Press Box

How Indie Was the International Herald Tribune?

Its departing publisher’s sniveling nothwithstanding, not very.

You’ve got to admire departing International Herald Tribune CEO Peter C. Goldmark for spurning the hush money that ordinarily goes to the newly fired or resigned. Instead, he’s chosen to speak his mind about how badly he thinks the New York Times Co. will muck up his beloved “independent”IHT. (The back story: Last year, Times Co. cutthroats divorced their 50-50 IHT partners, the Washington Post Co., paying a reported $70 million to consolidate ownership.)

Still, I can’t generate a watt of sympathy for Goldmark’s anti-Times Co. broadside. In a 900-word note to the paper’s staff, he bemoans the fact that the editorial side of the previously “independent” IHT will now report to the Times Co. “This means I am the last publisher of the IHT as an independent newspaper with its own voice and its own international outlook on the world,” Goldmark writes.

I’d be chapping my lips in anxiety about the IHT’s fate, too, if the Times Co. wanted the editorial side of the paper to report to Richard Mellon Scaife or Bill Moyers. But why should the Times Co. drop $70 million on the IHT and then let somebody else call the shots? Is Goldmark new to the business world?

Or is he just delusional? In the staff note, Goldmark continues:

The world needs more independent voices, not fewer. And at a time when the world is growing to mistrust America, it needs thoughtful voices and independent perspectives that see the world whole and are not managed from America.

There’s that word “independent” again … and again … like some Latin incantation. Prior to the Times Co. consolidation, were Gerhard Schröder, Kim Jong-il, and Saddam Hussein oblivious to the fact that the overwhelming majority of the “independent” IHT’scopy came from those two American-managed newspapers, the Washington Post and the New York Times, with a dash of Los Angeles Times tossed in, and only a smattering of home-grown stories? For all the IHT’s vaunted independence, both of its last two executive editors, Michael Getler and David Ignatius, came from the Washington Post. And how were Getler and Ignatius rewarded after their “independent” runs at the IHT? With new gigs at the Post. That’s no slam against Getler and Ignatius, both fine journalists. It’s a swipe at Goldmark. Simply put, the IHT hasn’t been “independent” since the Post Co.’s Katharine Graham purchased the first chunk of it from Jock Whitney in 1966 and the Times Co. bought in a year later.

Anyone can appreciate why the demise of the “independent” IHT mists the eyes of Goldmark and other IHT employees. It’s sad to have your newspaper wrestled out from under you. But newspapers should serve their readers, not their employees. For all its vaunted independence, the IHT produced very few exposés and scoops, and it developed very little in the way of new talent. If the Times Co. makes good on its announced plans to expand the IHT and make it more timely at the cost of independence, I say all the better. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Visigoths from New York know a thing or two about producing fact-laden, quality journalism on a deadline.

Months before the Times Co. muscled the Post Co. out, James Ledbetter rightly called the IHT “the duck-billed platypus of the newspaper world” in Slate. “The Trib’s bigger problem is not that it’s a day stale but that its decades stale,” he wrote. Indeed, the IHT may well have reached its high-water mark in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), where the character played by Jean Seberg hawked it on Paris streets. Never again has it enjoyed such cachet.

For all Goldmark’s sniveling, the IHT deal may end up reinvigorating international journalism. Last week, the jilted Washington Post found another sweetie to canoodle with in Europe and Asia: the Wall Street Journal. The Post will offer the Journal a dozen or so stories for the Journal’s overseas editions, a win-win for both newspapers—and readers—as the International Herald Tribune morphs into the New York Times International.

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