The New York Times Gets Defensive

April 3rd, 2009 1:30 PM

The New York Observer has noticed an interesting new trend at The New York Times. Its something that we have rarely, if ever, seen from The Times in it's long history. In fact, we are used to seeing a defiant and rather confident Times:

There was a time when The New York Times never had to say anything back. If the newspaper caught hell for a story in the popular media, editors at the paper could rely on the time-tested formulation: "The story speaks for itself." When critics carped about the newspapers' editorial vision, business plan, or financial position, it was once enough for Arthur Sulzberger or Janet Robinson to just sort of roll their eyes and move along. At the end of the day, The New York Times was still The New York Times.

No longer. Now, as The Observer chronicled, every criticism leveled at The Times is met with an immediate, if not insecure, defense. The trend seems to have started with the debacle surrounding the famous McCain/Lobbyist article in which The Times incompetently insinuated that Senator McCain had an affair. However, the defensiveness has continued at a more frequent pace since then:

In January, Michael Hirschorn wrote a well-circulated piece in The Atlantic about the Times’ ostensibly crumbling empire. The Times, arguably the most powerful news institution in the country, had been accustomed to unsticking spitballs from its cheek over the course of decades of unflattering feature stories, books, and news items published here and elsewhere. It goes with the territory. Not this time.

Catherine Mathis, the paper’s spokeswoman, shot off a letter to the editor of The Atlantic: "Your article “End Times,” which speculates on whether The New York Times can survive the death of journalism, leaves a lot to be desired from the standpoint of . . .  well, journalism." Yow! She denigrated the piece as "uninformed speculation," and ridiculed what she characterized as the factual errors in the piece.

A bit snippy for a company that has always presented itself as a giant standing above the fray and beyond critique. But really these responses to hard news outlets, over-sensitive as they may be, are just the tip of the iceberg. You see the great gray lady has stooped to pointing out minor factual errors in Vanity Fair pieces they dislike:

Bill Keller himself wrote a letter to the magazine: aside from the "bombast, the recycled anecdotes and the mistakes an elementary fact-checking" Mr. Bowden hadn't written much of a story. The Times has 1,300 staffers in its newsroom, Mr. Keller pointed out in the letter, not 1,300 reporters, as Mr. Bowden wrote. And he defended Mr. Sulzberger's strategic vision for how The Times can flourish in the digital era: "I'll bet on Arthur Sulzberger finding the answer to that question before Mark Bowden does."

And that wasn't all! Vivian Schiller, former general manager of and the current president of National Public Radio, fired off a letter to the editor of Vanity Fair calling the piece "wildly imbalanced," and concluding the letter thusly: "The business model for Internet news in general is indeed in flux and uncertain, but I am sure that if anyone can figure it out, it is The New York Times of Sulzberger."

Yikes... this is just getting juvenile. The New York Times is so defensive that they are now letting loose full on attacks from multiple higher ups (or former higher ups) towards anyone who dares say anything negative about them. That's a bad sign for them:

Unflattering features have been written countless times about The Times. But at a moment when every bit of news seems critical to establishing public opinion about the institution—and perhaps more essentially, investors' confidence in the company—The Times is sticking up for itself. That it has to at all is, we think, news fit to print, or at least to publish online.

Seems to me that if they are trying to project confidence that its backfiring in a big way. Going from easily shrugging off criticism to nit picking at an article in fashion magazine because they criticized you doesn't exactly exude pride in your work. In fact, this shift is a symptom of the opposite of confidence. It exemplifies the fear and panic which is rightfully setting in at The Times as they spiral towards bankruptcy and irrelevance.