The most satisfying moment in Page One, the recent documentary about the media desk at the Times, comes when columnist David Carr visits the burgeoning Vice magazine media empire in Williamsburg. At one point, Vice co-founder Shane Smith launches into a lecture about how Vice’s video “travel guide” to famously war-torn, ungovernable Liberia shone a light on harsh truths (alleged cannibalism, feces-strewn beaches, and the like) that the Times had avoided. “Time out,” Carr says. “Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide—and just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do. So continue. Continue.”
When Smith, backpedaling, protests by explaining that he’s “not a journalist,” Carr cuts him off: “Obviously. Go ahead.”
If Smith had done some reporting before his sit-down with Carr, he would have realized that, in fact, the Times’ commitment to international reporting is, in marked contrast to almost all the rest of the media firmament, as robust as ever.
That commitment comes with economic costs and human perils. In 2008, when I visited the Times’ Baghdad bureau, the newspaper was virtually the only Western news organization that had not significantly cut back on the number of staff it had on the ground in Iraq. The paper’s presence in Iraq did not come cheap—at the time, Keller estimated the bureau cost around $3 million a year to run, a sum made all the more meaningful by the fact that in 2009, the Times eliminated about 100 editorial jobs. Still, Keller said, neither he nor Sulzberger second-guessed their decision. “This is so integral to what readers expect in the New York Times,” he said, “that if we stopped covering the war in Iraq, we should just go out of business.”
In the past three years, more than a half-dozen Times staffers have been kidnapped or detained by foreign troops. In April 2008, reporter Barry Bearak was arrested and detained in Zimbabwe. Seven months later, reporter David Rohde and two of his associates were kidnapped by the Taliban; Rohde didn’t escape until June 2009. Three months after that, reporter Stephen Farrell was kidnapped in Afghanistan; during his eventual rescue, his interpreter and a British commando were killed. The most recent occurrence was in March, when Farrell and Shadid and photographers Lynsey Addario and Tyler Hicks were captured in Libya and held by forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi for four days.
As a profession, journalism of the kind the Times practices can be dangerous. And as a business, in a metaphorical sense, more so. You’re depending for your living on the seriousness and high purpose of a substantial segment of the American public. In that sense, the Sulzbergers have always been involved in a fool’s game. The current Sulzberger’s bets have at times seemed the most outlandish, as if he’s willfully refused to read the writing on the wall. But for the Sulzbergers, whatever their faults, even when the paper was making money, it has always been a calling rather than a business. Insisting that people would pay for their content when a consensus of media savants said that they would hemorrhage readership was the work of an eccentric family. Which the Sulzbergers are and always have been. And for now, cross your fingers, it seems to be working.