Mugger: The Dark Kristol

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A “slow” news cycle no longer exists, particularly during a presidential race, and last week, sifting through shards of online items of interest, I found three disparate stories which indicate that this year will be even less kind to the newspaper industry.

In the Christmas edition of London’s weekly Spectator the “Low Life” columnist Jeremy Clarke tossed off an anecdote, in the midst of describing miserable mass transit conditions, that couldn’t have given cheer to anyone invested in the legacy media business. Clarke was temporarily alone on the top deck of a bus, reading the obituaries in the Daily Telegraph when at the next stop a gaggle of rambunctious school kids boarded and noisily made their way upstairs. Suddenly “hemmed in on all sides,” Clarke was interrupted by a teenage girl who said, “I ‘aven’t seen a paper as big as that before,” and, flabbergasted, he responded, “You must have!”

The Telegraph is a sprawling (and excellent) broadsheet, an anachronism in the U.K., and Clarke, a man of a certain age, can be excused for failing to comprehend the once unthinkable: teenagers simply don’t buy or read newspapers.

Outgoing Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger wrote a front-page quasi-valedictory on Dec. 29, taking readers on a delightful tour of a long career that began in 1966, when the newspaper industry was bustling, about to make the transformation to cold type and nearly a generation of enormous profits, painstaking investigative journalism and foreign bureaus from Oslo to Singapore.

During a stint as business editor of The Los Angeles Times, Steiger was asked to make some cuts in his budget in reaction to the recession of the early 1980s. His first strategy was to cut first-class airplane travel for his reporters—a quaint idea, in retrospect—but then the paper’s top editor intervened and said that was a bad example of trimming costs since he certainly didn’t care to fly in steerage. Steiger found another way to round out his budget, but it wasn’t all that painful.

Describing today’s troubled outlook, Steiger wonders what will happen next and, like most observers is pretty much in the dark. “Change,” he writes, “rapid and largely unpredictable. Nearly every company in the industry needs major new revenue, big cost reductions or a healthy dollop of each.”

The next day, The New York Times fulfilled the “unpredictable” slot by hiring Bill Kristol as a weekly op-ed columnist. Kristol, Dan Quayle’s former chief of staff and editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, just four years ago, said the Times was “irredeemable.” That assessment is even more accurate today, but give Times management credit for shaking up the intelligentsia, adding an advocate of the Iraq war to provide at least minimal balance to left-wing columnists Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd. Upon the announcement there was an indignant uproar in the blogosphere, with readers threatening to cancel their subscriptions, cries that the Times had “sold out” and that the paper had been “hijacked by neo-cons.”

Gawker’s Choire Sicha, in one of his last posts for that site, called Kristol a “ninny,” and Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall couldn’t fathom why the Times needed another conservative when it already publishes David Brooks (“the house-broken William Kristol”). The Nation’s excitable Katha Pollitt was beside herself: “Just shoot me,” she began a rant about the ingenious move, and made the absurd claim that Kristol’s columns in the sacred pages of the Times demonstrates “how successfully the right has intimidated the mainstream media.”

I suppose lefty hysteria, for a change, is going around like a bad strain of the flu. Pollitt and her aggrieved colleagues needn’t be so concerned that the Times is undergoing a ideological transformation, although one can hope, especially when the company is inevitably sold in the next few years, that it actually will become more diverse.

Take, for example, the paper’s utterly condescending campaign against legal gambling. The editorial page’s most recent salvo came on New Year’s Day, when it huffed and puffed about the increasing prices in lottery tickets. “Lawmakers pretend that lotteries make new taxes unnecessary,” the edit harrumphed. “But lotteries are a tax, an inefficient, badly targeted one that is having a devastating impact on poor communities and beyond… They can dress it up all they want in slogans about buying a ticket and a dream. But the states are encouraging behavior that is too often addictive and ruinous for people who can least handle the burden.”

Lotteries, obviously, are not a tax, unless you believe citizens have no possession of free will. The Times’ schoolmarmish argument against lottery tickets, slot machines and casinos is so repugnant and elitist that it’s no wonder that many people of sound mind no longer bother to read the paper. It’s also hypocritical. The Times is in favor of increased taxes on tobacco products, levies that disproportionately financially harm those “who can least handle the burden.” It also follows that if the Times is against gambling as “too often addictive” it ought to take a similar position on alcohol, which ruins more lives than  scratching off a lottery ticket.

It’s bad enough that New York already has one scold in power, the ubiquitous Mike Bloomberg, who is being bandied about as the eventual buyer of the Times. Frankly, I’d love to see a casino in Times Square, another on the Hudson and maybe one on the Upper East Side. Additionally, why not legalize prostitution and marijuana, a bold measure that would not only clear out prisons and stop distracting the police from concentrating on serious crime, but would also add to the coffers of every state in the country.

I don’t expect that sort of editorial any time soon, which is proof enough that a mere 800 or so words a week from Bill Kristol is not going to veer the S.S. Sulzberger even one degree off its perilous course.

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