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How a little magazine dismissed as 'biased' can eat the Paper of Record's lunch on the facts
We are on Day 5 of Reason's annual Webathon, in which we are asking readers to provide $250,000 in tax-deductible donations between now and December 8, so that we can provide you the very bestest of libertarian news, analysis and commentary.
Several years back I ran into a certain celebrity libertarian in Las Vegas (tall fellow, very talky) who told me that the first thing he reads in the morning is The New York Times, America's celebrated "Paper of Record." And the second thing he reads is Reason, to "de-program" for what he's just read in the Times. This, I doth contend, is a damn good reason why y'all should consider meeting our humble request to elicit a bit more this year in tax-deductible reader donations to our 501(c)(3) nonprofit than, say, The Clinton Foundation gives in a random year to the New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.
We do this literally, as in the case of Jim Epstein's masterful re-reporting of the paper's embarrassingly inaccurate nail salon expose, which elicited this classic line from the paper's public editor, Margaret Sullivan: "The Times has not responded to that series because editors believe they defended the nail salon investigation fully [to a previous critique] and because they think the magazine, which generally opposes regulation, is reporting from a biased point of view."
And we also did this today. Hours before the print-publication slapped on my upstairs neighbor's porch (the NYT co. can't quite figure out that the delivery location is the same address as the mailbox where I get my annual please-tip-our-super-competent-delivery-person solicitation), with its self-ballyhooed First Front Page Editorial Since the Grey Lady Inexplicably Dissed Warren Harding, Reason Senior Editor Brian Doherty calmly dissected the argument on its policy merits, pointing out that such a massively invasive banning-and-confiscation scheme would address a subset of a category of guns—rifles—that accounted for all of an estimated 248 murders in 2014. That compares to, say, 1,567 murders using "knives or cutting instruments." More Doherty:
the FBI figures there do not break down the category "rifle" to the specific ones that the Times targets, likely akin to the "assault weapons" that were banned moving forward in America for a decade, with no appreciable effect on public safety.
So the total number of those 248 (or slightly more) rifle murders actually caused using the ones the Times wants to expend all that effort into banning is much smaller than 248. Since the effort could not actually succeed in removing all such rifles from the hands of people with propensities to murder, and even if it did those murderous types would have other means to murder if they chose, the effort would not actually save all of that subset-of-248 lives.
But I want to focus this morning not on the gun policy merits, but the Times-argumentation demerits, as a way of providing contrast to the kinds of journalism your generous donations help support. Put bluntly, the NYT's cri de coeur is a vainglorious yet petulant act of emotive signaling that mangles the plain meaning of the English language in the service of persuading exactly nobody.
The paper almost admits as much in its look-at-me! news story about its own editorial (the tail, apparently, being insufficient to eat itself):
In a statement, the publisher of The Times, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., said the paper was placing an editorial on Page 1 for the first time in many decades "to deliver a strong and visible statement of frustration and anguish about our country's inability to come to terms with the scourge of guns."
"Even in this digital age, the front page remains an incredibly strong and powerful way to surface issues that demand attention," Mr. Sulzberger said. "And, what issue is more important than our nation's failure to protect its citizens?"
Bolding mine. When my 7-year-old delivers a "strong and visible statement of frustration and anguish," we call that a "tantrum." Though at least she delivers such without the extravagant self-regard, and without forcing her poor employees to republish her crafted statements.
I talked about this tendency toward throw-your-hands-in-the-air frustration about guns in my December 2015 editor's note, which compared it to similar rhetorical anguish among anti-abortion advocates. Sample:
"All that is necessary for sanity to rule again, on the question of guns," wrote The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik in a much-discussed piece after the Oregon shooting, "is to restore the amendment to its commonly understood meaning as it was articulated…a scant few years ago. And all you need for that is one saner and, in the true sense, conservative Supreme Court vote. One Presidential election could make that happen."
Such simplicity reeks of an exasperated desperation. The notion that the Second Amendment protects a collective and not an individual right was discredited not by the late-breaking fantasies of conservative jurists but by the research of liberal academics like Sanford Levinson a quarter century ago. Even the dissenters in the Heller case recognized the Second Amendment as applying to individuals.
But it's more clarifying to think of post-shooting commentary as declarations of emotion rather than carefully thought-out legal history and policy analysis. Consider this child-like passage from Gopnik (emphasis in the original): "We know how to fix this. Gun control ends gun violence as surely an antibiotics end bacterial infections, as surely as vaccines end childhood measles—not perfectly and in every case, but overwhelmingly and everywhere that it's been taken seriously and tried at length."
When the Planned Parenthood videos started appearing in the summer, the overwhelming response by activists was bewilderment that the world did not share in their sense of horror. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who generally does a yeoman's job of describing conservative views to a liberal audience, likened the graphic footage in those videos with "that moment when you start pondering the possibility that an institution at the heart of respectable liberal society is dedicated to a practice that deserves to be called barbarism."
Having lost the big legal arguments, anti-abortion activists, much like their pro-gun control counterparts, are left with pointing at the blood and saying, "See?" It is undeniable that such emotional pleas to our sense of empathy and disgust are genuine, worthy of respect, and often persuasive, at least temporarily.
