Word has it that the Times’ publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., decided last fall that it was time to add another Republican columnist to the paper’s op-ed page, and the decision early on was to find a “lightning-rod conservative.” For reasons that I’ve never entirely understood, you picked the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol.
Now, it’s always difficult for any large institution to admit a mistake, especially on the heels of some high-profile embarrassments. I understand that. This is especially true when someone in a position of authority makes a poor employment decision, hiring the wrong person for an important job. (I suspect it’s tempting to adopt the president’s approach, and pretend that the unqualified hire is doing a heckuva job, no matter how humiliating the person’s on-the-job performance.)
But there comes a point at which the paper’s reputation matters more than the embarrassment that would come from admitting a mistake.
If Kristol were just a conservative hatchet-man, his columns would simply be predictable. After nearly five months of columns, however, the problem is more jarring — his work is that of an awful columnist, a weak writer, and a boring political observer. This isn’t about ideology; it’s about talent, or in this case, the lack thereof.
Take today’s column, for example. Without a hint of satire, Bill Kristol devoted his entire 800-word column in the nation’s most important newspaper to scrutinizing Passover press releases.
He is, in other words, making the New York Times look silly.
I suspect some of Kristol’s recent gems have given the paper pause. His inaugural column, four months ago, went a long way in making his critics’ concerns look well grounded. It was filled with predictable Republican Party talking points; it attributed a quote to the wrong person; and it heralded Hillary Clinton’s demise as a presidential candidate — just one day before she won the New Hampshire primary.
Last month, Kristol relied on a report from Newsmax, a right-wing online news site, to connect Barack Obama to a specific controversial church sermon from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The claim was bogus, and again, Kristol had to concede yet another error.
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Clark Hoyt believes hiring Kristol was a mistake, and has said so publicly. William Safire believes hiring Kristol was a mistake, and has said so publicly. In your heart of hearts, Times editors, you believe it was a mistake, too.
A senior staffer at your paper recently told The New Republic, “Personally, I don’t think he’s an original voice, and that should be the standard. It’s the most coveted piece of journalistic real estate in the country.” It is, indeed, and you’re wasting it on a hack. Another Times staffer added that Kristol just isn’t a very good writer. “Having a robust conservative voice on the page is a good idea. But you want quality,” one staffer said.
So, go get some quality. Make a clean break, acknowledge that hiring Kristol was an unfortunate error, and find a capable replacement. There will be considerable short-term embarrassment — the Times will have to admit it was wrong — but it will pale in comparison to publishing more Kristol drivel.