Excerpts from the Pulliam Fellows lecture Michael Goodwin gave at Hillsdale College in Michigan on Oct. 24:
In Ernest Hemingway’s novel “The Sun Also Rises,” there is a memorable exchange between two characters:
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asks. “Two ways,” Mike responds. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
As we know, the pattern of “gradually then suddenly” is not limited to bankruptcy. It can be applied to everything from expanding waistlines to the breakup of nations. Similarly, it is clear that many current problems in America reflect decades of eroding educational and moral standards.
Consider changing views toward Christopher Columbus and George Washington.
Once universally celebrated as heroes, they are now reviled in some quarters. The move to take down statues or, in Washington’s case, paint over a 1936 mural, strike me as evidence that many schools failed to teach history and instill a sense of patriotism in their students. We are reaping a bitter harvest decades in the making.
Another example is the collapse of the New York Times.
The process is obviously not complete, at least by the ways in which the world measures such things. The Times is a business, and a relatively successful one in an era when many newspapers have shut their doors.
But the collapse of the Times that we speak of is not about dollars and cents. It is about the collapse of its traditional standards of fairness and restraint, and the disastrous impact that collapse is having on American journalism.
It is important to note that the power of the Times extends far beyond its actual reader base. Its news service has a global reach, and it is the most imitated news outlet in America. Read almost any newspaper (or watch television news) and you will see a copycat of the Times’ way of reporting and writing.
Thus, the collapse of its standards is like a virus infecting journalism everywhere. The public has noticed.
In a stunning finding, a poll last year revealed that 72% of Americans believe “traditional major news sources report news they know to be fake, false or purposely misleading.” A separate poll found just one in three respondents thinks the Times gets it right most of the time.
Even more dispiriting is the direct correlation to the decline of the Times’ journalism with the growth of its business. The paper’s relentless attacks on President Trump have coincided with a sustained surge in circulation.
The Times’ CEO has called it the “Trump bump.” To be more accurate, it should be called the “anti-Trump bump.”
Rather than chronicle the paper’s blatant bias, I want to review how the Times became the flagship of American journalism in the first place. It is an important piece of history.
To start with, I am convinced its standards of fairness played an enormous role in making the Times a powerhouse.
Those standards originated more than a century ago, soon after Adolph Ochs bought control of the paper in 1896. He broke with the overt partisanship of that era and promised his newspaper would be “clean, dignified, trustworthy and impartial.” Ochs added the famous motto: “All the news that’s fit to print.”
Several years later, the Times began publishing an ambitious style guide that offered rules on spelling, punctuation, usage and general ways of writing. Called “The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage,” it is still published and now runs to more than 300 pages. It sets standards Times people were required to follow.
Written by a succession of top editors, the manual was so smart and thoughtful that it became widely used by newspapers, high schools and colleges. Just as Emily Post wrote the book on manners, called “Etiquette,” the New York Times wrote the book on what it meant to be a journalist.
My copy is from the 1975 edition, and reading it today is a reminder of how detailed and practical the book is. And charming.
It cites the difference between “egg roll” and “egg rolling” as the difference between “the food and the frolic.”
It notes that “a person is hanged, a picture is hung.” Under Rolls-Royce, it decrees that a “hyphen is standard equipment.”
The rules changed slowly, reflecting social changes and accepted English usage, but the basic point did not. The rules were to be strictly followed. The most fundamental of these were fairness and impartiality, just as Adolph Ochs promised.
“Fairness and impartiality,” the manual says, “should be the hallmark of all news articles and news analyses that appear in the Times. It is of paramount importance that people or organizations accused, criticized or otherwise cast in a bad light have an opportunity to speak in their own defense.
“Thus it is imperative that the reporter make every effort to reach the accused … If it is not possible to do so, the article should say that the effort was made and explain why it did not succeed.”
This extraordinary commitment to fairness was part of the paper’s DNA from the beginning.
Ochs also insisted on civil discourse, demanding that his paper present the news “in language that is parliamentary in good society.”
Even advertisements had to be tasteful and Ochs, despite needing money, rejected ads he thought were not fit to print.
This decorum led to the Times being mocked as stuffy and slow, and it became known as “the Gray Lady.”
It was also called “the paper of record,” meaning complete and thorough. Insiders joked that you weren’t dead until your obit appeared in the Times.
A consistent set of standards was possible because the descendants of Ochs have retained control since he bought the Times 123 years ago. Even after it became a public company in 1969, the family controlled the board of directors, and to this day, the family picks the publisher.
Despite the paper’s fixation on gender and other forms of identity politics in its coverage, only males have been publishers during the family dynasty.
Also, just one female, Jill Abramson, has held the position of executive editor, the top job in the newsroom. She was fired after three years.
So we should all do as the Times says, not as it does.
Still, there is no disputing the Times’ historic commitment to journalistic standards. It created the model that others copied.
Among them was that news and opinion were kept strictly separate. Opinion and commentary had their editors and pages, while straight news articles had theirs. Rarely did the twain meet.
This arrangement was known internally as the separation of “church and state.” Granted, the concept reflected the paper’s grandiose view of itself, but also captured the importance of the separation.
Most major newspapers copied this approach and even television, before cable, generally adhered to the idea that opinion and news should be kept separate so the news could be presented free of personal slant.
Those standards created trust among generations of Times readers, but current editor Dean Baquet abandoned them in a bid to stop Trump. These days, there is virtually nothing in the paper that is impartial.