteen usages occurred in a weekly, repeat capsule review of The Stepford Wives, that “loud and shiny postmodern farce.” Here’s another typical example of the way the Times used that bad word:
KISSELGOFF (7/16/04): Trained in Chinese opera and modern dance before he came to New York in 1995, Mr. Shen works out of a sensibility that owes nothing to systems of thought that have lingered in American postmodern dance since the 1960's.
Why did Anna Kisselgoff make this troubling statement in her review of a Lincoln Center performance? We don’t know, but we’ll take a wild guess; she may have said this because Chinese-born choreographer Shen Wei works out of a sensibility that owes nothing to systems of thought that have lingered in American postmodern dance since the 1960's. Is Kisselgoff supposed to avoid such statements because the word “postmodern” troubles Okrent and his rhyme-loving readers? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t know what “postmodern dance” is either. But we don’t write troubled letters to Okrent, or complain that the Times is a “liberal newspaper” which shows “liberal bias” by its use of that word. We just don’t read the reports about dance! Essentially, Okrent is saying that the New York Times should exit the Lincoln Center.

For the record, other papers use this troubling word too. The P-word appeared six times last month in the Washington Post—which provides much less cultural coverage than the Times—and it made seven appearances in the Los Angeles Times. Of course, none of this has a thing to do with whether the Times is a “liberal newspaper” which shows “liberal bias” and misreports “the social issues.” Almost anyone would understand this—except for the great lightweight Times.

Okrent asks important questions. It’s too bad this lighter-than-air public ed is too light to tackle such questions.