Friday, November 18, 2005

Liberal Firings

A few days ago I wrote about the quasi-firing of the great (and late) John B. Oakes after he’d served 40 years on the editorial page of The New York Times, 15 of them as its editor. Punch Sulzberger got rid of him in 1977 when Punch felt Oakes was too liberal for the Times: In his tenure Oakes had taken a stand against escalating the Vietnam War, endorsed McGovern, advocated for “pollution controls and other regulations” (in the words of Susan Tifft and Alex Jones’s tendentious Trust) and other such fringe positions which, to the rising Punch—who was Gingrich before Gingrich was cool—were just too pinkish for a paper looking to make a buck: Times stock had plummeted from $60 in 1969 to $13 in September 1976, and Punch blamed the paper’s “stridently antibusiness tone” for the loss. The country was moving right. The Times, compulsively mainstream, had to move along, hug that middle advertising dollars love so much, and damn what even William F. Buckley, the pilot steering the country right, had said about the strategy (in his “Statement of Intentions” launching National Review in 1955): “Middle of the road qua middle of the road is politically, intellectually and morally repugnant.” National Review was interested in making change. The New York Times was interested in making money. It fired Oakes and replaced him with the pathologically placid Max Frankel.

The firing of Oakes came to mind when the other coast’s Times fired Robert Scheer last week, after Scheer’s 30 years there, 13 of those spent writing one of the more flabless liberal columns in the country. Andres Martinez wrote a note to readers explaining Scheer’s firing, but of course explained nothing other than frame the firing in journalism’s equivalent of a political resignation, like maybe Scheer was dying to (as I kept waiting for the quote to appear) “spend more time with family”: “It’s inaccurate,” Martinez actually wrote, “to ascribe ideological motives to our decision to stop running Scheer’s column.” Fine. But then, what were the motives? If the paper is publishing “more Op-Ed columnists … than ever before, including more liberal voices,” then why not make room for Scheer? Because the L.A. Times this fall is doing just what the New York Times did in 1977: The L.A. Times is hurting for money, advertisers, readers, identity. Tribune parent reported revenue decline of 3.5 percent in October, Times newsroom is firing 85 people, and Tribune's Trebuchet cannonade in Chicago doesn't give a (excuse my Arabic argot) Karbala's goat droppings about marketing ideas when marketing is as far as the cannonade is aiming for. The paper’s tone is an easy scapegoat. So it’s lopping off its “fringe,” “shrill” opinions to court advertisers’ tyrannical middle. Moderate and centrists along the lines of a journalistic Souter or a Ginsburg pass off as liberal writers all over the place only because the lopsidedly right-wing and Fox-trotting tone of the country’s discourse makes them seem liberal. But Meghan Daum, a liberal? In a culturally hip Alan-Colmes-standby sort of way, maybe. But don’t call her a fitting replacement for Scheer’s political breadth and élan. Jonathan Chait is no slouch; he can pull the occasional Krugman coup, he may even out-Scheer Scheer some day, but that only would have argued for strengthening the Times editorial page, not lobotomizing it.

Scheer isn’t the sort to go begging for a job long. The San Francisco Chronicle and the Huffington Post gobbled him up immediately. But that’s beside the point. The mainstream media, already more narrow-minded than an Allan Bloom rant from the grave, is closing ranks further, mainstreaming itself and boring us to death along the way and making that famed “marketplace of ideas” look even more like one of those non-descript strip malls along I-95. No wonder the political landscape is so damn numbing, so ideologically stale (and stale-mated), so unimaginative you’d think we were being ruled by a homeowner association’s Board of Babbitts. Most opinion pages, rare independent exceptions aside of course, certainly are. Dividends before ideas. And the newspaper industry wonders why it’s declining. At this rate it won’t have far to go before grating irrelevance. Those so-called alternative media are at the fringes. They won’t be there long. Not if migrants from the mainstream keep taking refuge in those (dare I borrow a word from the shareholders’ linguistic sex shop?) emerging markets.