Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Whatever else was happening in 1982 — the country’s worst economic slump since the Great Depression, a war in the Falklands, trouble in Lebanon, Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” on top of the charts — prospects weren’t good for founding a newspaper, much less one that confronted the titans of the news establishment.

It hadn’t been done in a major American city since 1940, and that enterprise — New York City’s PM — had gone belly-up in eight short years.

Locally, the Washington Star had shuttered in 1981, with The Washington Post slurping up its physical remnants and the fledgling Washington Times taking on some of its staff.

If you had asked a member of that hardscrabble newsroom if The Times would be the vanguard of a media insurgency, you might have elicited a look of puzzlement or perhaps a modest line about ignoring the construction noise and just trying to put out a newspaper.

Yet with 25 years in the rearview mirror, it’s clear The Washington Times helped unlock the liberal media’s grip on the news.

“The arrival of The Washington Times was for conservatives both a breath of fresh air and a daring challenge to the media establishment,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says.

While conservative periodicals catered to intellectuals, The Times, as a daily newspaper in the nation’s capital, had a louder megaphone; it constantly challenged the agenda-setting capability of major newspapers and television broadcasters.

“From day one, conservatives on Capitol Hill and throughout the city looked to The Washington Times for lively, aggressive reporting and bold conservative editorial commentary,” says Mr. Gingrich, Georgia Republican.

An important lesson

To some, The Times’ overarching mission — defeating communism — may have seemed quixotic in 1982; the Cold War had reheated, and the economic renewal and military reconstitution triggered by the Reagan administration had yet to gather steam.

The founding vision of The Times proved prescient, and the methodology with which the paper pursued that vision had practical implications as well. By boosting the morale of the pro-American West and delivering a real, dependable product, The Times both instilled the spirit and created the architecture for today’s news counterestablishment.

Indeed, by succeeding as an independent voice in a town that had become stony ground for “second” newspapers, The Times taught an important lesson that still resonates: The news elite shouldn’t have the last word on what is and what is not news.

“The Washington Times, more than any other media establishment in America, has served to blunt the oftentimes leftist agenda of The Washington Post by telling the other side of the story,” says L. Brent Bozell III, president of the conservative watchdog group Media Research Center.

Mr. Gingrich says, “When The Washington Times and Rush Limbaugh were added to the Wall Street Journal, Human Events and National Review, a genuine counterestablishment of conservative news and opinion began to take hold.

“Today, with Fox News Channel, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Laura Ingraham, Bill Bennett and others, there is a true alternative to the liberal media,” he says, “and the team at The Washington Times can take great pride in continuing to be a leader in both news and opinion.”

Although the fruits of the alternative media revolution have partially eclipsed the influence of daily newspapers and newsweeklies, the relevance of The Times, as well as its competitors, endures.

“Nothing will ever replace the substance and intellectual discipline of the printed word,” American Spectator Editor R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. says.

Media establishment

As the federal government grew larger after World War II, so did the news establishment, with the major networks and coastal powerhouse newspapers such as The Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal becoming more entrenched.

But there was a more pressing crisis than domestic policy for conservative journalists in the postwar era.

Communism, not New Deal-style economic interventionism, was the primary foe of the postwar conservative movement. Indeed, the proto-neoconservatives of the journal Public Interest, founded by Irving Kristol in 1955, aimed to improve and streamline the welfare state, not dismantle it.

Yet in the same year, another new periodical, William F. Buckley’s National Review, declared it was conservatives’ job to “stand athwart history crying, ‘Stop!’ ”

Despite the counsel of Mr. Buckley and others, the federal government grew without interruption. By 1965, under President Johnson, the government had become so rich in surplus revenue that it extended its reach into civil society with subsidies for the arts and humanities — and, indeed, into the media in 1967 with the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Then came the staggering one-two punch of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, which crippled the public’s confidence in government and, conversely, contributed to a surge of self-regard among the news elite.

Since the political scandals of the post-Civil War period known as the Gilded Age, the fourth estate had sought to expose the inner workings of the political class, to be a permanent adversary of the rich and powerful.

After the cataclysm of the Nixon era, however, this healthy adversarial stance curdled into an inflexible, often arrogant bias that has cost news organizations the public’s trust.

“For many years, the mainstream media had thought of itself as neutral and objective,” says S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan research organization. “At the same time, journalists were becoming much more active as policy players — civil rights, Watergate, Vietnam and the various social movements, such as feminism and environmentalism, that got traction in the 1970s.”

Peggy Noonan, who, before her stint as speechwriter for President Reagan and the first President Bush, worked as a writer and producer for CBS News, offers a more charitable explanation of this bias: idle presumptuousness.

In her memoir, “What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era,” she said her CBS colleagues believed their politics weren’t “liberal,” but merely “decent, intelligent.”

More crucially: “They also thought their views were utterly in line with those of the majority of Americans.” (Indeed, it is this blinkered estimation of where the “mainstream” is located that accounts for some liberal commentators’ view that the influence of The Times and other organizations is proof of conservatives’ capture of news outlets.)

“A lot of journalists had a sort of double-mindedness: They thought of themselves as being objective while also doing good,” Mr. Lichter says.

With the rise of conservative talk radio — an unplanned byproduct of the Reagan-era relaxation of Federal Communications Commission equal-time regulations — and publications such as The Washington Times, however, the liberal media itself became the hunted as well as the hunter — and is, by its own admission, in something of a decline.

Part of that can be attributed to Web-driven technology, which has complicated — if not shattered — the business model of print news.

“The media hasn’t necessarily gotten more diverse; it’s gotten bigger,” Mr. Lichter says. “It’s a basic military principle: If you’re facing an impregnable fortress, go around it.”

