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December 31, 2007

New York Times Rewards Bill Kristol for Failure


There is promoting ideological balance with quality, and there is promoting ideological balance with the people you have sitting around.


Last week, just a couple of weeks after being bounced from the pages of Time magazine, uber-conservative pundit Bill Kristol landed in a new place Ė the opinion pages of the New York Times.


The issue is not that an uber-conservative was hired, but that Kristol is unfit for the position.


It is easy to hold politicians accountable for failure. You vote for a different candidate, or you help weaken their party by giving control of government to the other party. Thatís what happened in 2006, when control of both houses of Congress were given by the American people to the Democratic Party (which, since then, has failed to make any appreciable progress on basically any issue).


The media, however, while playing up its important role in policing government, typically falls down on the job while policing itself. These days, ratings and readership, rather than coherence of thought and accuracy, are the most important factors in decision making.


How else to account for the appointment of Kristol, an unflagging and unfailing cheerleader of the war in Iraq even when his own original predictions turned out to be so horribly wrong, to a position of such influence?


It isnít just Kristol. Supporters of the war, who in its early days mocked opponents and made all kinds of wild declarations that turned out to be wrong, have wriggled their way into prime, influential media positions. Most of them, just like Kristol, werenít just wrong about Iraq because they are driven by a partisan agenda rather than an ideological agenda.


Take the case of Jonah Goldberg, who finally came around to admitting that the war was a mistake when opposition to it reached 70 percent. In exchange for being inaccurate and wrong on just about everything, he Ė like Kristol Ė found his career moving up. Having parlayed the possession of juicy information about Bill Clintonís relationship with Monica Lewinsky into jobs with various rightwing media outlets, he finally ascended to the pages of the Los Angeles Times a couple of years back.


In no other job would so many public errors, especially in a job based on your credibility, be considered anything but an invitation to start down a different career path. Apparently, on the nationís editorial pages, being right is less important than being around Ė and the penance for the sin of crafting poorly informed opinion pieces is a more prominent position.


Were a left-wing pundit with a similar record of accuracy to be hired under similar conditions, it might be viewed as an act of media bias. And, in a way, itís hard to view this as anything but bias, also.


It isnít ideological bias, as alleged over the last couple of decades by conservatives, but one toward the bottom line. Most of us understand that media companies, at the end of the day, still need to turn a profit to please investors. Nothing threatens profits like unhappy customers and advertisers, and nothing makes media consumers less happy than believing their opinions arenít represented.


But the media have an important function in our democracy, and promoting quality and accuracy should be more important than profits, at least if youíre primarily concerned with healthy self-governance.


Credibility is a slippery thing, a subjective left up to individual interpretation. Itís often based on the ability to craft arguments, rather than whether those arguments are anything but lunatic ravings. Unfortunately, you canít use the market to measure it because you canít buy work from writers ala carte. That leaves it up to media companies themselves to promote quality and accuracy from within, based on their hiring decisions.


Also unfortunately, in this case, it appears that promoting accuracy isnít such an important thing to The New York Times, and that the penalty for inaccuracy is a promotion.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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