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Time Magazine: Unfair and Unbalanced

<i>Time</i>'s lineup of columnists betrays its readers and distorts the public discourse in a Limbaugh-like direction.
 
 
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In recent years, Time, America's largest-circulation newsweekly, winner of the 2006 National Magazine Award for General Excellence, and undoubtedly the nation's most influential magazine, has morphed into a kind of glossy sibling to the Wall Street Journal . Like the Journal, its hard news pages remain home to generally reliable, often excellent (though sometimes frivolous) political reporting. But its opinion pages are filled with vitriol, anger and abuse, almost always directed at liberals.

During much of the 1980s and early '90s, Time had a relatively balanced set of political contributors, boasting pundits Michael Kinsley and Barbara Ehrenreich in its back pages, Margaret Carlson with a chatty reported column inside and Roger Rosenblatt all over the place. But all are gone today; in addition to the fire-breathing neocon columnist Charles Krauthammer on the back page, there's Andrew Sullivan and Joe Klein. Of course, Sullivan is famously gay and has soured in his devotion to George W. Bush, and Klein frequently praises the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. But both writers share with Krauthammer a desire to paint liberals -- and most Democrats -- as either crazy or treasonous, and often both.

One could easily fill this magazine with examples of these writers' vicious comments about almost anyone they associate with the left. Sullivan notoriously suggested that Gore voters could not be trusted to be loyal Americans after 9/11; when Al Gore tried to expose the Bush Administration's lies about Iraq and save this country from catastrophe, Klein said "he looked like a madman" while Krauthammer, who parroted the same lies, joked that the ex-VP had "gone off his lithium."

Time's chosen columnists are not only abusive to liberals and Democrats; they are obsessive about their abusiveness. I was present recently when Klein shouted from the back of a room that "the message of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is that they hate America." * Klein returns to no topic so frequently as those "harsh and stupid" Democrats who "make fools of themselves even when they speak the truth." Sullivan, for his part, recently took the occasion of the death of John Kenneth Galbraith to opine that "the only response to a person like that is sadness mixed with contempt."

Krauthammer, meanwhile, describes Democrats as "rank hypocrites" with "nothing to offer on Social Security ... nothing to offer on the war in Iraq ... nothing to offer on the idea of how to manage ourselves in the UN ... obstructionist." Moreover, "they have trashed two centuries of tradition." All three regularly accuse liberals of rooting for the enemy in Iraq, always without evidence (for a more extensive sample of Time columnists' comments in the magazine and elsewhere, see Media Matters).

Recently, Time added to its stable Caitlin Flanagan, who debuted with an unsourced attack on Democrats for family hating. They also added Ana Marie Cox, a putative liberal whose specialty on her blog, Wonkette, were posts about -- sorry, Mom -- "ass-fucking," as if to prove the conservatives' point about liberal perversity. (Were Kinsley, Garry Wills, Molly Ivins, E.J. Dionne, Bill Moyers, Josh Marshall, Arianna Huffington, etc. all unavailable?)

Time's lineup of columnists betrays its readers and distorts the public discourse in a Limbaugh-like direction. It also proves a larger point: That America's most influential magazine can carry this imbalance so long without anyone paying attention -- and can win the industry's most coveted award while doing so -- ought to put to rest any arguments that the media elite are part of some liberal conspiracy. Indeed, media machers have grown so accustomed to conservative domination, they no longer notice it.

Still, Time's unfair and unbalanced pundit lineup is not necessarily a conservative conspiracy. Yes, it published a disgraceful whitewash of Ann Coulter on the cover last year, but otherwise the magazine's news reporting has not skewed noticeably rightward. Time's last three managing editors -- Walter Isaacson, Jim Kelly and now Rick Stengel -- have all been nonideological moderates. What's more, before he turned to Stengel late in the process of replacing Kelly, Time Inc. editor in chief John Huey reportedly offered the job to Kinsley, by acclamation the sharpest liberal pundit on the planet. (Tina Brown, another unapologetic liberal, was also said to be in the running.)

As he takes the reins, Stengel, who served as chief speechwriter for Bill Bradley's presidential campaign and co-wrote Nelson Mandela's autobiography, is undoubtedly concerned more with economic pressures than with liberal dissatisfaction. Approximately 650 staffers (company-wide) have received pink slips in the past six months, including Donald Barlett and James Steele, whose investigative reporting set an industry standard for intelligent and tenacious public-service journalism. Time's model is under siege, and its top brass are suffering extreme anxiety about how to rescue it. (Joe Klein's whining about "frothing bloggers" whose "vitriol ... seems uninformed, malicious and disproportionate" can be seen as manifesting a status anxiety diagnosed decades ago in Joe McCarthy's followers and now afflicting certain mainstream pundits.)

The problem is real, but "frothing" about the evil that lurks in bloggers' hearts is not the response. Better pundits are. At the same ceremony that recognized Time's excellence, the award for commentary went to The New Yorker's elegant essayist Hendrik Hertzberg, whom the judges credited with making "sense of bewildering and often unnerving topics, with insight, fair-mindedness and authority." Huey and Stengel would do well to study those columns and begin offering their readers something similar. Better yet, how about replacing the repetitive antiliberal rants of Klein, Sullivan and Krauthammer in the magazine with a truly fair-and-balanced assortment of political opinion?

* Note: Klein claims he said "leftist," not "liberal," and insists he was referring to Michael Moore and certain Nation writers. My memory disputes this, but regardless, the discussion topic was Democratic presidential candidates, not magazine writers and political documentarians.