This op-ed has been crossposted at my blog, Adaptive Expectations.
On Thursday, the editors of the New York Times penned a widely-circulated piece on the most overblown political conflict in recent memory. Titled “Oh, Grow Up,” the editorial berated Congressional Republicans for asking President Obama put off his planned address on jobs and the economy to a joint session of Congress for one day. The editors closed by expressing their disappointment that “the vital importance of the speech…was upstaged by yet another Washington soap opera.”
There were many things wrong with this editorial, not the least of which was the fact that it offered unenlightened commentary on a total non-issue. To briefly recap: the president sought to address Congress the night it was scheduled to return from vacation, which is also the night of a planned Republican presidential debate. Republican House leader John Boehner requested the speech be delayed one evening, citing previously-scheduled votes on utterly irrelevant issues, but likely more conscious of the Republican debate. Ultimately, the White House – perhaps apologetic, perhaps aware that its potential bluff to divert coverage from the Republican debate had been called – agreed to delay the speech one night. Nonetheless, most of the nation’s leading media outlets, the New York Times included, spun the unremarkable story to page one – displacing stories on the largest protest in Israeli history, a massive WikiLeaks release, and large-scale human rights violations in Syria.
The two-page, 1,300-word article itself that the Times ran on the kerfuffle required the collaboration of four journalists. The article further reported that “[t]he fracas also had the potential to rattle already jittery markets,” a suggestion which, if true, would have been the nail in the coffin of the idea that markets are efficient, and if false - which, judging by the Dow during that period, seems to be the case - would have demonstrated the utter inability of the journalistic establishment to comprehend its subjects.
But more shameful than the news article was the editorial. At points, it read like self-parody: while indignant that “Washington is a sandbox full of petulant children,” in the words of former Clinton official David Rothkopf, the editors twice brushed off explanations for the scheduling mishap with the childish response of “so what?” in order to continue its meaningless crusade. The editorial’s authors contributed to the very “Washington soap opera” that they so self-righteously condemned.
At other points, it simply came across as out-of-touch and moralizing. Remarking that “a presidential address on jobs…certainly trumps one of 20 planned debates among the contenders for the Republican nomination,” the editors seem to be unable to square themselves with tepidity of the President’s rhetoric. As Democratic strategist James Carville noted, given the choice between Obama and a barnstorming Rick Perry, “I would have watched the [Republican] debate, and I’m not even a Republican.”
It comes as no surprise to any of my more frequent readers that I like the New York Times, appreciate its diverse and extensive news coverage, and generally concur with its editorial opinions. It’s cringeworthy low points like these, however, that make one concerned about the lack of depth and clearheadedness of American media. As Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald noted of the episode, to read the New York Times‘ coverage of the non-affair, and to see the waste to which the First Amendment is being put, is “to hear ‘imperial collapse’ like few other things convey.”