The Miller Problem as Symptom: Institutional Rot at The Times

Remember the old Herblock Watergate cartoon? A circle consisting of Nixon et al. pointing fingers at each other. Well, sic transit the Judy Miller affair at The Times. The thing is, however, that when so many fingers can with even vestigial justice be pointed, there’s enough legitimate blame to go around. If this were a one-way street, the signage would have sorted itself out by now.

This seems to be one of these situations where everyone’s a bit (a wee bit, a great big bit) at fault and out of control. In my experience—in my business experience—when that happens, it’s a sure sign of institutional decay or degradation, a condition which starts at the top. As I wrote some years ago, with regard to a large corporation (the name no longer matters): “How high do the bodies have to be piled at _______ before someone figures out who’s really to blame?”

As it happens, the day The Times reversed its Judy policy—from ardent and committed defender to embarrassed and apologetic parent—there was something else in the news that got me thinking: the announcement that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation was going to spend $580 million to acquire a Web site that traffics in the digital moanings and groanings of millions of love-struck teenagers. As nothing Mr. Murdoch does is without interest, I pondered this move, and as I did, it struck me that The Times’ Miller problem might be the most blatant indication so far that a flawed business strategy has led the Old Gray Lady into a journalistic trap.

Like many other people, I’ve tended to take a dim view of media conglomeration, spewing out the usual blah, blah, blah about too much power in too few hands, etc. (If you want to see this reasoning in its most refined yet hysterical form, check out The Nation or its Web site.) But there’s another way to look at it: namely, that this concentration/diversification may be the most potent ally the First Amendment has in the present era, when money and technology are combining to turn upside-down and inside-out every given of my generation and those immediately following.

Here’s my Murdoch-based reasoning: Ask most people in the know, and I think they’ll agree—whether they categorize it as a guilty pleasure or not—that the New York Post is the liveliest, most provocative daily paper in the city. And certainly the most mischievous. And, obviously, the paper propagandizes for a form of political economy hospitable to the way Mr. Murdoch likes to do business.

But all this liveliness and mischief and propagandizing comes at a price: The common guess is an annual loss of $40 million upwards, and I’ve read estimates of as high as $70 million. Red numbers on that scale can’t be swallowed willy-nilly, but become acceptable if you’ve got Fox News and Sky TV and The Sun, etc., etc., etc., to compensate.

The sorry fact is that newspapering is no longer a good business. Time and technology are devouring the few grains of seed corn the newspaper baronies left on the table. This is not to say that newspapering isn’t important; obviously it is, at least for the thinking remnant. But it’s getting harder and harder for newspapers to be self-supporting—even in one-paper towns—in the face of the demographic and commercial convulsions of the past 20 years. (Remember when there was no Craigslist to compete for apartment listings?) Bottom line: Newspapers today require rich daddies, or siblings able and willing to chip in to support the saintly brother out there doing good works. Hence conglomeration, hence concentration, hence diversification—especially if, like The Times, you consider yourself a public trust.

So here’s the rub. Here’s where—by comparison, say, to Murdoch, or to Hearst—The Times has missed the boat: They’ve tried to meet the challenges of the day by changing the paper—setting up a right-wing cell on the Op-Ed page, plumbing the depths of trivialization with “Styles,” mongrelizing the cultural coverage, making the news reporting scoop-driven—when the only answer was to change the parent company.

It’s perfectly clear that The Times isn’t what it once was—on this score, read the current number of The New Criterion—but it’s also clear that the paper itself no longer has a very clear notion of what it is. It needs to return to its old Gray Eminence, but to do that it needs to surround itself with investments in the “now” that can take up the slack. Even a socialist with a private income—as The Times to a great extent was, thanks to the cash flow thrown off by its newsprint and paper business—needs to act like a cold-blooded capitalist to survive in a world in which everything is suddenly denominated in two or three extra zeroes.

This has not been done. Instead, they’ve tinkered with the paper and ended up with not very much. And when the money finally runs out, as implacably it must some day, it seems likely that the desk on which the final buck will come to rest will be that of Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

Forget Judy, Bill Keller and the other names. Pinch is the real Times story.

The Miller Problem as Symptom: Institutional Rot at The Times