April 17, 2004

29 Years of the NYT

My writing instructor (Figured I might as well get that English class requirement out of the way. Don't sound so relieved, dammit.) gave us our first assignment a couple weeks ago. We were tasked with digging up the film of the New York Times from the day we were born, and then comparing it with a current copy of that paper.

Granted, we were only working with two data points, but it was fun to write anyway. Especially when it turned out that the editors on the Infamous Day had decided to use the word 'reds' in a heading. And they weren't talking about a Cincinnati sports team.

If you ever had a burning desire to find out what kind of work I hand in at college thus far, read on.

The World According To The Times, From 1975 To Now

A paper’s success depends on informing its readers about the things they’d like to know, and presents that information in a way they can relate to. The New York Times is the third most popular US paper. It comes after the first ranked USA Today hotel circular, and the premier business paper, The Wall Street Journal. It’s cemented a reputation as the paper of record, the news source that personifies the informed American worldview.

But that worldview has changed significantly over the last three decades. Even though the Times publishes a national edition, with all local New York City related items relegated to the back pages, it seems to cover less of the world at large. The Times seems to have followed along in American society’s slow descent into navel-gazing, and loss of historical context.

Right Vs. Left No More

On [redacted], 1975, the front page of the New York Times carried the following subheading on the top left: “Thousands Heed Reds’ Call – Premier Says Economy Will Serve the People.” The article concerned the nationalization of Portugal’s banking system, and the struggles of leftist and rightist factions within the country. It would probably be surprising to many to read the word “Reds” in a headline today as shorthand for communism. This probably reflects changing ideas of journalistic professionalism at least as much is it reflects changes in political discourse and perceptions of other countries.

Throughout the article, the term leftist was used in a way that clearly denoted that the paper was speaking of extremists. This was echoed in another front-page article, one describing an attack by leftist students on the Mexican President while visiting a university. The Times of 1975 presents an outside world whose main conflicts are dominated by the fight between right and left extremists, who were in turn presented as being opposed to political moderates. The terms were not generally used regarding the governments of friendly or neutral countries.

The specific words rightist and leftist were used only in the context of political movements seen to be operating outside the norms of civilized society. They were not applied to mainstream political parties operating within democratic norms in the rest of the world. The editorial page treatment of the political situation in Portugal distinguished between the liberal Popular Democrats and the allied Socialist party when condemning the Communist party’s takeover in response to a claimed rightist coup.

In the New York Times of Thursday, April 1, 2004, a page 3 article on the French government’s cabinet reshuffle describes France’s Socialist party as “leftist opposition.” The term “politicians on the right” was used to describe the country’s party in power, and rightist seems to have fallen into disuse throughout the paper. A page 17 article on undecided voters seems to continue the tradition of using the proper names of both political parties in the US, Democrats and Republicans. A page 21 article on a new liberal radio network sticks with the same terms, liberal and conservative, used in 1975 to describe economists weighing in on both sides regarding a tax cut plan.

In fact, the designations of right and left seem less likely to be applied even to conflict situations, or used as labels for established governments. They are mostly reserved for use in descriptions of electoral politics abroad, and have lost much of the previous connotation of extremism when used with the suffix -ist. Articles in the Times of 2004 referring to violence in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran’s plan to begin uranium enrichment, and talks on the reunification of Cyprus made no use of the words. The dialectic of terrorism, nationalism, occupation, and religious radicalism seems to be in the process of replacing right and left as shorthand for sides in armed conflict and political coups.

And while the old terms of right and left referred to grand ideological struggles that mattered at the time to people around the world, the new ones seem almost entirely centered on American interests. Are they with us, or against us? This is the question in these new, more sophisticated phrases.

Colonialism, War, And Wide Spectrum Coverage

In much of their international reporting, colonialism was both an obvious and recognized factor in current events. A page four article discusses Spain’s then toehold in Morocco, the seven-mile-square enclave of Cebta. On page five, a piece on censored French films mentions that one was a movie about the French-Algerian war. A page six article on the murder of a politician in Nairobi touches on the country’s history as a British protectorate. The resource rich and development poor Central African Republic was discussed on page eight in the implied context of its history of a French colony, and a visit by then President of France, Valery Giscard d’Estaing.

The topic is not even mentioned obliquely in the modern edition of the Times. However, international reporting in the sample 2004 paper focused on France, Canada, Russia, and news from the Middle East and Central Asia. It covered no news from African countries generally thought of as former colonies. And even the 1975 edition of the paper did not report Middle Eastern or Asian news in the context of the areas’ colonial pasts.

And this brings up the point also that fewer regions of the world were covered in the main section of the modern issue of the Times. At present, there are US troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and this particular issue of the 2004 paper had the gruesome murders in Falluja as its cover story. Two war fronts and a touchy situation in the Middle East would be expected to dominate the coverage under the circumstances. Also, the 2004 paper’s two business sections did devote small amounts of space to Asia, as well as other European and Middle Eastern countries.

However the 2004 national edition is about twenty pages longer, and as mentioned, has much less local coverage. The 1975 edition devoted two front-page spots to local issues, and had several pages of local information and classified ads to compete with. Now international news competes with extended coverage of US news, larger and better-defined sections of business, arts, and style news, as well as a new technology section.

Narcissistic Times

In all, it seems that the coverage of the New York Times has grown wider in terms of topics included, as well as gaining a more varied political vocabulary. But the scope and background context of its international news reporting per issue seems to have narrowed considerably, spending much more time on issues that connect directly with US activities.

As American sentiment has come around to grasping our place at the top of a unipolar world, the Times has followed. No longer just a part of world society, the view presented in today’s New York Times is the view of the yardstick by which that broader society is measured.

Posted by natasha at April 17, 2004 07:10 AM | Media | TrackBack(2) | Technorati links |

You were born on [redacted]? Fancy that! So was I! Of course, by the time you were born on [redacted], I had already graduated from college. Still, it's an amazing coincidence, isn't it!

Seriously, it's really, really good to see all of you back on Pacific Views. I've followed you as best I could on your other blogs, but I've Pacific Views. Welcome back!

(Aside: I'm seeing the following error message in previewing this comment...

MT::App::Comments=HASH(0x8135800) Use of uninitialized value in sprintf at lib/MT/Template/Context.pm line 1187.

Good luck finding the problem. Don't you just love debugging someone else's s/w?)

Posted by: Steve Bates at April 17, 2004 07:40 AM

Oops. Please read, "I've missed Pacific Views." If I could proofread, I'd be dangerous.

Posted by: Steve Bates at April 17, 2004 07:42 AM

Ha! If you could proofread, you wouldn't have missed us nearly so much ;)

But thanks anyway, and welcome back.

Posted by: natasha at April 17, 2004 07:47 AM