Big Media

The big media briefly described here were chosen for their importance. They are too large and influential to be ignored, whether one agrees with them or not.  Some of these organizations are also "smart", even though I give that adjective to another set of sites.

The Atlantic Monthly is the best general magazine in the United States, as it has been for many years.  Under its new editor, Michael Kelly, it has become even more lively. For example, Kelly has added pieces by P. J. O'Rourke,who is intelligent and funny at the same time.  In one area, the Atlantic is almost unique; it has some of the best writing on religion anywhere, insightful and respectful.  In the last year, they have published Charlotte Allen exploring the false Wiccan claims, Toby Lester on the explosion of new religions in the world, and Bernard Lewis on what went wrong with Islam civilization, all fine articles.

For years now,the National Review has been the principal conservative magazine, setting the tone, and often, the agenda for conservative activists.  The magazine now has a lively daily web site, edited by Jonah Goldberg, Lucianne's son.  With its short lead time, it is no surprise that the articles are uneven in quality, or that the authors' prose sometimes goes farther than it should.  (The site dropped Ann Coulter for just that offense.)  With those caveats, the articles on it are always worth a look, and sometimes quite good.

The New Republic does not have quite the same relationship to liberals as the National Review does to conservatives.  The magazine's split personality puts it to the right of George W. Bush on most Middle East questions, but to his left on most domestic issues.  Even on domestic issues, it is more likely to take a New Democrat, moderate left line, respecting markets, and requiring results from government bureaucracies.  It has had a series of talented editors, including Andrew Sullivan, Michael Kinsley, and Michael Kelly (fired because he was too tough on Clinton).  Under its current editor, Peter Beinart, the magazine is somewhat marred by an almost instinctive Democratic partisanship in many articles.  

There are two main things to say about the New York Times: It is the best newspaper in the world, and it has serious and worsening problems.  The Science Times section, which appears every Tuesday, shows just how good they can be.  It has superb coverage of scientific issues by a number of excellent reporters.  Nor is this the only bright spot at the Times; after each national election, for example, they publish the best set of voter analyses I have seen in any newspaper.

The problems can be seen, almost every day, on the editorial pages.  With the exceptions of William Safire and Thomas Friedman, the columnists and editorialists simply do not belong at a major newspaper.  They are, as a group, simply too close-minded, too bigoted against conservatives, and too careless with the truth.  Here's an example of the last: Several years ago, Maureen Dowd wrote that the Bush administration wanted to "spike" the water with arsenic, that is add arsenic to the water.  If she wrote the same thing about me, since I am a private citizen, I would have a strong case for a slander suit.  Neither she, nor the newspaper, ever corrected this outrageous slur.  The problems worsened for a while when the editor who did so much damage to editorial pages, Howell Raines, was been given control of the news side.  After the Jayson Blair scandal, he was forced out and the newspaper is no longer visibly getting worse

(If you have not used the Times site before, you should know a couple of things.  They require registration, which is simple and quick, though you get another password to remember.  They also store a cookie with the password on your system.  As long as nothing disturbs the cookie, you'll be able to skip the login when you access the site from that system. They limit free access to their articles to two weeks after publication, so if you see one you want to save, don't delay too long.)

Salon is one of the few dot com survivors, and, if news reports are accurate, may not last much longer.  This is unfortunate, not because it has been a great political journal, but because, unlike many publications, especially on the left, it is open from time to time, to other ideas.  If the bulk of its articles came from untra PC staffers, or careless journalists like Jake Tapper, or people as dubious as Joe Conason, there are still regular pieces from David Horowitz, and some good coverage of the open software movement and their opponents at Microsoft.

The Seattle PI is the smaller of the two Seattle papers that compete for readers, and cooperate with a joint operating agreement.  It has fewer resources than its larger competitor, and the difference shows.  Despite that, it beats its bigger competitor in some things.  The PI has a better cartoonist, David Horsey, a better sports writer, Art Thiel, and a better business writer, Bill Virgin.  Though I often disagree with Joel Connelly, their lead political writer, (and almost always cancel his vote, in state wide elections), he is knowledgeable about the nitty gritty details of state politics, and he is willing, sometimes, to criticize Democrats like Seattle's Congressman for life, Jim McDermott.  The newspaper is terrible on enviromental issues, with much of its reporting looking like recycled press releases from environmental extremists.

