Who is more persuasive and convincing: the person who is lying to you and knows he's lying, or the person who is telling you a falsehood but believes his lie to be the truth?
Or flip the question around. Who is more persuasive and convincing: the person who tells you the truth, but with no certainty, or the person who tells you the truth because it is the theme of his or her existence?
I ask those questions in the context of a new book by William Proctor titled The Gospel According to The New York Times (Broadman and Holman, Nashville, $14.99). Mr. Proctor, an experienced journalist himself, pushes the thesis that the world's greatest newspaper has become an almost devious shaper of people's minds and values not by so-called straight reporting of the news but by quietly pushing its own social, moral, and political agenda. The Times does this with such fervor, Mr. Proctor argues, that you might call it a religious endeavor. Indeed, that's why he calls it "the gospel" according to The New York Times.
Mr. Proctor, a Harvard graduate and author of more than 70 other books, spent years as a reporter for the Times's competitor, the New York Daily News. But this is no shallow and cranky tract from a disgruntled rival. Throughout the book, Mr. Proctor repeatedly betrays a classy sort of admiration for the Times and its obviously competent reporters, writers, and editors.
Indeed, Mr. Proctor's book is almost as much a lament as it is a critique. It is true, on the one hand, that he bluntly accuses the Times of "pursuing a highly potent, largely clandestine, and unnoticed strategy to promote a particular worldview-not only in editorials, op-ed columns, or other opinion pieces, but also in news stories." And he charges that there is a conscious "orchestration" between the news and editorial functions of the newspaper "to promote deeply held values that are an integral part of the Times's corporate culture." On the other hand, Mr. Proctor simultaneously warns: "Readers shouldn't assume that I necessarily oppose a particular Times 'doctrine' just because I identify it as part of the paper's 'gospel.' In fact, in researching and writing this book, I have been surprised at the number of times I have found myself actually agreeing, at least in part, with the paper's belief system."
However that may be, Mr. Proctor's research-which is comprehensive, compelling, and sometimes even devastating-makes it clear that the nation's "newspaper of record" blatantly uses its lofty journalistic perch to push a variety of politically correct values. There are "seven deadly sins" that Mr. Proctor says the Times is determined to wipe clean from American culture. They are the sins of (1) religious certainty, (2) conservatism, (3) capital punishment, (4) "broken public trust," (5) the Second Amendment, (6) censorship, and (7) limitations on abortion. The 100-page core of the Proctor book details the manner in which the Times has over several years kept up a steady drumbeat of opposition to those seven values. That section especially-but the whole book in general-is full of specifics, documentation, and helpful reference material just in case you might worry that something might be taken out of context.
Mr. Proctor's case is convincing. For anyone who doubts that the media can pretend to be objective, but all the while be wholly devoted to the promotion of a particular worldview, here is the evidence. Mr. Proctor, incidentally, agrees with us at WORLD magazine, that so-called objectivity easily becomes a false god-false in the sense that we can appeal to it all we want, but that no human is capable of reaching its demands. All of us are committed to certain values that keep us from seeing the rest of reality objectively.
So at WORLD, as we have explained in this space again and again, we will tell you up front that we have an agenda and that we have certain biases. Our agenda is to see the world the way the God of the Bible sees it. We fail sometimes, of course. We probably fail often. But at least we are shooting straight with our readers in announcing that agenda. Mr. Proctor suggests that The New York Times fails that test of honesty. It pretends detachment, but practices advocacy.
Mr. Proctor's book deserves very wide attention. Every student of journalism should read it. So should every consumer of various journalistic products.
I do take two small exceptions to Mr. Proctor's overall assertion. First, he gives too much credit to the Times for shaping American culture. The Times, of course, does have broad influence-probably more than any other newspaper in history. But it also has a host of accomplices. I would argue that statist education, even more than the media, has produced, and now protects, the secularism that pervades America's culture today.
Second-and this goes back to my very first questions-Mr. Proctor hasn't persuaded me that the people who staff the Times have made this a self-conscious mission, or that they are quite as devious in their promotion of falsehood as he suggests. My sense is they are just being faithful (maybe even naively so) to who they are, and true products of the secularism that first shaped them.
But even if I'm right on those two issues, it doesn't change the main theme of Mr. Proctor's important little volume. It just makes the whole issue that much more insidious.