News & Views from 465 California Street

The Snobs at the Times

Clint Reilly

With friends like New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich – does Barack Obama need enemies?

Forget the exhausted claims of “liberal bias”; the Times has a serious smugness problem on its hands. Even I – a life-long Democrat, Obama supporter, Times subscriber and daily reader – find the paper’s pomposity and orthodoxy difficult to stomach. An October 1 column on the Times op-ed page illustrates my point.

Noted Times columnist and best-selling author Thomas Friedman (The World Is Flat) was irate. The U.S. House of Representatives had just voted down the $700 billion bailout. Friedman fumed, smoke billowing from his column in great clouds:

“I’ve always believed America’s government was a unique political system – one designed by geniuses so it could be run by idiots. I was wrong. We have House members, many of whom I suspect can’t balance their checkbooks, rejecting a complex rescue package because some voters, whom I fear also don’t understand, swamped them with phone calls…”

No words more clearly illustrate the attitude of moral superiority and intellectual certainty that perfumes the op-ed pages of the New York Times.

Here, Friedman is typically incredulous.

Why, those ignorant plebeians had the gall to barrage their elected representatives with outrage! And worse, the sniveling politicians actually caved to the people’s wishes!

Isn’t this democracy at work?

Whether the bailout bill was good or bad is beside the point. Friedman’s depiction of the plan’s opponents as blithering imbeciles doesn’t even permit the legitimacy of alternative points of view, let alone their possible merit. And yet many noted economists and academics across the country and around the world expressed deep skepticism about the bailout package as it was constituted.

When a heavily revised bill came to the Senate floor on the eve of Friedman’s column, 10 conscientious Democratic senators still voted against the bailout, including respected names like Russ Feingold, Byron Dorgan, Mary Landrieu, Debbie Stabenow, Ron Wyden and Tim Johnson.

While Obama dashes around the country trying to reach out to voters with a message of unity, the Times’ haughty, predictable echo chamber on the op-ed page convinces Middle America that coastal voters really are elitist snobs.

Virtually every column penned by Maureen Dowd drips with this type of caustic vitriol. Her poison pen earned her a Pulitzer during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, challenged Al Gore’s masculinity during the 2000 presidential race, and then churned out years of scurrilous assaults on Hillary Clinton’s agenda and motivations. Skewering public figures is part of a many columnists’ job description, but Dowd’s screeds are notable for their sanctimony as much as their mean-spiritedness.

Take her recent attacks on Sarah Palin. You could fill a book with legitimate criticism of the vice-presidential candidate, but Dowd characteristically took her withering scorn two steps further. Writing during a recent stop at Palin’s home town of Wasilla, Alaska, Dowd went out of her way to ridicule the local population:

“I wandered through the Wal-Mart, which seemed almost as large as Wasilla, a town that is a soulless strip mall without sidewalks…I talked to a Wal-Mart mom, Betty Necas, 39, wearing sweatpants and tattoos on her wrists. “She said she’s never voted, and was a teenage mom ‘like Bristol.’”

Dowd’s column that Sunday was only one of three in the Sunday Times promoting Obama while thumbing a nose at large swaths of America crucial to his success. Intellectual condescension may work on the editorial page, but it backfires dramatically in the political arena.

The subtle message of these Times columnists is too often that those who disagree with them are dullards.

They should remember that pride goeth before the fall.

Comments (9)

  • “…perfumes the op-ed pages of the Times.” Lovely turn of phrase.



    Posted by: Jef Loeb | October 7th, 2008 at 4:45 am

  • Good comment but I don’t quite understand why we should forget about the liberal bias at the Times or why the the “claims” are somehow exhausted. It plays a predominant role in setting the daily news budget of the rest of the media. If the editors decide a story is news, its mere placement in the paper makes it so. If it is featured prominently, it is big news. A description of what the Times is putting on Page 1 goes out on the wires the night before. Every newspaper, including those in the Bay Area, slavishly designs its P1 accordingly, with allowances made for local news. The Times’ own ombudsman called it a liberal newspaper, apparently feeling no embarrassment about expressing something so obvious about its biases. As long as the Times plays so disproportionate a role in the information economy — and that day is drawing to an end — people must continually challenge its lefty agenda.