The PI's biggest weakness is its editorial pages (other than Horsey).  Few of the editorials impress me, and most of their columnists are not even second rate, though they do carry George Will and William Safire.  The editorial staff may need more resources; they certainly need more ideological diversity.

Though a little more open to competing ideas, the Seattle Times has about the same slant on the news as the PI, but far better editorial pages.  It is not clear to me why the Times lacks the stars on the news side, compared to the PI.  Perhaps the executive editor, Michael Fancher, and the managing editor, Alex MacLeod, simply exercise too tight a control. As any horseman can tell you, the reins should be neither too tight nor too loose. (There is one strange exception to this control, Ron Judd, who seems to have escaped from both personal responsibility and his editors.)

The editorial pages are far less predictable than the news.  In the 2000 election they actually endorsed George Bush over Al Gore.  At the same time, much to their shame, they endorsed Maria Cantwell over Slade Gorton.  This is a curious pair of endorsements because Gorton is a bit more moderate, on the whole, than Bush, while Cantwell is considerably to the left of Gore.  (Recently, her big project has been to give what help she could to one of the last Communist dictators, Fidel Castro.  She hasn't explained what she admires about him, the supression of dissidents, the persecution of homosexuals, the military adventurism, or the mismanagement of the Cuban economy.  Or, maybe it's his cigars she likes.) This split endorsement came, I suspect, because Bush supported the elimination of the estate tax, of critical importance to the family that controls the Times.  Part of the credit for the Times editorial pages must go to their current editor, James Veseley, who seems more open to both new ideas and evidence than the average journalist.  In contrast to the PI, for example, the Times' editorialists have noticed that the light rail plan for the Seattle region makes no sense, since it will cost billions and deliver no significant benefits.

Slate has a better business model for an on-line political magazine than its competitor, Salon.  Slate, although it does have ads, relies on a permanent subsidy from Bill Gates to cover its deficit.  (Subsidies like this are nearly universal for the print political journals, so it should be no surprise that the on-line journals need them too.  Slate is more moderate and has a higher quality than Salon, but, for me, somehow the sum is less than its parts.  One reason for this is the poor site design, which seems almost intended to prove that Microsoft can not, without copying, create a good design.  Slate attracts a much wider spectrum of readers than Salon, as one can see from the user forums.

Only part of the Wall Street Journal is available on line, free.  (You can get the rest of on line by subscribing, either with or without a printed subscription.)  The Opinion Journal contains most of the editorial pages and some additional material, notably their interesting, and often very funny, "Best of the Web" section.  Whether this is the section of the Journal that you want depends on your interests and, perhaps, your ideology.  The newspaper has a sharp split between the editorial pages and the news pages, the first on the right and the second on the left.  This adds an interesting tension to the paper, since one can often see the two contradicting each other, with news stories on the editorial pages and editorials in the news sections.  Even without that tension, the Opinion Journal has much of interest.

The Washington Post is the second most prominent liberal newspaper in the country, after the New York Times.  The Post is notably fairer and less predictable than the Times.  In news coverage the two newspapers are about equal; the Times has more depth and range, but is more often biased.  On the editorial pages, the Post beats the Times completely; their editorials are more sensible and thoughtful, and even their columnists are much better than those the Times.  Two editors account for much of the difference in the editorial pages; the late Meg Greenfield built the Post's editorial pages, and Howell Raines did much to wreck those of the New York Times.  The higher quality of the editorial pages at the Post may explain why it has both an ombudsman, Michael Getler, and a media critic, Howard Kurtz, who sometimes criticizes their own newspaper.  The Times has neither, though they just hired a "reader's editor", Daniel Okrent.  The Post has enough confidence in its product to print self-criticism, and the Times does not.

Last revised: 1:09 PM, 8 January 2004