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Bad Karma at the New York Times: The Beginning of the End of the Most Arrogant Institution in America

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I scooped the New York Times last week. These days it's not hard to do. My blog on the Huffington Post about James Dobson's attack on Senator Obama went to press (so to speak) a full 24 hours before the Times printed their story. This wasn't much of a coup, just an example of the difference between information at light speed and plodding newsprint.

This week the Times raised their prices -- again -- for home delivery. Their new "formula" for success: less paper for more money and a hasty dive into a website. The crew at the Times comes across like the plodding McCain team trying to imitate the cool Obama guys: "Let's hire somebody to do that newfangled computer thing like the other guys."

The price of the paper keeps going up just as the publisher rearranges the deck chairs on this particular Titanic, trims the size of the print edition, redesigns the paper by cutting all news items from the first pages and instead treats readers to a mishmash of subheadings, turns the fabled arts section into a rag that now reads like a pop version of People magazine, and then to top it off, gets the biggest news story of the last 10 years -- the Iraq war -- wrong.

I take grim pleasure in the demise of newsprint in general and the New York Times in particular. I used to write lots of op-eds for newspapers including the Washington Post, the LA Times and others. I just don't bother any more. Submit a piece and a week or so later I'd hear back. Then they edited. By the time my op-eds came out whatever I was writing about was cold. (Disclosure: The Times took one of my op-eds once, then two days before going to press dropped me, but I promise this isn't about that!)

My pleasure at the Times' problems comes from my instinct to rejoice when bullies are laid low. Call me a blog-liberated author who used to run scared of these people, but who now (thanks to the web) feels like the "100 pound weakling" in those old comic book adds who has just finished a bodybuilding course and won't take crap any more from the guys on the muscle beach.

I remember my editor worrying when my novel Baby Jack portrayed the Times unfavorably. (It's a book about service and loss and our elite's disconnect from the military and one of my characters works in the Times' letters-to-the-editor department.) "If you know what's good for you you'll never say anything bad about the Times. They have a long memory over there and you need them a lot more than they need you." His fear of them was palpable, something I ran into at another publishing house with another book, this time nonfiction, where I got the same comment because I'd used the Times as an example of bad journalism when it came to reporting on life within our military. (That was when my Marine son was at war so I was reading everything about our military rather carefully -- to put it mildly.)

Before the advent of tens of thousands of websites including a few widely read ones such as Huffington Post, my book editors were probably right to worry about pissing off the Times. "Only a fool of a writer with no career ambition would attack the gatekeepers," my editor had said when I argued. I asked my agent if she agreed. "The Times is off limits," she said. "Can't you set the story at a fictional newspaper or at least at the Denver Post or something?" (I didn't give in. I also got no review.)

The Times did once have a lock on any literary work getting instant credibility or not. Even the Oprah producer that came to my house to shoot a segment when I was on that show told me that Oprah "always reads the Times reviews," after I remarked to her how great it was that Oprah had somewhat broken the Times' hegemony.

But it's a new day. Here is a FACT. Comparing the "bounce" I got when one of my op-eds was published in a major newspaper -- as measured in book sale numbers on Amazon -- to what happens when one of my blogs on Huff gets a wide reading, I sell more books off a well-received Huff blog than any paper ever generated. The same goes for my NPR commentaries, Huff has more impact than NPR. So whatever else you think of the points I'm making here I can tell you this: the days when the Times could break a book just by ignoring it are over. HuffPost and many other sources offer an equal -- or better -- break to an author now. I presume the same is true of any cultural endeavor; music, dance, whatever...

Pre-web the Times also was able to decide what was news and what wasn't. Maybe my editors' fears were deluded paranoia, but they spent most of their professional lives scheming on how to get close to, then ingratiate themselves with, Times editors at the book review and society sections. Call this the book publishing editorial Helsinki Syndrome.

I had lunch with the letters page editor a few years ago while researching Baby Jack. I asked him why I never read letters to the editor that were critical of the paper. I didn't mean letters that disagreed with some article but letters that were critical of the paper itself as an institution and/or the Sulzberger family that owns it. His answer floored me: "The Times is too important for that. The letters page is not a forum for readers opinion about us. I regard the letters page as an extension of the editorial page."

Dealing with the Times is very much like dealing with the titled wealthy. They were bred to rule. On the occasions that the Times has printed a letter of mine I have always been fascinated at their audacity in how deeply they edit what is supposed to be a reader's opinion. And who will ever say no? After all you don't actually exist if the Times doesn't notice you.

