What’s the Matter with the “Liberal Press”?

David Ignatius, a long-time Washington Post columnist on military intelligence topics, probably never dreamed his newspaper would fill over three full pages serializing his latest work of thrilling fiction, “The Tao of Deception.” On June 28, 2023, the “Breaking news and latest headlines” in the A section of the paper featured the first installment. Part II appeared today, Friday, June 30th.

What’s occurring at the Washington Post, the New York Times and big regional daily newspapers is a flight toward stupefying their material in a desperate plunge to retain readers – print and online. Maybe surveys show a tsunami of aliteracy from the rising iPhone generations.

To adjust to digital age readers, the New York Times has replaced much of its content with gigantic photographs, graphics and other visuals, not just in its regular sections on style/arts, sports and food, but also in the daily news departments as well as the Sunday Business and Opinion sections.

The influential New York Times Editorial Page – once featuring some fifteen or more editorials a week – is now down to three editorials a week. Moreover, this space is now largely taken up by a handful of regular opinion columnists, many predictably redundant and tired. Imagine a historic newspaper intentionally diminishing its editorial advice to this country. There is no precedent.

It gets worse. Various forms of its daily features – entertainment, sports and style/arts – are given enormous space, while coverage of daily local and national civic activity is severely restricted. What used to be reported about the findings, litigation, lobbying and regulatory advocacy of national citizen groups in the nineteen sixties and seventies – leading to major betterment of consumer, worker and environmental health and safety – now is sharply curtailed. As a result, good members of Congress, seeing virtually no news coverage of vital citizen concerns, become indifferent to necessary public hearings and legislation essential to addressing the needs of the public.

Right-wing politicians have learned to game the vulnerable-to-sensationalism New York Times and Washington Post. Trump led the way in 2015-2016 with his presidential run. Most of his outrageous lies, deceptions and defamations were showcased by these two august newspapers. The Times would even reprint his tweets with their CAPITAL LETTERS verbatim without giving the falsely accused any right of reply. (Belated corrections by columnists could not keep up.)

This chronic tragedy has gotten worse in the last year. The Times can hardly resist making crazy politicians into Big Acts. The antics of switcheroo J.D. Vance was a regular news story, with huge photographs, while his Democratic opponent in prime position for the pivotal Ohio Senate race last year, Rep. Tim Ryan, was of little interest to the Times.

In 2021, the Times devoted eleven pages over three days to a mini-biography of Fox’s Tucker Carlson. As well, the Times seems strangely drawn to the profane and violent rhetoric of the ignorant junior Representative from rural Georgia, putting Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) on the cover of its Sunday New York Times Magazine, in addition to more frequent daily coverage of her outrages.

What’s wrong with this journalism? First, it does not give space to serious political opponents whose positions, by the way, are closer to the editorial stances of the Times. Second, these “in-depth” profiles, as well as regular columns, do not lay a glove on the featured miscreants who rush to use these articles in their publicity and fundraising. Third, the trivial crowds out more important, serious subjects with material that is mostly vacuous since it is about vacuous people that the Times grants greater celebrity status. (TV and radio pick up such coverage from the Times).

I remember years ago when members of Congress, working with civic leaders on important legislation, would drop their more expressive denunciations for fear that the Times and the Post would not cover them because they might appear too extreme. It is exactly the opposite today with crazed right-wing, political corporatists bellowing themselves into prime time.

The Washington Post Live podcasts long ago crossed the barrier between news and advertisers. The tilt toward corporatism, away from the liberal civic community, is pronounced. One example of many is Grover Norquist, the avatar of no-tax super-rich and corporations, who gets a big photo alongside the announcement of his interview by the Washington Post Live’s podcast while the paper ignores inviting civic leaders like Robert Weissman of Public Citizen, Jordan Davis or Marilyn Carpinteyro of Common Cause or Karen Friedman of the Pension Rights Center. Why? Because corporate advertisers do not find these people congenial to their sponsored topics. Sponsors get to approve or veto the participants, as with the participants in the recent Post podcast “Chasing Cancer: Equity and Disparities,” brought to us by the giant drug company AstraZeneca. You can be assured the discussion will not cover outsourcing cancer drugs to a single troubled corporation in India, now causing serious shortages in our country and risking people’s lives.

Both the Post and the Times reporters did report about the cancer drug crisis in their news pages, but didn’t deal with the question of why U.S. drug companies outsource such categories of drugs, which includes outsourcing virtually all antibiotic production to China and India. This is a national security risk if there ever was one. The Washington Post did, however, run an op-ed by Ezekiel J. Emanuel on this topic.

Business ads in newspapers have been around forever, but until recent years, such ads did not openly and brazenly sponsor, engage and shape the content of the “news side” of the papers.

Unfortunately, journalistic critics of these concessions are few, whether in the publications at journalism schools or in liberal magazines. Certainly, the media critics for NPR and PBS do not see this as part of their beat, with very few exceptions. In-house critics or an ombudsman are long gone from the Times and the Post.

Would that their editors have a greater estimate of their own significance to the unrepresented peoples of the United States. People deserve the empowering right to know about what the foundational civil society struggles daily to accomplish, at the local, national and international levels. (See, Reporters Alert).

Coverage of active citizenry from the neighborhoods on up might even increase circulation.

Ralph Nader is a leading consumer advocate, the author of The Rebellious CEO: 12 Leaders Who Did It Right, among many other books, and a four-time candidate for US President. Read other articles by Ralph, or visit Ralph's website.