The decline also can be attributed to a costly internal blunder, a watering down of the talent pool.

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein became “folk heroes” for their reporting on the Watergate scandal, University of North Carolina journalism professor Philip Meyer noted in USA Today after the revelation in 2005 that FBI agent Mark Felt was the legendary Watergate whisperer “Deep Throat.”

“No longer would reporters brainlessly transcribe the events of the day,” conservative author David Frum observed in “How We Got Here: The ‘70s — The Decade That Brought You Modern Life — For Better or Worse.” “Instead, like Woodward and Bernstein, they would go hunting for the big game. They would track down wrongdoers, bag them, collect Pulitzers and get rich.”

The news industry, consequently, found itself a magnet for a “much larger talent pool” in the 1970s, according to Mr. Meyer.

“That gave [news outlets] an interesting choice,” he said. “They could pick the best and the brightest and raise the standards of journalism, or they could drive wages down by hiring those who would work for the least. They chose the latter.”

This degeneration is not lost on the public; countless opinion polls have registered Americans’ low opinion of the news industry, which often ranks lower even than government in such surveys.

The Times, however, has upheld traditional journalism standards with far fewer resources than its more lavishly funded competitors. Indeed, The Times earned its credibility precisely because of its shoe-leather reporting on corruption at every level of government as well as its scoops on issues involving national security and U.S. intelligence services.

The tumultuous administration of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, the House banking scandal, the exposure of Rep. Barney Frank’s live-in call boy, President Clinton’s Whitewater troubles, the 1995 budget showdown between Mr. Clinton and the Republican Congress, the September 11 terrorist attacks — on these stories and many others, The Times has been a vital source of information.

Bridging the gap

Journalists did not always write about average Americans, especially people of faith, while affecting a tone of anthropological condescension.

That changed as major newsrooms became dominated by “overeducated elites,” as The Washington Times Editor in Chief Wesley Pruden said during a 2002 lecture at the Heritage Foundation.

“When I started my career as a copy boy on my hometown newspaper, nobody ever called us anything as grand as ‘journalists’ or ‘the media.’ We were just newspapermen,” Mr. Pruden said. “We were the sons and daughters of plumbers, farmers, policemen, firemen, shopkeepers, farmers, railway clerks and, in my case, a Baptist preacher.

“When we wrote about ordinary people, we didn’t write it as sociology. We were writing about friends and our families,” he said.

Readers, in short, could recognize themselves in the stories.

“There is a perspective on the world that the left has no interest in exploring,” Mr. Bozell says. “Religion is the classic example.”

The Times stepped into the gap between the journalistic elite and its audience — and talk-radio stars such as Mr. Limbaugh and, more recently, Fox News Channel and the blogosphere followed.

Each platform has flourished because of the establishment media’s cultural remoteness; each, in its way, has provided an outlet — in the case of blogs, an opportunity to participate — for a public with an insatiable appetite for news and commentary.

The Times itself has adjusted to this endless, carnivorous news cycle: Its Web site ( has become one of the industry’s top-rated destinations online, and it maintains several blogs that keep readers abreast of news on a variety of topics.

Proof of the public’s shifting allegiances came in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, which found that no more than 5 percent of the public favors any given journalist. (Twenty years ago, according to Pew, then-CBS anchor Dan Rather was America’s most admired journalist.)

Even more suggestively, the Pew survey found that Fox News Channel’s Mr. O’Reilly ranked second only to CBS anchor Katie Couric on a list of most admired news personalities.

New-media champions such as Jeff Jarvis, who embraced Internet journalism after a career at popular print publications such as TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly, anticipate an industry that involves the public even more than it does today.

“We’re all in this together. Journalism is a collaborative venture,” Mr. Jarvis wrote on his blog,

Mr. Jarvis’ vision of “networked journalism” includes a readership that works alongside reporters, “contributing facts, questions and suggestions.”

“I hope this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as journalists realize that they are less the manufacturers of news than the moderators of conversations that get to the news,” Mr. Jarvis wrote.

It seems clear for now, at least, that bloggers, like their forerunner The Times, have been a check on mainstream news outlets that often ignore facts that don’t square with their cherished stereotypes. Or, in the case of Mr. Rather’s discredited “60 Minutes II” report on President Bush’s Air National Guard service, their monomaniacal vendettas.

A new age

The old-media order may be fractured and in retreat, but the industry has — most likely in response to the blogosphere — redefined itself in ways that might seem alien to traditional newspaper people of any political persuasion.

The sense of boldness and independence that The Times has fostered over the past 25 years is in danger of metastasizing into a watery notion of profound personal involvement in the news — especially on television.

Anchors such as CNN’s Anderson Cooper, for example, are fashioning a new kind of social, or “mission,” journalism that eschews the norms of dispassion and impartiality.

“For years I tried to compartmentalize my life, distance myself from the world I was reporting on. This year, however, I realized that that is not possible,” Mr. Cooper wrote in “Dispatches From the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival.”

“In the midst of tragedy, the memories of moments, forgotten feelings, began to feed off one another,” he continued. “I came to see how woven together these disparate fragments really are: past and present, personal and professional, they shift back and forth again and again. Everyone is connected by the same strands of DNA.”

In one of history’s odd caroms, this trend toward personalization has put The Times in an advantageous position vis-a-vis its competitors: Like other papers transitioning into the age of the Web, The Times champions new technology but resists challenges to standards of objectivity.

The Times’ core ethos — to report the news “without fear or favor,” in Mr. Pruden’s words — remains paramount.

We’ll let you know how it all works out when The Times turns 50.

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