Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 2001/ 25 Kislev, 5762


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Consumer Reports

Forward, New York Sun! -- THE announcement that another daily, The New York Sun, will begin publishing early next year was a rare cause for celebration in the city this fall. The weekday broadsheet, which will be edited by Seth Lipsky (a brilliant writer who was ousted in 2000 from the Forward for his conservative political views and is currently a Wall Street Journal columnist) and Ira Stoll (whose no-frills website bludgeons The New York Times every day), has been staked to a modest $15 million warchest. This has led, not surprisingly, many to predict that the project is doomed. After all, creating any new publication, no matter how much capital's been amassed, is a daunting challenge in an economy that has disproportionately affected the media.

I take a more optimistic view. Lipsky and Stoll are not commenting about their strategy for the Sun-and I have no insider knowledge, although like hundreds of others, I'd be pleased to write for the paper-but it's not hard to conjure a scenario where the daily could gain a loyal following among the growing number of New Yorkers who detest the America-Last Times.

You start with a small staff, unencumbered by unions, spend not a penny on the ephemeral advertising or lavish parties that most startups indulge in, and let the product slowly evolve. When the Sun prints its first issue it'll be the recipient of considerable media coverage-with the David vs. Goliath hook of its attempt to provide an antidote to the Times-and the first wave of potential readers will be reeled in. Advertisers will not flock to the paper-I suspect the size will be perhaps a thin 20 broadsheet pages-but if its goal of presenting news and commentary in a non-effete manner is met, momentum will build.

Skeptics are correct that $15 million is a paltry sum for a fledgling daily, but I doubt that the Sun's investors-most significantly Conrad Black, owner of London's excellent Telegraph, the Chicago Sun-Times and Jerusalem Post-will hesitate to dig deep into their wallets for future funding if the paper shows even a glimmer of success. Black has longed for a quality New York print vehicle for years now; he nearly bought The New York Observer two years ago until the deal crashed under mysterious circumstances.

The New York Times is an institution-a brand!-that despite its growing reputation as an outlet for aristocratic, left-wing dogma, infused not only in its editorial pages but supposedly objective front-page news stories, as well as arts criticism, still "sets the agenda" for politicians and far too many journalists throughout the country. Lipsky, Stoll and their board members aren't presumptuous enough to believe they'll knock off the Times-unfortunately, that's a dream that might come true only for the very young-but if is any indication, they can provide a necessary tonic for those New Yorkers who reluctantly regard the dominant daily as a must-read. To me, the Times is an occupational hazard, and I'd gladly make do with the Journal, New York Post and, for balance, The Washington Post if not for the weekly column I write.

Right now, the Times is using Attorney General John Ashcroft as a punching bag, presenting him in editorials, op-ed pieces and news articles as an out-of-control madman who's power-drunk and attempting to dismantle the Constitution. While the paper regularly attacks President Bush, Ashcroft takes most of the abuse for two reasons: one, payback for his very confirmation earlier this year; and two, with Bush's current popularity, the paper, to its obvious chagrin, has to be careful about savaging a wartime president.

Last Sunday, the Times ran a long editorial-"Justice Deformed: War and the Constitution"-that roundly condemned the administration's declaration of possible military tribunals and expanded power of surveillance aimed at capturing and punishing terrorists who'd like to make the events of Sept. 11 a mere warm-up in their jihad against the United States. The Times apparently believes that if Osama bin Laden is apprehended he ought to be given the privilege of an ordinary criminal trial, a drawn-out spectacle on the order of Charles Manson's and O.J. Simpson's. The consequences of such a farce would be dire: no matter where the proceedings are held, bin Laden's disciples would be emboldened, creating dangerous havoc on behalf of their martyr.

The American public is not squeamish about military tribunals: a Washington Post poll published on Nov. 29 showed that 60 percent agree with the administration, and 70 percent believe "the government is doing enough to protect the civil rights of suspected terrorists." In addition, 78 percent of those polled believe the U.S. should take military action against Saddam Hussein, another difference between the Times and citizens who politicians condescendingly refer to as the "real people."

The editorialist writes: "The Bush administration appears to have no faith in the American criminal justice system's ability to try terrorists fairly and openly, despite the fact that prosecutors have successfully brought to justice the men accused of the first World Trade Center bombing and the attack on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

"Civilian courts are not as fragile as the administration fears. For one thing, long-standing federal laws make it possible to sanitize intelligence information so that it can be introduced as evidence in trials without compromising spying methods. Courts have also given greater latitude to prosecutors in bringing overseas defendants to trial even if they have not been accorded a traditional Miranda warning about their rights before they are questioned after their capture."

That the Times can even mention the phrase "Miranda warning" when there's a worldwide war going on is simply unfathomable. It's not as if these terrorists are accused of armed robbery or a random homicide in Brooklyn.

Here's an example of how out-of-touch the Times is. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, as fierce an opponent of Bush as you could corral in the mainstream media, argued in a Nov. 30 online column that while he believes the administration's controversial edict is far too broad, part of it makes sense. He writes: "At the same time, if the civil securitarians have gone too far, some civil libertarians are living in a Sept. 10th world. The sad truth is that the threat of Al Qaeda is not like that of a few 18th-century anti-Federalists or 20th-century Marxist pamphleteers. Some restrictions on the rights of detainees will be necessary for our genuine security needs. Some kind of military tribunals are clearly in order, at least for those suspected terrorists captured in Afghanistan."

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2001, Russ Smith