Kausfiles Special

The Purnick Platform

There’s something jarring about Joyce Purnick’s piece on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times “Metro” section–as jarring, in its way, as the Friday press conference at which tough-guy New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, looking drawn and scared like Munch’s Scream, babbled on about “when you feel your mortality and humanity.”

Purnick’s piece looks like a regular piece: normal typeface, normal layout. Purnick gets a byline like any other Times reporter. No wussy warning label like “News Analysis” or “Opinion.” An anodyne headline (“A Legacy in the Balance”). But the piece is an editorial.

Now, I’m not using that term the way it’s usually used against the Times–as a way of charging the paper with a subtle left-liberal bias in its seemingly conventional, “objective,” journalistic presentation of facts. There is no subtle or hidden ideology in Purnick’s piece. It is all in the open, without shame or attempted evasion. It is an editorial. If you saw it printed on the op-op-ed page, you’d think, good, Howell Raines finally came out and said it.

Purnick starts by noting that Giuliani said he “wants to devote the next year and a half to being ‘a better mayor.’” She continues: “If revising his legacy is indeed the objective of the newly introspective-sounding mayor, the issues are out there waiting for him.”

Purnick then goes on to basically list what Giuliani would do if he wanted to be a “better mayor.” He could appoint a police oversight board. He could drop the idea of individual merit pay for teachers.

The mayor could also call for reduced class sizes and find the financial resources to make that possible–dropping his proposal to cut the income tax surcharge and dedicating the income to schools, for instance.

He “could lobby for change in Albany” to put the Board of Education under direct political control and raise the city’s debt limit. He “could mobilize city agencies to encourage more people to enroll in a newly expanded state program for low income New Yorkers.” Purnick says, “Mr Giuliani might look again at his policy requiring single homeless adults to work in exchange for shelter,” and also at his plan to “deny shelter to parents who do not comply with city requirements–participating in workfare, for instance.”

That’s the Purnick Platform for a “better” mayoralty, which basically involves making concessions to a variety of venerable Democratic interest groups (at which point Giuliani would predictably receive what right-wingers like to mock as “strange new respect”). “He Still Has Time,” says an NYT subhed.

If you read the Times every morning, you have probably noticed that under publisher Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr. the paper has seemed to feel free to let its Upper West Side biases show. But there was probably always the suspicion that you were being paranoid–the Times always had biases, after all. Maybe you were just noticing them more. You’d moved to the right over the years. Maybe all those Reed Irvine attacks were taking their toll.

But now there can be no doubt. The old pre-Pinch Times would never have published Purnick’s piece, certainly not as a regular “news” story. Conventional American “objective” journalism has been decisively abandoned for something newer, looser, bolder.

In a way, it’s a relief. Under the old conventions, Purnick would have run around finding quotable third parties to tell her what she wanted to say–and it would just happen that all the experts she found agreed with her political views. The new dispensation eliminates the middleman, as it were, replacing deceptive selection with forthright assertion. That eliminates a layer of dishonesty and a layer of inefficiency. There’s no need to read between the lines, Pravda-style, to find out what Purnick thinks Giuliani should do. She just tells you. We always suspected the Purnick Platform was what guided the NYT’s metro reporting. Now we know, and we can assess it fairly and openly. Better blatant than latent. Let it all out!

But the new order brings its own problems, at least three of which spring to mind almost immediately:

First, many Times readers may not realize how decisively the paper has abandoned objective journalism. Purnick’s piece is deceptive in this sense, borrowing the authority readers confer on conventional reporting pieces, sneaking an entire urban agenda past those unarmed with the skepticism they normally reserve for opinion journalism.

Second, and more disturbing, is the possibility that Purnick herself may not realize she has abandoned conventional journalism. It may seem to her an obvious, almost objective truth that Giuliani should abandon “merit pay” because “[n]obody familiar with the powerful teachers’ union gives the idea a realistic chance of success.” But there’s at least an argument to be had on this issue, and another one on whether there aren’t compensating union concessions Giuliani might pursue and still be a “better” mayor. (Even if you can’t pay less-meritorious teachers less, maybe you should be able to lay them off first, regardless of their seniority.)

Finally, there is the question, not of whether what Purnick has written is opinion journalism, but whether it’s bad opinion journalism. Perhaps because of point No. 2, Purnick doesn’t seem to realize that journalists who write the sort of piece she has written have to do more than simply indicate their opinions. They also have to actually persuade skeptical readers that their opinions are right. It ain’t that easy. For example, it requires more than simply asserting that Giuliani’s priority should be a “call for reduced class sizes” as opposed to, say, a dozen other equally ambitious and expensive educational reforms that might have as much or more impact. Purnick simply lists her agenda points, as if her readers would naturally, automatically, unthinkingly agree.

The most disturbing possibility of all, of course, is that she’s right about that.