The full subtitle of JOURNALISTIC FRAUD is "How the New York
Times Distorts the News and Why It Can No Longer Be Trusted."
This is not, as one might expect, a 312-page treatise concerning
the Jayson Blair fiasco and how it brought disgrace upon the New
York Times, though certainly Bob Kohn could easily have done
such a treatment. As Kohn notes near the end of JOURNALISTIC FRAUD,
the Blair scandal actually deflects attention from the real scandal
at the Times, which is its practice of passing opinion as
straight news. What JOURNALISTIC FRAUD is, however, is a thorough,
point-by-point analysis of the journalistic mechanisms by which the
so-called, self-styled "Newspaper of Record" (a term that,
incidentally, is a marketing ploy, nothing more) permits its
editorial viewpoint to distort its news coverage.
A couple of decades ago a major weekly magazine used to proudly
advertise that within its pages, "Fact is presented as fact, and
opinion is signed as opinion." It wasn't true then and it isn't
true now, but the magazine in question was at least savvy enough to
know that the appearance of fairness and objectivity is important.
This standard was the rock upon which the Times built its
reputation. The Times's editorial page has always leaned, if
not fallen, leftward. Fair enough. That is the function, the reason
for existence, of the editorial page of any newspaper: to present
the viewpoint of the editors. Once upon a time, however, an effort
was made to keep the editorial pink ink from seeping through to the
rest of the Times. Kohn notes that Arthur Hays Sulzberger,
who shepherded the Times to the reputation of respectability
that it is currently squandering, wrote in the 1950s that "...no
matter how we view the world, our responsibility lies in reporting
accurately that which happens."
As Kohn demonstrates, to devastating effect, those days are long
gone. Under the captaincy of Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger, Jr., the
grandson of Arthur Hays and the current publisher of the New
York Times, the ship he commands does not merely float on the
Red Sea. It's taking on water, and he's standing amid ships,
bailing it onto the deck.
A few years ago I spent several weeks dissecting the Times
for my poor, long-suffering New York-born wife, reading their
headlines and stories and pointing out the slant and how it was
done. I wish that Kohn had written JOURNALISTIC FRAUD back then; he
does the same thing I did, and does it much better than I ever
could. Kohn examines what journalists refer to as the five Ws and
the H --- Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How --- and uses
examples culled directly from the Times's pages to
demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt how the Times slants
and distorts its reporting to project a left-wing viewpoint.
The indictment of bias here is based not upon a random story here
and there but on a demonstrably repeated and systemic pattern of
distorting the reporting of its news in an effort to project its
editorial viewpoint and to influence the nation's agenda
accordingly. This isn't a matter of an off-key note or two. As Kohn
demonstrates and documents in JOURNALISTIC FRAUD, this is a
symphony that has been playing to the cheap seats for years.
Kohn does more than simply and irrefutably present and prove his
case, however. He establishes why this distortion, this disguise of
editorial opinion of straight news, is significant. Kohn
conclusively shows that on Junior Sulzberger's watch, the
Times has systematically and deliberately been blurring the
line between fact and opinion.
When one picks up a periodical such as The Nation on the
Left or National Review on the Right, one knows what one is
getting: opinion in the form of essays, commentary, and broadsides
from a particular point of view. When one turns on their radio and
listens to Rush Limbaugh or Alan Combs, one does not get news ---
one gets opinion. The same is true of a newspaper's editorial page.
When the news articles begin taking their tone, content and style
from the editorial page, however, it is no longer a news story; it
becomes propaganda. And given that most of the gentry tend to skim
headlines and lead paragraphs, at most, it becomes extremely easy
to insidiously sway public opinion.
So why is this a major deal? Why not simply file this under 'SFW'
and read another newspaper? Why not simply boycott it, as legions
of rabbis in New York and Los Angeles recently exhorted their
congregations to do as a result of the Times anti-Israel
news coverage? The reason, as Kohn notes, is that the New York
Times News Service has over 650 member newspapers who, to
borrow a term from radio broadcasters, rip and print New York
Times news stories and "analysis" (spelled in the Times
lexicon as e-d-i-t-o-r-i-a-l) as if it is gospel.
This sheep-like behavior is not limited to the print media.
Television anchormen, from well-groomed Canadian high-school
dropouts to failed morning talk show hosts, take their daily
marching orders from the Times. The result, regardless, is
the same. The journalistic well is poisoned at the source and
trucked all over the country. Millions of people drink this water
in some way every single morning, and form opinions from it.
Junior Sulzberger has been widely quoted (though not in the
Times) as having told his father in the early 1970s that if
an American soldier came face to face with a North Vietnamese
soldier he (Junior) "...would want to see the American guy get
shot. It's the other guy's country." One could chalk up this
unfortunate statement to the exuberance, the impetuousness of
youth. However, it appears from the state and slant of the
Times that Sulzberger has not set aside all of the follies
Yet Kohn sees the possibility of redemption. He sets forth in
JOURNALISTIC FRAUD a scenario whereby the Times could regain
its respectability and once again become the newspaper that was
respected for its objectivity, as opposed to being fit for fodder
for late night television monologues. For this, and for so many
other reasons, JOURNALISTIC FRAUD is indispensable for anyone who
reads, and cares, about the news and how it is reported.
