Who cares what The New York Times has to say? Fewer people, probably, than ever, but still enough reporters, editors and government officials to make its coverage –especially of international affairs – an important journalistic voice in a decision whether or not to go to war.
For at least two decades, the Times has been the newspaper that has set the agenda for the rest of the major media outlets. Not only do many newspapers without a large staff of foreign correspondents often run dispatches from the Times wire services, but network and cable news programs often go to the Times when they need to decide what their lead stories will be for the evening.
Listen to it enough, and one realizes that even a radical news show like Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! often defines itself in relation to the Times – in opposition to the Times to be sure, but still, in large part, in dialogue with it. Journalism professor Paul Janensch argued in 2004, “The Times is not just another newspaper. It is devoured every morning by opinion leaders in New York, Washington and around the country. Virtually every important news operation in the country – in the world, for that matter – is influenced by what the Times puts on page one.”
In 2002, when the Times chose to hype stories about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and “smoking guns as mushroom clouds,” that was a green light for the rest of the media to follow suit. The Times’ alleged liberalism, ironically, often aids the pro-war crowd. If the liberal Times says Saddam Hussein (or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for that matter) is trying to build a nuclear bomb, well, then, it must be true. After all, it isn’t as if Fox News is saying it.
Are newer media technologies, weblogs and so called “citizens’ journalism,” along with the erosion of institutional trust in the Times – occasioned by the Jason Blair and Judith Miller scandals – changing the news flow dynamic? Yes, in part, but the transition is a slow one.
What’s more, bloggers still report only a fraction of the “actual news” that is the lifeblood of the Times’ agenda setting power. Bloggers continue to be commentators on the news rather than reporters of it. As John Nichols recently argued in The Nation, “Newspapers may be the dinosaurs of America’s new media age … but the dinosaurs still have enough life in them to guide – and perhaps even define – our politics.”