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American journalism isn’t all bad: why I love the New York Times

American journalism has many ills, but the great American newspapers — the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times — remain magnificent examples of the medium. I used to be an Anglophile newspaper reader, starting my day with the Guardian and the Independent, but I hardly ever visit those two sites these days. They have become too afflicted with the curse of British journalism: the brilliant, witty columnist who has an opinion on everything and two thousand bon mots to express it.

Being a columnist at the New York Times means something completely different. For starters, they only get 800 words, so they rarely bore us to death with their navel-gazing. Secondly, a New York Times column is much more of a journalistic genre than its English cousin, because it is based on factual reporting first and opinion second.

Take today’s offering by Paul Krugman (now available for free, after the Times this week discontinued its subscription model in favour of open access).

Krugman, a professor of economics at Princeton when he isn’t writing or blogging for the Times, has for years been dissecting US health policy with acerbic wit and expertise, marshalling facts — not opinion — to prove that what Americans proudly believe to be the best health service in the Western world is, in fact, by objective standards, one of the worst. In doing so, Krugman the commentator has done much better than most political reporters to inform his readers about the nature of the system and, more importantly, the cures proposed by the Democratic presidential hopefuls, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards.

Of course, the Times is not only about politics. South Africans used to small newspapers — in terms of pinch factor — will find it difficult to grasp just how huge the Times is. If you can’t find something in it to interest you on any given day, then, well, you have only yourself to blame. Today’s edition, for example, offers highly readable pieces on people who have their marriage proposals surreptitiously photographed; lunch with “food revolutionary” Alice Waters; and surfing the world wide couch. That is just a fraction of what is on offer in addition to pretty comprehensive news coverage and a multimedia package second to nothing I have yet encountered (with the possible exception of Slate — see below).

People who bash the US news media, I believe, often base their opinions on CNN. But the fact is that the larger US newspapers are better resourced than any other newspapers on the planet. Their staff writers have more time to work on their beautifully crafted stories, and their columnists have an army of researchers and fact checkers in support. At the Times, they use these resources to turn out newspapers that don’t have to be afraid of new media (in fact, the Times long ago embraced convergence with enthusiasm and creativity).

For sheer, unadulterated reading pleasure, however, nothing beats Slate, the online magazine owned by the Washington Post. A mixture of astute political coverage, entertainment and comment, it combines text, graphics and video and ways most other publications don’t even dream of. My favourite Slate writer is Jack Shafer, its media critic; a man who doesn’t mince words, as you can see from this excerpt from an obituary he wrote for media tycoon Walter Annenberg in 2003:

“So long, you rotten bastard

“Today’s Page One obituaries for Walter H Annenberg in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post barely scrape the festering keratosis that was his career in crime, journalism, and politics. ‘Media Tycoon Gave Fortunes to Others’, soft-pedals the Los Angeles Times. ‘Walter Annenberg, Philanthropist and Publisher, Dies at 94’, intones the New York Times. ‘Publisher, Philanthropist Walter Annenberg Dies’, echoes the Post.

“I’d prefer the headline, ‘Billionaire Son of Mobster, Enemy of Journalism and Nixon Toady Exits for Hell — Forced to Leave Picassos and van Goghs at Metropolitan Museum’.

“The dailies concede that the bedrock upon which Walter built his fortune was cleared by a tax-evading father, Moses; that the son dodged a trip to the slammer with Dad via a plea bargain; that Walter punished his political and personal enemies with his publishing empire; and that he ingratiated himself with his soul mate, the odious Richard Nixon. But in skimming only the surface scum of his life, these obituaries neglect the fetid undercurrents and tidal filth of his complete life …”

You get the drift. Shafer’s media criticism is penetrating and astute; a must-read for anyone interested in the business.

Then there is Daniel Gross, the business editor, whose lucid and entertaining — yes, entertaining — comment on business and economics gives new life to this often boring genre; and Michael Kinsley, who seems to have a special talent for exposing the absurd in politics and public policy; I could go on and on.

I guess what makes these publications great is having access to great writers, in addition to creativity in presenting their content. The medium and the message is what matters.


  • Robert Brand

    Robert Brand teaches media law, ethics and economics journalism at Rhodes University. Before joining academia, he worked as a journalist for the Pretoria News, the Star and Bloomberg News.