The NYT’s pay-per-read ghetto: guest opinion by Phil Campbell

If I sit in a bar with certain friends long enough, we’ll start railing about politics. The most interesting thing about these discussions — and the part I’m often too drunk to appreciate when they’re happening — is that only the broad strokes of our perspectives overlap. We’ll agree that the current administration is corrupt, that our civil liberties are under attack, that the country is going to hell in a handbasket. But the precise contours of the hell and the handbasket, not to mention the solution, aren’t nearly so homogeneous. (I can usually hold out until someone starts citing David Brooks with approval. Then I know it’s time to drain that last pint glass and head home.)

I post my friend Phil Campbell‘s opinion (below) in the spirit of those barroom conversations. I don’t endorse everything he says here, but he’s a sharp, engaging writer — I’m making my way through his forthcoming, obliquely topical Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics right now — and I agree with some of his larger points. (Never mind that I haven’t watched a network news segment since, roughly, 1991. And I’ll spare you the Rupert Murdoch rant.) If you live in New York and like (or want to have a few beers and argue about) what you read, join Campbell at his KGB Bar reading on Wednesday night at 7.

by Phil Campbell

Something fundamental was lost to us when The New York Times decided to divert its columnists into a special pay-per-read ghetto on the wide-open World Wide Web. My reaction has only been reinforced by a media experiment I’ve recently undertaken.

For the past five months I’ve avoided political blogs and other forms of alternative news. That includes such well-established outlets as Salon, Slate and Media Matters. I’ve even skimped on the sharp-witted satire of The Daily Show. Instead of letting myself get agitated in the middle of the day by reading the latest outrage on Daily Kos or Talking Points Memo, I’ve been feeding myself a steady diet of non-cable, mainstream news and newspapers; I’ll read about political issues on-line, but only from sources that existed in paper or traditional broadcast form before the birth of the Internet.

When I get home from work, I’ve been turning on NBC, the milquetoast of network news shows, and listening to Brian Williams, the reigning milquetoast of network news anchors. Williams, you see, “tells America’s story,” which apparently involves only tragedies, heroes, survivors, and an obligatory set of triumphs of the human spirit. Good-bye complicated policy issues, hello emotion-laden narratives.

Why do this? Because in 2004 I allowed myself to get muddled, deluded. I got lulled into thinking that a vision-less Democrat might beat our war-packaged President. My fantasies plateaued in October, when I went to watch the second election debate at a party sponsored by The Nation and Air America; I was so misled by the raucous energy of the evening that I walked out of the bar thinking we liberals really could fix things in the short-term. I can’t let that happen to me again. I can’t let something as silly as hope get in the way of a political reality that began when the Clinton impeachment proceedings convened. It’s that kind of naiveté which has put progressives like me on a long, losing slide to nowhere.

So I’ve left behind the left-wing media, and I’m mining the mainstream for signs. I’m searching for real proof that Bush’s America is collapsing in on itself like a mansion whose foundations have cracked beyond repair. Or being swept away by a pounding flood. Whatever, I’m trying to re-filter my news. I imagine myself, as a kid once again in suburban Ohio, addicted to politics but able to get my hands on only the most available news sources for it. And the ones I view now are pretty much the same sources that once led me to believe that Reagan was great simply because he was sunny and optimistic. These are the sources that most Americans — the crucial 10% who remain undecided until Election Day, at least — still rely on.

It was partly because of this experiment that my heart skipped when I heard that The New York Times had decided to charge its readers a fee for some of its content. When I was a kid, The New York Times was regarded as having its biases, but paradoxically it was still the pillar of objective truth. These Times columnists, as badly as some of them write (Maureen Dowd), as poorly as some of them analyze (David Brooks), or as stridently humorless as some of them are (Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert), benefit from their paper’s enormous reputation. Their opinions matter because they write for the paper that matters. Blogs may have changed the way many of us receive and perceive information, but The Times, like it or not, has a 145-year head start on respectability.

And, just before the editors threw up that wall known as “Times Select,” all the columnists seemed to be working a tag-team assault on some important questions: What’s wrong with America and with this Presidency? Dowd, Krugman, Herbert, Frank Rich, and Nicholas Kristof were going after Bush’s pathetic response to Hurricane Katrina. Thomas Friedman has been addressing our hollow energy policy. Even Brooks was doing his roundabout part, offering Democrats some backhanded advice on not losing sight of their goals.

Meanwhile, the only free content The Wall Street Journal provides on-line is its op-ed columns. With bilge-water editorials like, “The poverty Katrina underscored is primarily moral, not material,” and “Liberals threaten a fight over Justice O’Connor’s replacement. Mr. President, call their bluff,” there is very little doubt over these writers’ points of view; conservative bloggers are free to link to WSJ any time they want, meaning the right-wing echo chamber gets to claim a validity that liberal bloggers, now deprived of its left-of-center NYT columnists, cannot.

Fortunately for liberals, there is some perversely good news: the country is showing clear signs of falling apart under the mistakes Dubya and his cronies have made. And mainstream news is finally picking up on those stories: Bush failing to find the appropriate words (much less actions) after Katrina (at the expense of how many lives?); gas prices going up; Tom DeLay getting indicted; gas prices going up some more; Bill Frist under investigation; and, just this past week, images of Bush juxtaposed next to a ’70s-era Jimmy Carter begging people to conserve fuel, a childish analogy but one that may drive down Bush’s approval ratings even more.

This White House and our corrupt Congress (finally) appear to be imploding. But, as we learned from 2004, it may not be happening fast enough. That’s why I’m mad at The New York Times. Just when their columnists were getting really revved up, the paper had to turn and make us pay for the gas.


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