The Times: A Chevron Ross Book Review

By June 7, 2024No Comments

I love good journalism. Democracy cannot survive without it. America’s founders knew this when they included freedom of the press in the Bill of Rights.

The New York Times has long been the yardstick of American news organizations. Thus, it receives closer scrutiny than most. When I purchased Adam Nagourney’s biography I expected to learn more about how the newspaper achieved such a stellar reputation. What I got was a lengthy chronicle of power struggles and bickering among its executives.

The book begins in 1962 with the appointment of Abe Rosenthal as executive editor. Rosenthal described The Times as “the greatest paper on earth” and held his reporters to high standards with his bullying management style. Over seventeen years he steered it through the Pentagon Papers crisis, New York City’s financial crisis of the 1970s, and social changes that resulted in restyling the paper to accommodate a new generation of readers.

Nagourney’s account reminds us that news organizations face the same kinds of economic pressures as other businesses—no subscribers, no advertisers; no advertisers, no revenue; no revenue, no newspaper. Thus there is always conflict between business interests and ethics.

For this reason I was surprised to find rare mention of the courageous journalism that made The Times “America’s newspaper of record”. You’d expect more details of how it handled the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers case, Watergate, and the 9/11 attacks. Though Nagourney mentions the many Pulitzer Prizes The Times won under each executive, he provides no details of the stories that earned these honors. In fact, he rarely mentions the reporters’ contributions at all.

There are many interesting passages, including controversy over a high-profile rape case; the editors’ struggles to handle distasteful details of Bill Clinton’s relationship with a White House intern; the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal; the Judith Miller First Amendment fiasco; and the newspaper’s reluctant entry into the digital age. Overall, however, you get the impression that The Times has survived in spite of personality clashes that often left the news staff bruised and demoralized.

What Nagourney does with this book, he does in depth and with meticulous documentation. Regrettably, much of it is petty and unworthy of the reader’s attention. Be warned that the author quotes a great many sources who employ offensive language.

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