    Posted by: Banjo | October 7th, 2008 at 6:43 am

  • So which is worse, to condescend to the vast unwashed horde, or to patronize them? I know which is more accurate.

    Is it Mr Reilly’s contention that members of Congress were well acquainted with the provisos of the bailout, and so were their constituents? Is it just possible Mr Reilly has never even flown over a zone like Wasilla as described by Ms Dowd?

    Then how is it in this great land of the awakened electorate we have a governor of a population smaller than Memphis making and seeing support for the contention she has “foreign policy experience” because her base is close to Russia. (And how many know that land over there is Siberia, and Moscow is closer to the moon than Nome?)

    The various constituencies were aroused by the expression “Wall Street Bailout.” That’s the extent of their understanding. I know. I was raised in a small town east of Midland in which every conceivable economic downturn (and maybe even bad weather) was due to Blacks on welfare.

    There is a gritty army of the uninformed. Oh, they’re ignorant, but they are stupid. They are the reason the Crawford Cretin sits where he does, and why we are in all these catastrophes at home and abroad.

    The conservative is simple, because he need not think. He is a room full of old echos. Where else must a national candidate mount a campaign based on one word, like either “change” or “experience”? Where else but in a nation of way too many illiterate, uninformed, uninformable “conservatives” would we even have a rusty old retread of the spectacularly failed party in power running above 40% in the polls?

    Oh, don’t worry that the vast commons will be upset by anything appearing in the NYT, or any other print media. Like Palin, they don’t read, and must be told about the world in simple large-print easy-read slogans by such as Faux Noise and that Linburger joke.

    That audience, to the great detriment of all of us, is legion.

    Posted by: Clovis Bowden | October 7th, 2008 at 7:47 am

  • Dear Mr. Reilly,

    Thank you very much for your column in the SJ Merc this morning. I am a former Democrat, not an Obama supporter, but I am a former (smalltown) newspaper reporter, tech columnist and now blogger.

    The urge to pontificate and preach either seems to come with the soapbox, or those who crave such power fight the hardest to get the soapbox. Either way, unnamed newspaper editorialists and signed columnist seem to think it’s their God-given (oops) right to tell ignorant rubes what to do. And when those rubes don’t do what they’re told, they get even more shrill.

    We have more of the same here at the university where I teach. They assumed that 51% of the nation — mostly in flyover country — were idiots last time, rather than the Democrats nominated a seriously flawed candidate to run against an unpopular president.

    Dowd is beyond redemption, for all the reasons you list. Friedman is a very smart and perceptive man — although not as smart as he thinks he is or at least purports to be. After seeing him on Charlie Rose — and read some NYT columns like those you cite — I’ve decided that he is so insufferable that I won’t buy his books or assign them to students.

    Perhaps a follow up column would be to look at all the pundits who think that they are so omniscient that (unlike the soviets or Chinese) they could run a centrally-planned economy far more effectively than a decentralized, self-governing capitalist society (which we once had).

    San Jose

    Posted by: J | October 7th, 2008 at 9:09 am

  • Your best column yet. You put a finger on the weakness of the whole progressive movement — snobbery. Bill Clinton never showed a whiff of this, yet his news conferences were the best learning experiences we’ve ever had!

    Posted by: Sylvia Tedesco | October 7th, 2008 at 9:15 am

  • Am I right in assuming you pay for your column in the CCT?
    Whatever..I appreciate your presence in ink – I am dropping my
    subscription to the CTT for their irrelevance to my life/reality

    Aside from that, lately I am finding it impossible to reach my reps w/o
    having to submit to a web-based interrogation/harvesting of my personal
    information before I can comment. As I suffer from double tendonitus,
    my computer time is limited by time and keystroke. In this last
    go=round I gave up and tried calling directly only to find the line
    constantly busy. When I finally got through to Tauscher’s office, the
    assistant started arguing my message!! Anyway, with EChaelon and matrex
    reading our email why can’t the candidates and reps????

    When I tried to respond to an Obama email I was re-directed to the
    web-based form ..I still have these questions..could you please help
    forward them??

    Why has no one questioned Mc Cain’s “winning” war record???… Vietnam
    was a rout!

