The New York Times is dying before our eyes

May 20, 2020 • 12:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

The New York Times is dying before our eyes, and for longtime subscribers, such as myself, it is a sad and painful experience. From Orwellian editorial practices to crusading for wokeism, the decline has been clear for some time now. I used to think that Jerry was reacting too strongly to some of the Times‘ missteps, but I’ve realized for a while that, sadly, he was prescient.
One area in which the Times has stumbled in a major way has been its coverage of woo, everything from “energy healing” to “non-invasive face lifts“.  Its embrace of astrology has been especially dismaying– why on heaven’s earth would they do this? We’ve noted this before here at WEIT (for example here and here), and the woo just keeps coming. Here’s one of the latest:

The online sub-header is exquisite in its irony:
Will Coronavirus Kill Astrology? The pandemic has affected all of us. Who saw it coming?
The answer, of course, is epidemiologists and virologists saw it coming, not astrologers. But through journalistic gymnastics that defy common sense, it turns out that, according to the article, astrology is doing a fine job. It’s like all those various millennial cults who have gathered for the second coming (or the rapture, or Armageddon, or whatever), and when it doesn’t happen, they double down, finding some excuse for why the prophecy really is correct– it’s not just that the believers are fools. It’s textbook motivated reasoning. I’m reminded of what a colleague said after 9-11: “If this doesn’t give religion a bad name, nothing will.” Nothing did, and I guess the same goes for astrology.
This next example of the Times‘ love affair with woo one goes beyond astrology to ghosts!!

The online sub-header is oh-so dishonest:
For those who believe they’re locked down with spectral roommates, the pandemic has been less isolating than they bargained for.
“For those who believe…” What crap. Do they do articles coddling the idiotic myopia of “those who believe” that Obama is not an American? Or “those who believe” the world is flat?

In an article last summer, which I missed at the time, but which Jerry has recently brought to my attention, the Times actually lays out its strategy and goals for its popularization of astrology. It’s disturbing reading coming from a paper that once aspired to be, and was thought of as, the ‘newspaper of record‘.

Read this, and weep:

“We cover it because people have made it newsworthy,” said Choire Sicha, the editor of The Times’s Styles section, which reports on cultural trends and has published many of the recent articles on astrology. “It is a so frequently used part of people’s Instagram lives and online lives.”

Cicero said there is nothing so absurd that it has not been said by one philosopher or another. And the corollary to that you is don’t have to be a philosopher; masses of people, both small and large, may say and do absurd things (see Wikipedia on Heaven’s Gate; if you click on the immediately previous link, I would not advise clicking on anything within the page it goes to). It may be interesting to explore and understand the motivation for why people hold absurd beliefs. The study of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds has been well underway since at least the 19th century. But we should take the phenomenon of credulity and delusion seriously, not the beliefs themselves.

The Times used to boast that it had “All the news that’s fit to print.” Now its motto and operating procedure is “Anything that will attract eyeballs.” And they’re willing to swallow their principles—if they still have them—to do so.

Is Maggie Haberman worth it?

January 20, 2020 • 12:59 pm

by Greg Mayer

As early as a few years ago, Jerry began worrying about the editorial drift of the New York Times. At the time, I wasn’t concerned. The questionable pieces were op-ed articles—opinion pieces not by the Times or its reporters. Although you could question the choice of writer, it wasn’t the Times‘ writers. But then it was the Times‘ own opinion writers and editorial board members (remember Sarah Jeong?), and then even the news division. I wrote this last fall:

I originally thought that the Times “wokeness” was just a series of bad hires for the opinion pages, but such bad hires have gone both ways– who, other than his close friends and family, could care at all what Ross Douthat thinks about anything? Jerry sounded the warning early, and, sadly, it is now clear that he was  right, and that “wokeness” has infected much of the paper’s news coverage.

The trend has continued, and I’ve now found myself asking whether I should cancel my subscription—maybe subscribe to the Washington Post.

But, the Times isn’t all bad. In fact large parts of it are great. They have loads of terrific reporters. I mention Maggie Haberman in the title mostly because she’s also the daughter of one of my other favorite Times journalists, the now mostly retired Clyde Haberman (I especially liked his “NYC” column). But there are many others: Peter Baker on politics, Adam Liptak on legal matters, James Gorman and Carl Zimmer on science, and Tyler Kepner on sports, to name a few.

Here’s some of the recent bad stuff out of the Times. It’s in all the sections now: News, Style, Arts, Opinion. It’s both wokeness and woo—perhaps we can call it ‘wookeness’. The most salient example is the disaster of the 1619 Project, which Jerry has noted before. Interestingly, much of the pushback against the Times advocacy of shoddy history has come from leftist sources, most notably (to me) the World Socialist Web Site of the Socialist Equality Party. Why would leftists oppose the 1619 Project? Eric London summarizes it this way:

The “1619 Project” is a politically motivated attack on historical truth. Through this initiative, the Democratic Party seeks to present race, and not class, as the essential dividing line in American and world society.

and the article initiating the WSWS coverage says this:

Despite the pretense of establishing the United States’ “true” foundation, the 1619 Project is a politically motivated falsification of history. Its aim is to create a historical narrative that legitimizes the effort of the Democratic Party to construct an electoral coalition based on the prioritizing of personal “identities”—i.e., gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, and, above all, race.

