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Monday, February 10, 2003

New York Rules

David Warsh writes about the battle for dominance between the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal:

[C]learly the executives who run them are competing for the same space — dominance of the lofty region where short-term causal explanations of events are forged. They may operate rival explanatory standards at the moment. But it is in the nature of standards that one inevitably gains the upper hand.

The papers are the Hertz and Avis of the day-to-day truth business. Ultimately one of them is going to become generally preferred.

Warsh's mentions of truth remind me of a story written two years ago by Brent Cunningham in the Columbia Journalism Review about the New York bias in news reporting, and the thoughts I made of if at the time. Here I present an updated and edited version.

In his anecdotes, Cunningham ends each paragraph with the sentence "New York rules". Over 10,000 journalists work in the city, and the "decisions made each day by journalists in New York determine which issues become national news, what gets emphasized, what gets downplayed. In short, what is important for all of us." They all see the world through a "New York lens", not helped by the fact that all of them read the Times every day. Important things take place in New York; it is the financial capital of the world, seat of the United Nations, and setter of cultural trends -- more so than, say, Hollywood.

Commenting at the time on Cunningham's story, Virginia Postrel noted that "for all its excellent national and international coverage, the New York Times is fundamentally a local newspaper, shaped by the experiences and prejudices of life in Manhattan." Cunningham went further, writing that:

Manhattan is arguably the least representative place in the country. Life here is different. We ride trains rather than drive cars. We pay ridiculous amounts of money to live in rented apartments with notoriously tiny kitchens. We cook less, opting instead to order in or dine out on everything from Afghan to Ukrainian food, not exactly staples at the local.

New York reporters, in other words “absorb the notion (even if we know better) that what happens in New York is generally more sophisticated, intelligent, interesting -- in short, more important -- than what happens ‘out there.’”

In countries dominated by one city (and the U.S. arguably is not, with Chicago, L.A. and D.C. to rival it, among others) this is probably to be expected. There are several stories in the British regional press about media bias towards London--all eleven national papers are based there--as if the perspectives of people in Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, or Glasgow were almost the same. The same could probabaly be said of Paris, Berlin, or Tokyo. Canada's 24 million people have two major national dailies -- The Globe and Mail and the National Post, both published in Toronto. Do they have similar influence? Ask Colby Cosh.

The Times-Journal batle is basically one of two different New York prespectives, seeking to dominate the dissemination of "truth", as Warsh puts it. If the Journal should "win", it will be different--the World Financial Center is different from midtown, after all--but it won't necessarily make the news any more representative of America, or the world for that matter.