Why The New York Times Show Gave Me The Willies

Copies of the New York Times sit for sale in a rack July 23, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
January 20, 2020 11:56 a.m.

I know that I am not the only person who felt uneasy about the spectacle that took place last night on television as The New York Times’ editors sat around a table deciding who us peons should support for the Democratic nomination for president. Let me try to explain why I felt uneasy.

In a democracy, we need to rely in some cases on expert opinion. Not recognizing that is one of the gravest faults of the Trump administration. If I want to know whether chemical X is a carcinogen, I want to hear from scientists, not industry lobbyists. But political democracy is based partly on the idea that when it comes to deciding who to support for high office, no one is an expert.

And there’s another assumption about political democracy. A range of great minds, from James Madison to Karl Marx to James Buchanan, have recognized that whom we support for high office has a lot to do with our experiences: where we live, whom we hang out with, what kind of jobs we have, whether we went to college or not, what our race, sex, religion, and ethnicity are. That has become even more evident in the last few decades, and particularly in the 2016 presidential election.

The New York Times’ spectacle ran afoul of both these assumptions. It assumed some kind of super-expertise on politics among the editors there. One editor explained the purpose of the spectacle as “educating” the public. (I think it was as much about marketing The New York Times’ brand.) And the spectacle assumed that the editors sitting there were dispassionate observers of our politics.

I only know one of the editors personally, so I may be dead wrong, but I would bet that few of them are industrial workers, few live in small or mid-sized towns in the Midwest or South, few went to junior colleges, few hang around with people who voted for Donald Trump, or even Republicans, few go to emergency rooms for their health care, few have had low-wage jobs where they have competed with recent immigrants, few worry that their own jobs will be exported to Mexico or China. Do I need to go on?

I think there would be one acceptable format for such a spectacle. That would be if it were billed as a deliberation among well-heeled, highly-educated residents of the Eastern seaboard who work in the upper reaches of the knowledge industry. They might also have invited a few doctors, lawyers, and professors from the city to join the deliberations. In that case, the recommendations, while reflecting a fairly narrow slice of the population, would have had a similar interest to that of the average focus group, and could have been billed on television in the spirit of one of those reality shows.

The other possibility would have been to follow custom and have made their recommendations when the New York primary comes along with recommendations for local and state jobs. The New York Times is still a New York newspaper, and is probably staffed mostly by New Yorkers. In that case, the recommendation would have seemed more appropriate. And newspapers do readers a service in making recommendations for things like transit boards that few people pay attention to. But as it is, I kept thinking as I watched the last fifteen minutes or so (I was busy with football before that) of what Bill Buckley once quipped, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the telephone directory than by the Harvard University faculty.” Substitute “The New York Times’ editors” for the “Harvard University faculty” and you’ve got my sentiments.

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