The WSWS site has posted interviews with a number of respected historians (some leftist, some not; some American, some not) which are very critical of the 1619 Project: James McPherson, Clayborne Carson, Richard Carwardine, Gordon Wood, Dolores Janieweski, Victoria Bynum, James Oakes, and Adolph Reed (a political scientist). There’s more on the Project at the WSWS website. (I learned of the WSWS material from Brian Leiter’s website.) The most recent item on the WSWS site claims that Google is manipulating search results so as to downrank WSWS pages. WSWS notes that the first page of Google results gets 92% of the traffic, so the fact that WSWS’s substantive critiques of the 1619 Project show up on page two or three means that not very many people will be led to it. The WSWS has posted quite a lot on the Project, but I’m not sure I can judge the ‘appropriateness’ of Google’s results, or if the WSWS’s low rank indicates “suppression”. I could imagine that Google has a generalized bias against WSWS (and sites like it); I’d need more evidence to convince me that Google is acting specifically against WSWS’s coverage of the 1619 Project. Regardless, visit and link to the WSWS pages to raise their pagerank.

JAC note: The 1619 project has been constructed to be convertible to a school curriculum, and in fact it’s been adopted by public schools in several cities, including Buffalo, New York. This is the first case I’ve heard about of a newspaper attempting to indoctrinate schoolchildren with a particular ideological view. I consider this a dangerous precedent.

To round off the wokeness with some woo, from the Style section we have yet another embrace of astrology by the Times:

. . . and then this bizarre piece in the Opinion section, in which Jessica Stern, who is a professor at Boston University, wrestles with her conscience about engaging in “energy healing” with a war criminal:

Karazdic performs some “energy healing” by waving his hands around her head, and she “felt a kind of electricity heating up my head, making me slightly dizzy. But soon I began to calm down, at least a little.” Then, she has the sensation of trees growing out of the palms of her hands, which she attributes to Karadzic. She goes on, “I don’t know how this energy works; all I know is that it does.” Yikes!

As Beth Mole, a science journalist at Ars Technica, succinctly puts it, “energy healing” is

. . . a load of pseudoscientific garbage.

(She was writing about Gwyneth Paltrow, but the point still holds.)

So that’s my dilemma– is it worth putting up with, and financially supporting, the foregoing, in order to get Maggie Haberman?

The New York Times has an ongoing soft spot for astrology, but not everyone there has drunk the Kool-Aid

March 21, 2019 • 10:00 am

by Greg Mayer

After Jerry posted about the recent New York Times piece touting astrology and its harmlessness, I came across some good news, and some bad news. First, the good news: some of the Times‘ writers continue to be able to exercise their critical faculties. In a piece, “#MAGA Church“,  about a loony, apocalyptic church in New Jersey, Sam Kestenbaum writes the following about its pastor, Jonathan Cahn:

He devoured the writings of Nostradamus, the Virginia psychic Edgar Cayce and far-out conspiracy theories about ancient astronauts. Mr. Cahn soon stumbled on “The Late Great Planet Earth,” the 1970s best-seller that argued doomsday prophecies of the Bible were playing out with events like the Cold War and Israel’s Six-Day War. Mr. Cahn bought the book thinking it was about UFOs; instead he was given a crash-course in Christian eschatology.

It’s a longish piece, and you should take a look at the whole thing. It’s a great example of how fascination with woo, and the inability to reason about it, can lead further and further down the epistemological rabbit hole. If the only harm that comes of this is one person’s derangement, it’s harm enough, but this church is leading a whole flock of people– and their money– into a warren of woo, not to mention what those people might do.

The bad news is that the piece critiqued by Jerry is not a one off. I did a search at the Times’ website for “astrology”, and the results were intriguing, verging on appalling. The first 9 results were all supportive of astrology; and all had appeared since since July 2017. Many treated astrology as a “he said, she said” affair, which is bad enough, but often the astrology critic was a token. If a respected news outlet treated climate change, evolution, or gravity this way, we’d all be rightly outraged. (This search did not catch the latest astrology article on which Jerry posted; I’m not sure why.) The 10th astrology result was from 2011, an article about a race horse named Astrology.

The astrology articles are in a number of sections: “New York”, “Asia Pacific”, “Style” (2), “Arts” (2), “Sunday Review”, and (!!!!) “The Learning Network” (2). They are all by different authors, except for two by Amanda Hess. One of Hess’s pieces is not so bad, but in the other she suggests “online mysticism is filling a legitimate need”, and favorably compares the amount of “woo-woo crazy” in Goop vagina jade eggs to flat Earthism! She’s a little concerned that people are making money off of all this, but concludes that “retreating into the mystical internet feels like a quite rational move”. The diversity of authors and sections suggest there is not a particular editor who has a thing for astrology; rather, impairment of the critical faculties has seeped through many parts of the paper. The author of another Times article, not picked up in the “top 10” of the search, suggests that some people believe that criticism of astrology is misogynistic. (I hasten to add that there is no indication that the author of this piece concurs– she is reporting, not advocating.) But the Times is not merely avoiding criticism of astrology (perhaps to ward off the woke); it keeps bringing it up when there’s no evident impetus to do so.

I also noted that all 5 “NYT Picks” of readers’ comments on the piece critiqued by Jerry are pro-astrology. Here’s a sample of what the Times‘ editors found worth reading:

As to Mercury, when it is out of phase, being a Gemini whose ruling planet happens to be Mercury, it helps for whatever it’s worth to be aware when it comes and goes.

Yeah. Whatever it’s worth. My critical comment, to the effect, “Why did you publish this?” did not make it past the Times‘ moderators. I’m not sure why, as many commenters (including some WEIT readers, alerted no doubt by Jerry’s post!) said much the same thing.

The Times is clearly not all bad, and remains an essential news source, but I’ve been wondering lately if I should at least try out a subscription to the Washington Post to see how it’s doing.

(Links to the top ten search results, in order of their listing, are below the fold.)

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