Sunday, January 13, 2008

In the market place of ideas, the currency is stupidity

I already complained that William Kristol (Wikipedia article) is now an op-ed contributor at The New York Times. Today, the public editor, Clark Hoyt, wrote a softball article defending the decision, heavily comparing Kristol to William Safire. Safire, of course, was The Times' token conservative with a long legacy of being sloppy at best.

In The Times, the columnists seem to be given something akin to tenure. They write about what they want with little fear of reprisals; factual errors aren't corrected by the paper. Tenure, of course, isn't necessarily a bad thing. In academia, tenure provides protection from reprisals when a professor makes an unpopular statement. Likewise, judges get a similar benefit in the political system. Nobody wants judges to be afraid to be impartial because they'll be fired by biased politicians. But does the idea work for newspapers? The flip side of tenure is obvious: while somebody can't be tossed out for being unpopular but right, they also can't be tossed because they're insipid, stupid, dishonest, counterproductive, etc.—and that's whether they're right or wrong. As Salon notes, Safire seemed to take advantage of that ("William Safire, minister of disinformation," by Barry Lando, 2005-02-21).

First of all, the flow of the article went from specific to general reasons why Kristol's contribution isn't the end of the world. Most generally, The Times itself (not the public editor, but the editor of the paper) felt they wanted "a columnist who brought to our pages a deeply held and well articulated point of view in line with what you might call the conservative Republican movement. ... Our Op-Ed page is a marketplace of ideas. He’ll strengthen the discussion." The article implied that the paper was on a mission to find such an individual, and as such Kristol only gets a year-long contract as a test-run before he really gets tenured next to Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, David Brooks, and the rest. Much as I personally despise the "conservative Republican movement" (I would describe so-called conservative thought as as "Republican movements"), I can't argue with hearing them out—I feel it's best to know what people are thinking, not least of all dangerous people like William Kristol. On the other hand, Hoyt describes the choice as "a decision I would not have made." Amongst his reasons, Safire has made statements to the effect that the The Times should be prosecuted for reporting on government activities. He goes on to say, "But it is not the end of the world. Everyone should take a deep breath and calm down."

So, The Times wants to expand the "marketplace of ideas," a phrase we've heard before in reference to some other rather insidious things. But does hiring Kristol meet that goal? As the public editor makes clear, Kristol isn't hard to find for those looking for him. He's on Fox News, and he's in The Weekly Standard.

So, how much is The Times expanding the "marketplace of ideas" with this decision? I would say, not very much. As a matter of fact, I'd say it's doing quite the opposite. By giving people like Kristol a soap box to stand on in a respectable newspaper, they're taking dangerous and dishonest hegemony to a whole new level. Safire was pretty bad, but Kristol is probably worse. Ideas like Kristol's have been around a while, and haven't exactly served us well. Kristol is one of the "intellectuals" who helped draw the United States into Iraq.

Finally, remember, nothing I'm saying here constitutes censorship. Censorship is legal suppression of information by lawful authorities. I'm not calling for that. I'm just calling for the fourth estate to use its powers responsibly.

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