Journalistic atrocity or savvy hire?
Ever since word leaked out that the New York Times had tapped the Weekly Standard editor William Kristol as an op-ed columnist (the Huffington Post broke the story on December 28; the Times confirmed it two days later), reaction has tended toward one of these two extremes: those indignant about the alleged defilement of America’s premier op-ed page cited Kristol’s unabashed militarism, poor track record on foreign-policy predictions, and naked partisanship. “Just shoot me,” Katha Pollitt wrote at thenation.com. “This is the man who blamed [A]merican liberals for the Khmer Rouge and the Ayatollah Khomeini (!), who will say just about anything, however bizarre or illogical or wild or (I’m guessing) cynical, to push the only ideas in his head: everything bad is the fault of Democrats and never mind the question, war is the answer.”
For their part, Kristol’s defenders — smaller in number, or just way quieter — wondered why Kristol’s one-year, once-a-week gig was generating so much fuss. Slate media critic Jack Shafer invoked the example of William Safire, another Times columnist who made his name as a conservative operative (in contrast with the Times’ David Brooks, a columnist who also happens to be a conservative). “Kristol — love him or hate him — writes interesting copy,” Shafer argued. “To him, writing is fighting. . . . I can’t promise that he’ll be good, but he’ll be different [and] he’ll be interesting.”
Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. Kristol’s introductory effort was a humdrum affair that panned Hillary Clinton (predictable, that), pegged Mike Huckabee as a good campaigner (which we already knew), and misattributed a quote from Michael Medved (he credited Michelle Malkin). But the more intriguing question raised by Kristol’s new post involves the relationship between the Times on the one hand, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. on the other. After all, the media world is eagerly anticipating a pitched newspaper battle between the Times and the new Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal. So why, at this particular moment, are Murdoch and the Times agreeing to share Kristol — who edits a News Corp. publication (the Weekly Standard) and is a regular commentator for Fox News, another News Corp. property?
Since the Times, News Corp., and Kristol himself all declined comment for this particular subject, we’ll have to engage in some informed speculation. Let’s start with the Times. The first thing to remember is that, as of September 19, 2007, all the Times’ op-ed content has been available for free online. This was a boon for readers, but it also created pressure on the Times in general — and editorial-page editor Andrew Rosenthal in particular — to generate the sort of page-view counts that will attract enough online advertising to make the move to free content pay off financially.
The hubbub that followed Kristol’s hiring shows how much he should help this cause. Conservatives will tune in to see how a true neoconservative believer comports himself at a paper that’s viewed, on the right, as a bastion of liberalism. For their part, the liberals and progressives who abhor Kristol will make sure to read him as well, driven by a masochistic impulse to see just how insufferable and insulting he’ll be in his new perch. Since it’s an election year, Kristol will have plenty of fodder to work with. Put it all together, and his tenure as a Times columnist seems sure to be one of 2008’s big media stories. And there will be plenty of page-clicks to follow — potentially many more than if the Times had tapped a lesser-known conservative for the post.