Although it will likely be couched in corporate sweety-speak from the New York Times itself, and will lead conservative old and new media pundits to thunder about how the liberal news media just can’t take a real conservative’s opinion, the news that The Weekly Standard maven Bill Kristol’s contract wasn’t being renewed by the Times didn’t come to a surprise to one segment of people:
People who’ve worked on newspapers and/or people who are addicted to reading newspaper-op-ed columnists — columnists who cannot usually be confused with news-side reporters or most people who write on stream-of-consciousness right or left weblogs.
In fact, Kristol had “YOU CONTRACT WON’T BE RENEWED” seemingly written all over his face for months (in black magic marker), unless at the last minute the Times would calculate that the negative reaction would outweigh keeping him on. Here are the reasons that seemed clear for some time now:
1. Kristol’s writing on The Weekly Standard has usually been superb but his Times columns seemed dashed off. Even if you didn’t agree with him, there was a solidity to it that made the magazine’s pieces by him must reading. Many of his Times columns seemed to lack that quality.
2. He made some key errors. There were some embarrassing mistakes in his columns. How many times have you seen the same problem occur with many other national columnists, whether left, center or right?
3. His columns in the Times were not of the same quality and solidity as some other popular conservative columnists.
4. It turned out he was a key player in campaign strategy at a time when he was writing about it and didn’t fully reveal his true role.
4. The independence that often marks his Weekly Standard columns seemed lacking in his Times pieces, which sometimes seemed as predictable as turning on Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. (Limbaugh and Hannity have now become like the joke about Playboy Magazine. “Playboy has now come out with a magazine for married men. It has the same pictures month after month after month…”)
Kristol has long been lambasted by many on the left due to his positions and ideas — but that wasn’t the problem here. The problem was that he didn’t seem quite ready for Prime Time as high-profile “bigtime” conservative columnists are on the Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, The Daily Beast has a report that confirms many of these conclusions. It reports:
The famous neoconservative published his final New York Times column today. Scott Horton, who broke news on Kristol’s involvement in the selection of Sarah Palin, reports on real reasons the Gray Lady didn’t renew his contract.
“It must have been a bittersweet moment,” said a New York Times insider about
The New York Times’ decision not to renew Bill Kristol’s opinion column was because of the conservative writer’s sloppiness and uneven quality, according to a reliable source with first-hand knowledge of the decision. Today, the Times features a signature Kristol piece, discussing the heroic role of conservatism in modern American history and contrasting this with the fecklessness of American liberals. But only the last line is newsworthy: “This is William Kristol’s last column.”
So why was he “let go” (a phrase that’s always deliciously hypocritical no matter how it is used)?
According to Horton’s report, it wasn’t about Kristol’s closeness to Bush or Cheney, or his supporting McCain for the second time for President in 8 years. Those, Horton reports, were considered pluses. Not was it his support for the Iraq War (which some other columnists on all the major papers support as well). Here’s why:
The problems that emerged were more fundamental. Kristol’s writing wasn’t compelling or even very careful. He either lacked a talent for solid opinion journalism or wasn’t putting his heart into it. A give-away came in the form of four corrections the newspaper was forced to run over factual mistakes in the columns, creating an impression that they were rushed out without due diligence or attention to factual claims. A senior writer at Time magazine recounted to me a similar experience with Kristol following his stint in 2006-07. “His conservative ideas were cutting edge and influential,” I was told. “But his sloppy writing and failure to fact check what he wrote made us queasy.”
Kristol also regularly commented on political developments in which he was personally engaged—without disclosing the depth of his engagement. The Daily Beast previously highlighted his deep involvement in selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be John McCain’s running mate. In the campaign season that followed, boosterism about Sarah Palin became a staple of his writing, even at the expense of his relationship with McCain and leading figures in the McCain campaign. This conduct blurred the distinctions between being an actor on and observer of the political stage, raising some concern among the guardians of The Times’ credibility.
But there was ANOTHER reason as ANYONE who has worked for ANY big corporation will attest. You don’t diss the company you work for — especially not on national television:
Tough as this was for Kristol’s promoters, he might still have survived as a columnist had it not been for an attitude of casual and reflexive disloyalty he publicly displayed towards The Times itself. A good example came in an appearance with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show on October 30. Here’s the way Editor and Publisher described it:
“Appearing once again on The Daily Show, Bill Kristol, Jon Stewart’s favorite whipping boy (‘Bill Kristol, aren’t you ever right?’), on Thursday night defended the McCain-Palin ticket, at one point informing the show’s host that he was getting his news from suspect sources. ‘You’re reading The New York Times too much,’ he declared. ‘Bill, you WORK for The New York Times!’ Stewart pointed out.”
That, apparently, was the last straw for the Gray Lady.
Taken altogether, it seems as if the Gray Lady had a big, fat case of buyer’s remorse.
But Kristol need not worry: according to Horton, the Washington Post will now run Kristol’s columns once a month.
There’s likely now to be a hue and cry about the Post but, in fact, just as we enjoy running Guest Voice columns here of varying viewpoints and have felt sad when readers tell us they’ll never visit this site again due to us daring to run ideas they don’t like and are sad to see those readers go, his ideas — whether they were neocon, liberal, conservative or whatever — really aren’t the issue with Kristol.
He is an excellent writer and a smart strategist (even if he has given patently lousy advice to Bush, Cheney and McCain over the past few years). What Kristol needs to do is to:
1. Spend more time on his columns so they are as well-written and carefully prepared as the pieces by him in the Standard.
2. Don’t ever promote an idea or agenda that is part of something promoted or pushed behind the scenes. Or if you do, disclose it fully.
3. Don’t make jokes perpetuating conservative stereotypes about the Washington Post. Let Rush and Sean do what they do best. You should be on a higher level. David Brooks may not have the audience that Rush and Sean do but he’s considered more thoughtful and has more credibility to people other than those who are already singing in the conservative Republican choir.
SOME REACTION TO KRISTOL’S DEPARTURE:
—Steve Clemons:“Why are any of the majors publishing Kristol on a continuous basis when he has his perch at the Weekly Standard?”
Is the New York Times suddenly concerned with facts in its opinion pieces?
Such appears to be the case as information concerning the firing of conservative columnist Bill Kristol begins to surface. Makes you wonder if such a standard will be required of the Times’ liberal contributors…
—Talk Left’s Big Tent Democrat:“After failed stints at Time and the NYTimes, it is now time for Kristol to make room for some new GOP hacks.”
Six of the sweetest words in the English language: “This is William Kristol’s last column.” Although it will really limit public discourse in this country now that Kristol’s thoroughly uninteresting propaganda will be limited to his other seven or eight sinecures. I suppose the question now is who the replacement will be? Karl Rove? ….(I’d [like]to think that its financial crisis will cause the Times to question the value of paying a significant salary to writers who bring in approximately zero readers, but…)
—Editor & Publisher’s Editor Greg Mitchell has an absolutely devastating column about Kristol’s accuracy and his demise. Here is just a small part of it:
As you surely know by now, Bill Kristol wrote his final column today for The New York Times, sparing the paper any further embarrassment. But, as usual, he did not spare us all a good belly laugh: The news of his demise came in a brief tagline at the end of a column that, amazingly, opened, “All good things must come to end.” It’s about the alleged end of a golden conservative era.
A fitting end for a column that often made The Times read like The Onion.
So, for the laughs and all the rest, a tip of our cap to you, Mr. Kristol! And don’t let the door hit you on the way out. We’ll see you soon at The Washington Post.
Read it in full.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.