    And while being a POW Mc CAin undoubtedly underwent brainwashing and
    re-programming attempts..What proof do we have that Viet Cong efforts
    weren’t successful??? I feel as if Mc CAin is a walking national
    security risk if that programming kicks/kicked in. Already, it looks as
    if the Chairman [mao] is getting things his way after all these years…

    Posted by: KO | October 7th, 2008 at 10:59 am

  • Mr. Reilly – usually, I agree with your columns, or at a minimum find them thought provoking. But your 10/7/08 “The Snobs at the Times” is unusually dishonest. Did you have Conservative Kool-Aid with breakfast that day?

    You mention Friedman, Dowd, and Rich as harming the campaign of Barack Obama, yet you fail to cite even a single exampe of Frank Rich. Frankly, he is one of the few people I enjoy reading even more than you, and I have never felt he wrote “snobbishly”. Simply put, it’s unfair to throw his name in with others and not cite even a single example, or give the slightest hint why he was included.

    Even more dishonest were your editing choices for the Dowd examples. First off, you quoted the following: “…which seemed almost as large as Wasilla, a town that is a soulless strip mall without sidewalks” but left off the completion of Dowd’s sentence: “…set beside a soulful mountain and lake.” Next you quoted: “I talked to a Wal-Mart mom, Betty Necas, 39, wearing sweatpants and tattoos on her wrists. She said she’s never voted, and was a teenage mom ‘like Bristol.’” But you left out: “She likes Sarah because she’s “down home” but said Obama “gives me the creeps. Nothing to do with the fact that he’s black. He just seems snotty, and he looks weaselly.”

    OK, now put down the Kool-Aid and ask yourself honestly: do the “complete” versions sound anywhere near as “snobby” as the edited ones? Frankly, even the edited ones did not sound soooo snobbish.

    As far as Friedman goes, you make your usual excellent points. Keep in mind that Friedman was completely duped on Iraq – he bought it hook, line, and sinker, even though he tried to claim otherwise. He must feel some degree of humiliation or shame down deep (as far as I know, he’s never fully accounted for his errors in judgment), and I suspect it comes out as arrogance, anger, or worse; although not always, and he still has “good column” days.

    All that being said, your point about condescension backfiring in the political arena is well taken. You just need to identify it better.

    Posted by: Todd Nyman | October 8th, 2008 at 1:03 am

  • I would just like to restate, if anybody is still reading this line, that the invocation of “condescension” or “elitism” in our political discussion is nothing more (and sometimes much less) than the patronizing of the proles. There are many who have been identified and filmed during this campaign cycle who, in the apt phrase, “cannot think clearly and hate anyone who can.” They cannot react to, because they do not understand, a description of our carbon profile, say, as they are keyed no higher than a sigh into a microphone which indicates to them their stand-in boob is being victimized by their great anxiety, “Condescension.” So Gore learned he must not offend the imbeciles.

    There are so many, in fact, that all broadcasters routinely suck up to them, for they are that prized marketing target: those who will readily believe without evidence if you but strike their fancy. This is why rarely did you see the truth about the mental midget infesting the White House today; because so many identify with him. He owes his rise strictly and finally to a condescension to the vast shallow pool which is his, and Magoo’s, constituency.

    I long for a Willy Stark, who in the guise of Broderick Crawford, cast aside the usual tiresome and tedious political stump preening to rail at his audience as a passel of simp suckers to the big inimical interests in their state. Send me the writers with the courage to speak truth to this great conspiracy of ignorance.

    No matter how it offends those very simps. There is, after all, safety in numbers, which include political writers willing to sing their dubious praises.

    Posted by: Clovis Bowden | October 9th, 2008 at 7:13 am

  • Clovis Bowden is more of a snob than the NY Times’ columnists, if that’s possible. His description of conservatives is exactly the kind of thing that is so laughably simplistic that it’s sure to turn off conservatives, independents, and fair-minded liberals. Why must people give in to their personal prejudices so easily? The Socratic method would have made mincemeat out of his ridiculous ramblings. It’s never good to speak or think out of anger. You’re likely to wind up in the same self-rightous realm as Clovis.

    Posted by: Paul | March 30th, 2010 at 12:11 pm

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