In the summer of 2002, Bob Kohn and his wife drove through New
England on vacation. With his wife at the wheel, Kohn took the
opportunity to read the New York Times, pretty much from
start to finish. And he realized this was no longer the
Times he had been reading avidly for 40 years --- this was
news reporting that blatantly advanced a liberal agenda and beat up
on President Bush in ways both linguistically subtle and factually
Kohn, a California lawyer and business executive, started making
notes. When he returned home, he threw himself into researching and
writing a 300-page book about the paper's fall from grace. He found
a publisher. And then, on June 5, 2003, with his book practically
on the printing press, something amazing happened --- Howell
Raines, the paper's executive editor, resigned, the result of a
scandal started by Jayson Blair, a young Times reporter who
was both incompetent and deceitful.
Okay, let's play "You are Bob Kohn." It's June 5. How do you treat
the Raines resignation? You have two choices. 1) Realizing that a
great many of the offenses you cite occurred during the 18 months
of Raines's editorship, you quickly convert your book to a study of
a wild era, now thankfully ended --- a kind of journalistic version
of THE CAINE MUTINY. 2) You deal briefly with the Blair and Raines
story, say the resignations offer "a ray" of hope but note that,
even as Raines was asking forgiveness, the paper was continuing its
liberal bias on its news pages.
I would vote for #1. But then, I have written for the Times
on and off since 1969, and no editor has ever suggested I
"liberalize" a piece or inserted bias into the headline. And based
on my conversations with reporters and editors at the Times,
I think the 18 months of Raines's editorship represent a weird blip
in the paper's distinguished history. I believe that Jayson Blair
was only the first reason Raines had to go. I believe (and I'm far
from alone in this) that another very good reason Raines resigned
was a rebellion in the newsroom against his methods and his news
Which is to say: Bob Kohn correctly saw that his beloved
Times was not the paper he had known. And he correctly
identified some of the problem areas created by Raines and his
I'm going to say that again for the hard-of-thinking (that is,
conservatives who are convinced that ALL liberals hate ALL
conservatives): Bob Kohn has a point.
I'll go further. In the main, Kohn is a thoughtful, responsible
media critic --- unlike Ann Coulter, Michael Savage and Bob
Bennett, some of the sources of "inspiration" he cites in his
But --- and now we are entering a zone colored gray, a color that
many conservatives seem not to recognize --- instead of pulling his
book off the press and rewriting it, Kohn opts for solution #2. And
as a result, his book is instantly dated.
It is also, sadly, naïve about the practice of journalism. And
nowhere is this more apparent than in the headlines he quotes as
evidence of the paper's bias. Instead of "BUSH TO VACCINATE 500,000
WORKERS AGAINST SMALLPOX," the Times starts the headline
with "U.S." --- in effect, Kohn says, the paper is refusing to give
the President credit for doing something good. This is just plain
silly. Bush isn't going to vaccinate a single worker. But even if
he were, is there a memo that tells Times headline writers
how to "handle" the President's accomplishments? Or is the "word"
passed with a wink and a nod in the men's room, like some absurd
'50s spy movie? Either way, the damning directive would have been
leaked to Drudge long before now.
Kohn argues that the Times never resists an opportunity to
point out opposition to Bush policies, particularly in the months
before the Iraq war. For example: The Times wrote that Bush
gave Saddam 48 hours to go into exile or face attack from "the
United States and a handful of allies." Kohn objects to "handful."
What would he prefer: THREE?
Kohn is also betrayed by breaking news. How many artifacts went
missing in the looting of the Iraq National Museum? Early reports
said 170,000. On May 8, the Times scaled it way down, with a
report that quoted a Marine in charge of the investigation. His
estimate: only 25 missing treasures. To Kohn, the Times had
clearly hyped the earlier numbers to make America look bad. On June
8, however, yet another report in the Times suggested 3,000
objects were still missing. In other words, the story is ongoing
--- the only bias the paper has is for accuracy.
What to believe? As ever, a good barometer is Bruce Springsteen. At
a concert last week, he had this to say about the war:
"People come to my shows with many different kinds of political
beliefs; I like that, we welcome all. There have been a lot of
questions raised recently about the forthrightness of our
government. This playing with the truth has been a part of both the
Republican and Democratic administrations in the past and it is
always wrong, never more so than when real lives are at stake. The
question of whether we were misled into the war in Iraq isn't a
liberal or conservative or republican or democratic question, it's
an American one. Protecting the democracy that we ask our sons and
daughters to die for is our responsibility and our trust. Demanding
accountability from our leaders is our job as citizens. It's the
American way. So may the truth will out."
The question is: Who's more likely to help us discover the truth
--- Fox News or the New York Times? I know that many would
say Fox. But for those of us who are a bit less credulous --- and I
include Bob Kohn in that group --- "Fox" is the joke answer.
If we take a step back and turn a cool eye on our media, we have to
conclude: For all its flaws, the Times is the gold standard.
Which makes Kohn's book nothing more than a sideshow. Here's a book
he could write that would be major: a responsible conservative
examination of Coulter, O'Reilly, Savage and Fox. I'd read that
critique in a heartbeat. Wouldn't you?
Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on January 22, 2011