By letterhead | August 2, 2007
I know that “piling on” is generally a cheap shot, and piling on the NY Times is seldom necessary as there are so many other more worthy targets out there. But there can be no better example of what’s wrong with journalism today than two recent articles on Rudy Giuliani – a NY Times piece specifically about race and politics, the other from Harper’s Magazine about the larger political messages of Giuliani’s mayoral and presidential campaigns.
The former: The New York Times, July 22, 2007, by Michael Powell: “In a Volatile City, a Stern Line on Race and Politics.”
The latter: Harper’s Magazine, August 2007, by Kevin Baker: “A Fate Worse Than Bush: Rudolph Giuliani and the Politics of Personality.” (subscription required)
What’s clearly on display here is the damage to journalism done by conservatives’ “liberal media” hand grenades, hurled ceaselessly at the press for over two decades. Traditional journalism appears shell-shocked (especially mainstream political journalism), as reporters hide under the closest bushel-basket to avoid being attacked for bias. That bushel-basket, more often than not, is a “source” whose comments can be quote-marked, thus relieving the writer of any obligation to draw conclusions, either from plain facts or analysis thereof.
In practice, this new-journalism defaults to an “either-or” style that offers little more than a volley of competing viewpoints. It reads like a kind of King Solomon’s typewriter, where the sword is gladly handed to the reader. But any time a definite conclusion appears to be looming, the writer drops in a contrary quote, pushing the sword back toward the middle. Reporters, it seems, are terrified of giving the baby to one side or the other, so they act like slicing it down the middle is the only way to be fair.
In reality, sometimes a fair reading of the facts points to a definite conclusion, no matter how much the writer may want to avoid it. And in this case, the stakes are too high for such dithering nonsense. Rudy is running for PRESIDENT!
A thorough vetting of the facts around Rudy – his rhetoric and his reality – is essential to avoiding the kind of totally misguided puff like that of the Althouse blog, where Ann Althouse claims that “the NYT is keen on bringing race forward in… the 2008 campaign.”
She asks the rhetorical question: “How do the volatile racial politics of that time relate to the current presidential campaign?” Then she uses an absence of race questions to justify her notion that it’s not important. (Need I really quote Rumsfeld on the “absence of evidence?”)
Note to Ms. Althouse: Rudy’s record on race is one of his biggest legacies, and it’s one of the clearest indications of how he would govern as President. Of course it’s relevant to the campaign!
She also breathlessly parrots the “amazing statistic” about Rudy’s 60 percent drop in crime. Mr. Baker notes, as does one of Ms. Althouse’s readers, that similar drops in crime were seen in cities across the country, under both Republican and Democratic mayors; quality of life improvements had as much, if not more, to do with America’s national economic prosperity than Rudy’s authoritarian streak. Mr. Baker also points out that under Dinkins crime had dropped by double digits in key categories, and dropped in “all seven major FBI-felony categories for the first time in four decades.” He also points out that some statistics worsened under Giuliani (e.g., “the percentage of felony arrests leading to conviction dropped by almost one third.” [emphasis original])
More to the point, however, Mr. Baker (Harper’s) digs deep into the history: Which groups was Giuliani targeting? With what kinds of messages? Who were his surrogates and what were they saying? What kind of vote margins did it deliver? In which Boroughs?
And most important: Was the rhetoric warranted by the facts, or was it purely a cynical appeal to the racial fears of whites? Did minority groups get coddled by a minority administration, and was this the primary cause for the deterioration of “quality of life” in NYC?
That’s what Giuliani was arguing in his campaign; and those who see him as a viable Presidential candidate are obligated to defend their man… with facts and examples, not puff and spin.
Baker delivers concrete evidence, with convincing analysis, that Giuliani made a deliberate effort to run against Dinkins’ blackness rather than his record – that Giuliani’s campaign rhetoric was contradicted by the facts, but that white people voted for the rough-riding demagogue because it made them feel safer. He also puts Giuliani’s message platform into a larger context of both national and local political trends – making them even more resonant and meaningful. (And for the suspicious: Baker does not come across as any fan of the Clintonian cult of personality either.)
Mr. Powell (NYT), on the other hand, presents a few choice anecdotes, with competing viewpoints from his sources hung artfully around like Christmas ornaments. No real analysis of his own and no explicit conclusions.
Is Giuliani a racist? My guess is: probably not. He probably loves his handful of black friends just fine, and they probably love him too.
If anything, Giuliani is an “up by your own bootstraps” kind of guy. If your worn-out, second hand boots have no straps, well don’t come crying to him; it’s not a government problem. And if you have a complaint that the boot market is rigged, and has been for generations, well that kind mouthing-off will get you one government-issue sock stuffed in it, courtesy of law enforcement if necessary. This makes him appear, and in some cases deservedly so, profoundly unsympathetic to the long-standing issues affecting minority communities.
And Giuliani, like many politicians, gleefully uses rhetoric like a bludgeon – witness his recent attacks on single-payer health care as “socialist.” When it comes to race, he has a proven record of using such rhetoric to exploit racial divisions and appeal to the basest of white fears for political gain.
Near the end of his term, the proof was in the pudding: most New Yorkers (68 percent) rated him as doing a poor job on race relations. His approval rating with blacks was a dismal 13%. And his approval rating among Hispanics was only 40%.
Some other telling stats (covering all New Yorkers):
- Only 48% viewed him as honest and trustworthy
- Only 26% that he is sympathetic to the problems of the poor
- Only 32% that he works well with other political leaders
- Only 34% approve of his handling of education
These are not unimportant facts.
But all this history is left fallow in the NY Times piece. It’s reporting by quoted innuendo, extending even to the story title “A Stern Line on Race and Politics,” which suggests some kind of principled stand: defensible, justified, even refreshing. It’s implicit of a conclusion, where the writer refuses to state one explicitly.
Look, Dinkins was no saint. In a recent article, even the left-leaning NY Observer recently put it this way: Giuliani “crudely ripped the wiring out of the spent interest-group politic of the Dinkins era.”
But Dinkins is not running for President; Rudy is.
So from those who claim that Rudy is the cure for all ills, I want facts. I want meticulous proof, because I lived through it and can tell you first hand that the hagiography seen in political coverage of the Giuliani campaign is pretty well… um… divorced from the reality. (pun intended)
And this unreality, more than anything else, proves Baker’s main thesis. In fact, the NY Times could not have done a better job of proving Baker’s point if they had sat down with that very intention. From Baker:
In the new politics, the candidate is everything. The post-ideological party distinguishes itself from its rivals … by the character and charisma of its particular leader – its Sarkosky, Burlosconi or Clintons – and by its brand selling strategies.
The idea that statistics – that is verifiable facts – no longer mattered became a leitmotif of Giuliani’s campaign… A world in which the brand was more important than the facts was precisely the sort of world in which Giuliani could thrive.”
So here we have the NY Times focused on anecdotes and urban myths – on the character of the Mayor, rather than the specifics of his policies, or their direct consequences on the people of the city as evidenced by the facts on the ground. Many of the claims made by the Times’ quotable sources are, quite frankly, fraudulent. And these kinds of articles are, quite frankly, lazy. They make one pretty disheartened at the prospect of yet another personality-driven campaign where facts are rare, reporters are cowed, and sources are allowed to freely spin the story.
I want real reporting. I want real analysis. And I want clear assessments, based on the real record, about what this man (or any candidate) would be like as President.
What the NY Times delivered in this case was a journalistic failure. It wasn’t reporting; it was stenography with a flair for pull-quotes.