Please note the genuine declaration of empathy in that last paragraph. I am pro-choice on both issues—actually, anti-prohibition might be the best way to describe it—but on questions that literally involve life and death, it strikes me as self-defeating madness to fall into the typically inaccurate cliché that those who disagree with you about policy must be either evil, stupid, or both. There are plenty of libertarians who are anti-abortion from a principled point of view, and the next word I type disparaging their beliefs will be my first. And I have always been surrounded, geographically and professionally, by people who feel roughly the ways The New York Times does about guns. To which I—and more importantly, Reason—say, "Look, here are some tools for actually understanding the issue, regardless of what side you're on." Yes, we unapologetically advocate freedom and constitutionality, but we're also in the human-persuasion business. Compare that to the NYT:
Opponents of gun control are saying, as they do after every killing, that no law can unfailingly forestall a specific criminal. That is true. They are talking, many with sincerity, about the constitutional challenges to effective gun regulation. Those challenges exist. They point out that determined killers obtained weapons illegally in places like France, England and Norway that have strict gun laws. Yes, they did.
But at least those countries are trying. The United States is not. Worse, politicians abet would-be killers by creating gun markets for them, and voters allow those politicians to keep their jobs.
Bolding mine. When I wrote and edited editorials at the L.A. Times, my tenure began just after Michael Kinsley's ended there. Somewhere on the Dark Web there are a series of fabulous memos Kinsley wrote about editorial writing and opinion journalism. A big, consistent theme: Do not use the worst of your opponents' arguments, engage with the best. Also, just because it's opinion, doesn't mean it shouldn't be fact-based and true. Quite the opposite, actually.
Take a look at that passage again through that lens. In order of the bolding:
1) It's not that 2nd Amendment enthusiasts are saying that no law is infallible and therefore there should not be laws, they are saying—over and over again—that the specific laws championed in the wake of the latest gun massacre would have specifically done nothing to prevent the massacre in question. This is true in almost every case. President Barack Obama called for "universal background checks" after San Bernardino, despite the fact that the four guns used in the attack were all legally purchased from federally licensed gun dealers, in a state that has the very types of gun control that Obama and others want to nationalize. Critics of the post-shooting measures are not seeking infallibility, they are asking about basic applicability.
2) Saying that "many" gun control critics are bringing up constitutional objections with "sincerity" is the same as saying that a significant subset are also being insincere. Which is a gratuitous insult, backed by zero supporting evidence. Meanwhile, for evidence of the Times' own flippant attitudes toward constitutional objections to gun control, look no further than its editorial from earlier this week, advocating that 2nd Amendment rights to keep and bear arms be stripped from people merely for having "several run-ins with the law" producing zero convictions. As Reason Senior Editor Jacob Sullum asked, "[W]hy should 'run-ins with the law,' including charges that are never proven, be enough to strip someone of the right to keep and bear arms? It is hard to imagine the Times endorsing that approach to any other constitutional right."
3) To say that "The United States is not" trying to regulate guns, is to define the "United States" as only the federal government (there is plenty of such action on the state and local level), and to define "trying" as "succeeding." The Senate just this week produced 45 votes in favor of stripping gun rights from persons who are only suspected (not convicted, not even charged) of terrorism-related activity, an amendment that The New York Times editorial board predictably endorsed, even as respected constitutional scholars such as Eugene Volokh were writing such as analysis as "I can't see how that's constitutional."
4) Here's a thought experiment: Do politicians "create" newspaper "markets" by declining to outlaw newspapers? Or are markets things that spring up everywhere people seek to trade with one another (including in items that are made illegal by politicians)? Do politicians "abet" knife-murderers by failing to prohibit kitchen knives? In its rush to emote, the Paper of Record is inventing causality and responsibility chains that do not make basic logical sense.
A final point about the NYT's petulance and self-regard. This is how the front-page editorial ends:
What better time than during a presidential election to show, at long last, that our nation has retained its sense of decency?
There may be hoarier editorial clichés ("A Modest Proposal"!), but maybe none with as much evident strain to bathe in some of the unearned glow from one of the journalism guild's favorite stories.
After the jump, more examples of Reason calling B.S. on the Times. Before the jump, a reminder:
A selection of NYT-related business from this year's Reason archive:
Oct. 7: "Did Soda Tax Proposals Cause a Decline in Soda Consumption That Started Years Earlier? Probably not, but The New York Times is eager to credit politicians," by Jacob Sullum.
Sept. 1: "Another Day, Another Bogus New York Times Attack on Clarence Thomas: The Gray Lady misleads its readers about the conservative Supreme Court justice," by Damon Root.
Aug. 28: "Is It Really 'Unclear' Whether a Background Check Would Have Stopped a Killer Who Passed One? The New York Times thinks so," by Jacob Sullum.
July 2: "New York Times: Shout Loudly Enough, and We Will Succumb to Your Heckler's Veto: Why will the Paper of Record publish a condom-Pope but not a Mohammed statue? Catholics aren't loud (or scary) enough," by Matt Welch.
April 7: "Another Day, Another Dumb New York Times' Story on Corporations and Free Speech: An error-filled op-ed from a liberal Times pundit," by Damon Root.
March 24: "The New York Times, a Corporation, Worries That the First Amendment Is Now 'Embraced by Corporations': Are liberals turning on the First Amendment because it protects the free speech of corporate entities?" by Damon Root.
Jan. 14: "New York Times Editor Dean Baquet Continues to Beclown Self Over Charlie Hebdo Cartoons: The Paper of Record is in the increasingly lonely position of not reprinting newsworthy cartoon image, yet agonizing over it," by Matt Welch.
Jan. 13: "Will American News Organizations Reprint the Most Newsworthy Cartoon of the Year? The New York Times had 9 years to come up with a better justification for not running images of Mohammed," by Matt Welch.
Jan. 6: "What is Wrong with the New York Times? Cops Not Bothering Minorities a Possible 'Civil Rights Violation,'" by Ed Krayewski.
And, of course….