02/18/2014 04:56 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2014

Why Isn't the Times a-Changin'?

In the early 1970s, the New York Times was in trouble. Long before the rise of the Internet and the collapse of the American economy, the financial picture of the American newspaper had darkened. The Times needed to make changes. Abe Rosenthal, the paper's executive editor, and his top deputy, Arthur Gelb, began to come up with a plan.

The Abe and Artie Show - as it was called - came on the air. The duo plotted to introduce special sections to the staid Old Gray Lady. A section devoted to sports. A section devoted to cooking. One on science. They caught on big time -- with readers and advertisers -- and restored the newspaper to financial health. The rest of the news industry followed with special sections.

It was a time, not coincidentally, when Rosenthal was moving aggressively to beef up his newspaper's investigative reporting team. He hired the great muckraker, Seymour Hersh, installing him in the Times' Washington bureau to begin to compete with Washington's stardust twins, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, in pursuit of the Watergate scandal story.

In the same way that Joseph Pulitzer had made a fortune with his journalistic innovations in the 1890s and then plowed the money back into his publication, so too did Rosenthal and the Times. They committed to important causes, to investigations, and, in the case of Pulitzer, serving the underdog. Pulitzer would give out turkeys to the poor on Thanksgiving; his paper always had a crusade for immigrants and poor people. In fact, it is a long journalistic tradition to give voice to the voiceless.

It is a cliché, but when you turn to City Hall and City Hall does not listen, it is nice to have the press in your corner.

And I am thinking of all this because when I tore apart the newspaper sections of my New York Times recently - yes, I still get paper as well as the electronic version - I came across a section called, simply, "Wealth." Now we all know that the New York Times caters to a wealthy and intelligentsia audience. And we know that when Lord & Taylor and Tiffany and Saks advertise in the paper, they are not seeking the lumpenproletariat.

But I always thought, perhaps naively, that the Times was not going after just the wealthy, that they might have a commitment to people at the lower end of the wealth scale. Then I encountered the February 11 edition.

An entire section devoted to wealth, which as we know is clustered in one percent of the hands of the American public. What I wondered, of course, was if maybe the Times - the bastion of journalistic balance -- was going to introduce a section called "Poverty.' After all, it is estimated that 1 in 6 Americans, 46 million people, now live in poverty -- 15 percent of the population. That's a pretty big audience. Of course, Saks would not be much interested, so the Sulzbergers could not be expected to pursue this line of reporting.

In fact, this is an old story at the Times, which has long been criticized for focusing its local news coverage on the mighty and rich of Manhattan, while ignoring the poorest sections of the Bronx and Brooklyn. A murder in swanky Westchester County to the north will make headlines; a death in Brownsville will likely not get a mention.

But the "wealth" section is even more revolting. A headline on the cover declares that there is a growing inequality within the 1 percent. I thought the story - and the shame -- was the inequality between the filthy rich and the rest of the society. I am now to be worried that a poor millionaire is not keeping up with the other millionaires?

The lead story tells us how the wealthy are "shelling out" money for high-cost coaches for their children, but it might not be worth the price. I am supposed to have a broken heart because some fat-cat is paying a ski or swim coach but it is not paying off for them? Rich Americans, we are told, like the Caribbean (what a surprise!) where they can flee in the winter and not have to worry about paying for fuel like the rest of us. "The ultra rich favor the Caribbean," the Times declares, as if we should give a hoot about that fact.

Another article bemoans the problem of the poor baby-boomers who have inherited lots of money, but now face complications with how to invest or use that money which, the author tells us, is "sacred money." Oh, the problems of being wealthy!

After a while I thought I was reading an Onion put-on.

Before I get too carried away in assailing the Times, I need to point out that the Sulzbergers, one of the last families to hold on to its news company, has for many years been one of the few publications to take way less of its profits than others and plow the money back into its reporting. No one else compares in the number of reporters who report on the world from foreign bureaus. They are to be applauded for still being the best, and perhaps most responsible, newspaper in the world. Two biographers named a book about the family "The Trust."

But that is why we like to hold them to a higher standard. Why kowtow to the rich in this way? I keep thinking that Joseph Pulitzer and E.W. Scripps and even William Randolph Hearst are all discomfited from their graves. Granted, all of them became millionaire publishers. But on the way to the bank, they made sure their publications were serving poor, immigrant and, oppressed people. Hearst once said, partly as a competitive maneuver, "if Pulitzer is for the underdog, I am for the under underdog." The Times' motto seems to be, "Others cater to the rich; we cater to the filthy rich."

Maybe a compromise is in order: keep publishing the wealth section, but also put out one on, literally, poverty. What a breath of fresh air - journalistically, of course. Follow the homeless on a freezing cold night in Manhattan. Stay over with a family in an apartment with little heat. Live on a week's rations of food stamps. It has all been done before by the press, but it reminds us that there is another half living in a world of anti-wealth.

More than a hundred years ago, satirist Finley Deter Dunne observed that the press should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The statement holds up today: the fat cats and the plutocrats can take care of themselves; the poor cannot. The press should turn its eyes away from the top and focus on the bottom.