Silencing the City


"IF YOU LOOK at many newspapers," said my eighth grade English teacher, "you'll find subjective comments disguised as objective facts. The New York Times remains a truly objective paper--that's what makes it so special." As a native eighth grader, I had little cause to question her. After all, I could see for myself that the Times was head and shoulders above the Post and Daily News.

Recent events, however, have given me reason to doubt my long-standing loyalty to the Times. It's not that the Times no longer has first-rate coverage of the news. It's just that, as Emily Dickinson would say, it "tells it slant." Slowly but surely, the New York Times has been steering towards the right. Not the idealistic right of Ronald Reagan and the Heritage Foundation, but the pragmatic right of columnists like William Safire and Flora Lewis.

Once the newspaper of a pluralistic city, the Times has become the voice of real-estate developers and big business, the voice of Manhattan south of 96th street. Sure, it covers the other boroughs and the rest of the world. But its coverage unfolds distinctly from the perspective of the downtown interests. A recent feature on Hurricane Gloria's damage to Fire Island spoke of the "several hundred nervous city people who had come to inspect the vacation homes they feared they might never see again." The accompanying photo showed the damage to Calvin Klein's vacation home.

Perhaps the Times's most blatant admission of its support for the city's large real-estate moguls was its recent canning of columnist Sydney Schanberg. Schanberg's column, called "New York," was a beat he clearly decided to cover thoroughly. Realizing that the New York of Broadway theatres, Times Square redevelopment (read gentrification) and egocentric mayors was being prominently displayed on the front page, Schanberg set out to cover a different New York.

His New York portrayed a city in which thousands of citizens were sleeping on the streets and the lines at the soup kitchens were growing. Schanberg also wrote of people who were unable to afford housing, New Yorkers who were being displaced by the exhorbitant rents.


In response to landlords who wanted to remove rent-control constraints, he asked, "What about the people who are already in Manhattan? Do you just force them out and tell them it's nothing personal, just free-market forces at work?" While the Times editorial page spoke about the nuisance of ghetto kids trying to earn a few dimes by washing windshields, Schanberg put David Rockefeller and Alfonse D'Amato in the spotlight, questioning their role in trying to bulldoze Westway through a city of concerned citizens.

For a while, the publisher and executives at the Times allowed Schanberg's column to run, even though his New York had little in common with theirs. But things began to change. Schanberg began to bring the two New Yorks together. He began to wonder why large real-estate developers (many of whom advertise heavily in the Times) were getting tax abatements for building luxury housing. He began to question the tactics that landlords were using to convert their rental stock into condominiums. He wondered about the mayor's policy towards the growing homeless population.

He also wondered about mundane things such as Koch's personal intervention to help a New Orleans chef open a gourmet Cajun restaurant. The Times applauded the Mayor's action, and later endorsed his candidacy, as it has in the past, this time dubbing him "The Restaurant Mayor." Schanberg treated the issue with a degree of incredulity, saying the mayor's intervention on behalf of the chef was, "Big news in a city where the newspapers have shrunk to four in number and suffer from frequent bouts of sleeping sickness."

In a more incisive criticism, Schanberg commented that while the restaurant story made the front page, it was odd that the Times "[couldn't] seem to find space for Westway and its scandal."

Schanberg's criticisms began, increasingly, to put some people on the spot--people who wrote the Times editorials, politicians whom the Times had endorsed, and advertisers who sold real estate and other items throughout the Times. Schanberg's column has been cancelled.

Instead, The New York Times has announced, there will be a new New York column. Pasteurized and homogenized like the front page, this column is sure to represent the ideals and aspirations of the Times' upscale readers. Maybe issues that the Times editorial page has championed, such as the restoration of a pre-revolutionary war mansion, will take precedence over such mundane problems as corruption in the building industry.

OUTSIDE OF New York power and politics, the Times continues to question authority (though not as thoroughly as it once did); it continues to show multiple sides of complex stories. But once the Times focuses closer to home, the objective eye is closed and the dissenting voice is hushed. The Times questions racism in South Africa but not in the South Bronx; it uncovers conflicts of interest in Washington, D.C. but not in City Hall.

Sydney Schanberg has now left the Times for good; the newspaper has silenced the voice of the other New York City. In one of his last columns, Schanberg wrote, "It's time we started building for the people and not for the builders." It's time the Times enacts the same policy with its news reporting and columns.