But snobbery and closed minds make for a self-fulfilling dead end sometimes. Back in the bad old days, before I dropped out of selling God in the mid-1980s, and became a novelist after departing the fundamentalist Christian faith I was raised on, I toured the country with my late father Francis Schaeffer. We were stirring up all sorts of trouble by helping to found the religious right. As I describe in detail in my book -- CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back -- in the 1970s and early 80s the New York Times (and other major media outlets) were either too lazy or two snobbish to pay attention to the unwashed mob of religious activists that my father and I were leading. As a consequence progressives (and Democrats) were blindsided by our movement. They would have seen us coming miles off were it not for the provincialism of the media, particularly the New York Times who's take on heartland religion is stuck somewhere on the Upper East Side, and slightly less important to the editors than the latest additions to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

Example? The Times never reported the huge sales of religious books in their best seller lists in those days, including the millions of copies sold of my dad's books. Those "sorts" of books just didn't count. They thereby presented a completely skewed picture of where America was headed ideologically and intellectually.

What would Americans on the left and in the so-called chattering classes have learned from a real best seller list of books (let alone some serious and in depth reviews) that actually were the best sellers? For one thing that evangelicals were on the march in huge numbers with a serious agenda.

In the 1970s and early 1980s my father wrote many books including A Christian Manifesto. It sold over one million copies. Dad called on evangelicals to "take back America" and overthrow the "secular humanists," if need be by force. As it turned out his followers didn't need to carry out this revolution.

Inspired by my father (and Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson, etc.), the evangelical right took over the Republican Party instead. But as far as the Times went we didn't exist. And since the elite that reads the Times didn't know about the books, seminars and lectures spreading like wildfire and the ideas that had shaped our new movement, they didn't know about the ideas at the heart of the evangelical counterculture, and thus didn't understand what the takeover of the GOP really meant.

When the Times failed to push hard enough to uncover the lies George W. Bush was telling pre-Iraq war, re claims about weapons of mass destruction, it was déjà vu for me. In fact the paper of record participated in the Bush lies through backing Judith Miller. As my writer friend Frank Gruber emailed me: "The Times seems to value the 'inside scoop' more than common sense. They fall for this kind of stuff because they want to believe any information they think they have exclusively, and they're stuck in the NY-Wash mentality that access to information is more important than judgment."

Powerful people and organizations eventually go crazy. One way they manifest their insanity is to insulate themselves -- as has George Bush and the Sulzberger family -- against inconvenient reality. They don't even keep thier own rules. So I don't think it's coincidental that at the very moment when their financial empire started to crumble that the Times clan elected to use the power of eminent domain to push lowly and politically unconnected merchants in midtown Manhattan out of their places of business so that the "liberal" paper could make a land grab of the kind a nineteenth century railroad baron would have been proud of. If ever there was a recipe for attracting bad karma that was it.

In the late nineteenth century the biggest ice storage facilities were still going strong, especially in the part of New England I live in. The ice kings were sure that newfangled refrigeration was no threat to their monopoly on selling ice cut from New England ponds, storing it packed in sawdust and shipping it all over the world throughout the year. Business was never better, than on the cusp of the ice business's demise...

At the very moment when the handwriting was on the wall the Times sank hundreds of millions of dollars into new real estate from which to survey their sure and steady decline. But the problem is that unlike with refrigeration, we news consumers don't have a ready substitute for newspaper reporting. We still need news, not just opinion.

Luckily as the Times fades, the BBC and several big European papers are still going strong as a primary source of news, and I have faith in the online community. I think we'll come up with an American and international alternative to the newspapers. The transition may be bumpy but we'll get there.

Terminal arrogance, a property grab, a huge swanky new edifice, less paper for more money -- the New York Times is today's icehouse industry trying to sell blocks of ice to people with freezers. I'll make a bet: by the conclusion of the second Obama term the Times won't consist of anything but a large print edition for the elderly and a website wholly derivative of real websites run by people who believe in freedom rather than editorial dictatorship and a "family owned" lock on what counts and what doesn't.

So this Fourth of July let us celebrate our liberation from the New York Times. Let's start looking for ways to support the journalism we need but not with the self-defeating hubris of the fossilized Times. Sure I'm a hypocrite. I still have a bio on my website describing myself as "a New York Times best selling author" and I only made their extended list! But I'm going to drop that soon and replace it with a better pitch billing myself as an avid blogger. Happy Independence Day.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of "CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back