Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Notes on News

I'm a news junkie. I read at least two (online) newspapers every day: the New York Times and the Washington Post. I also sometimes browse through the online versions of the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune, to say nothing of the host of blogs and other news sites I religiously visit every day. A day seems incomplete without a quick morning fix and some time in the evening to relax and look up anything I missed.

Lakshmi tells me I even write like a newspaper sometimes. (She's right; look at the last two sentences of your previous post: "But their importance entitles them to a fair debate, and they should each receive a vote on their merits. Bundling them into one omnibus bill serves no one's interest." I rest my case. -ed.)

If you're still reading, I warn you that this post doesn't really have a point; I'm just going to ramble a little.

I was thinking this evening about the two newspapers I read most often, and the differences between them. The first thing I look at is the op-ed section, and the Post is miles ahead of the Times here. The editorials of both are comparable, but the columnists aren't in the same league. The Times line-up:

- Nicholas Kristof, probably the most sincere writer I read regularly. His concern for the genocide in Darfur (and other forms of injustice) is laudable, but I think he writes about it too often. I believe that the Darfur story is underreported in the U.S. media as a whole, but one writer dwelling on it (practically to the exclusion of much else) doesn't do much good; I think it would be safe to assume that after his twentieth story, everyone who reads his columns was aware of the crisis. It's certainly not his fault that the story hasn't caught on and I admire the man for doing everything he can to increase public awareness of the issue, but his Darfur focus detracts from the strength of the op-ed page as a whole.

Actually, that may be one of the chief problems with the Times: It takes a particularly strong and well-balanced opinion section to accommodate a columnist on a crusade, and the Times seems to have too many of those.

- Thomas Friedman, who can mix a metaphor with the best of them. His columns come in four categories: How/why China and India are overtaking America, how conserving energy will solve all the country's problems (reduce the deficit, make people more responsible, reduce global warming, decrease the amount of money flowing to unfriendly regimes such as Iran and Venezuela), what to do in Iraq, and combinations of the first three (such as environmental issues in China and India). While much of what he says makes sense, the repetition of the same basic ideas quickly gets monotonous. And sentences like "The walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened, making the world much flatter than it had ever been — but the age of seamless global communication had not yet dawned" just make me shudder. Quoting Matt Taibbi: "It's not that he occasionally screws up and fails to make his metaphors and images agree. It's that he always screws it up. He has an anti-ear, and it's absolutely infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius."

- Maureen Dowd, who isn't as shrill as Ann Coulter, but sometimes comes close. Lately, she's become obsessed with 'Dick' (aka 'Vice'). While Dowd does sometimes make me smile, I can't remember the last time she really made me think.

- Paul Krugman, who was something of a disappointment. With his reputation, I was expecting an outstanding column, but he's merely good (except when he strays from economics, when he's only average). His strong dislike for Bush works against him; one sometimes feels that he's not being completely impartial. Daniel Okrent, the then Times Ombudsman wrote: "Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults."

While on the subject of Daniel Okrent, his columns as ombudsman were superb; his replacement at the Times, Byron Calame, doesn't write as frequently and isn't nearly as good. The Post's Deborah Howell isn't great, either, so we'll call that a tie.

- Bob Herbert, who does a good job and David Brooks, the token conservative on the page, who is possibly the best the Times has. There's also John Tierney, and Frank Rich, who writes a longer piece once a week on 'the intersection between culture and the news'.

And those are all the columnists. Particularly when one or two of them are on vacation or book leave (which happens fairly often), the page is remarkably bare. The Post, on the other hand, seems to have a rich and diverse opinions section. Conservative writers are better represented, and even though I often don't agree with them, they're almost always worth reading. They make cogent arguments, are intellectually honest, and unafraid to attack the administration when they think it's wrong.

Of the Post columnists, Anne Applebaum, Richard Cohen, Charles Krauthammer, William Raspberry (who is, sadly, retiring) and George Will are uniformly excellent. Eugene Robinson and E. J. Dionne are also good. Then there are several contributors who write about once a week: Michael Kinsley, who used to be editor of the editorial/opinions page at the LA Times is my favourite. Colbert King, Robert Samuelson, David Ignatius, David Broder, Harold Meyerson, Sebastian Mallaby and Jim Hoagland all do a fair job. It rarely happens that none of the Post columns gives me something to think about. Further, the Post gets a fair number of political figures to contribute to their opinions page. Today, for example, there's an article by Senators Barack Obama and Sam Brownback. I've read at least three columns by Kofi Annan, and several by heads of state and ministers from other countries.

Another difference between the newspapers is their approach to the Internet. The Times seems to want nothing to do with it. I'm currently paying $50 a year for TimesSelect, which essentially gives me the right to read their columnists. I also have access to the archives, which I don't really want, though the one time I did want an archived article, the website refused to show it to me (but it decremented the total number of archived articles I could access). Besides making me pay to read news (a sure way to drive away online readers), the Times site makes me deal with annoying ads: both banners, and occasional full-screen videos.

The Post, by contrast, has welcomed their internet readers, setting up as a separate company. They have added content online, with frequent video feeds of breaking news, and 'The Debate' with Emily Messner (a forum in which Messner posts about a controversial topic, and users discuss it in the comments thread). The Post also experimented with a blog, cross-posting Andrew Sullivan's posts for a week, and finally settling down with Joel Achenbach's Achenblog. Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing - a round-up of articles, columns, and Froomkin's thoughts about White House activities - is also very good. Best of all are the 'Live Online' discussions, where the author of a Post article or opinion piece will answer questions from readers for an hour. Recent victims have been Judge Richard Posner and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

And yet, I like the Times better than the Post. An explanation will have to wait until later, because I've already spent too much time writing this evening.


Anonymous said...


Ok, you've got me hooked:

- "the Post is miles ahead of the Times" in op-eds.

- "The Times seems to want nothing to do with (the Internet)."

- "The Post, by contrast, has welcomed their internet readers."

- "And yet, I like the Times better than the Post."

I'm eager for your next post...

Anonymous said...

i'm confused also. did the times provide anything like this? facts and more facts-original documentation for internet readers!!!!