By Zachary Roth
The favored candidate to replace William Safire as the voice of conservatism on the New York Times op-ed page is long-term Timesman John Tierney, according to a report in New York magazine this week.
Tierney, currently based in the Times’ Washington bureau, has worked as a reporter on the paper’s Metro desk and as a staff writer for its Sunday magazine. But his chief qualification for elevation to the op-ed page is his stint from 1994 to 2002 writing “The Big City,” a bi-weekly column on the front page of the paper’s Metro section.
Those columns were marked by an eagerness to puncture some of the pious certainties of Manhattan liberalism — a typical 1994 piece poked fun at Borough President Ruth Messinger for ignoring real city problems while speaking out against a proposed Canadian hydroelectric dam that would have flooded land used by Cree Indians in northern Quebec.
Along the way, Tierney applied a relatively consistent libertarian ideology to the quotidian problems of urban life. Tierney’s most frequent target was big government and its clumsy intrusions, whether in the form of rent-control laws, over-zealous prosecutors, or attempts to crack down on Times Square strip clubs. In 1996, Tierney spent a night in a Bowery flophouse, then criticized the city for driving such establishments out of business with burdensome regulations, while failing to provide a workable alternative for housing the down-and-out.
Tierney’s “Big City” columns were generally fresh and lively, in part because he used a sort of gonzo journalism of the right: In addition to the flop-house stay, he once dressed as a bank robber and successfully hailed five straight cabs. And the everyday subject matter offered an ideal forum for Tierney to question some of the complacent shibboleths of urban liberalism, without giving the impression that he took any of what was he saying too seriously. There was often a feeling that Tierney was writing less to advocate than to provoke. When Chris Mooney, in a 2001 profile of Tierney written for The American Prospect, asked him about a Times magazine cover story he had written arguing against recycling, he replied, “I could write something about the good side of recycling … But everybody else writes that.”
But when Tierney has strayed from the local, “quality-of-life” territory on which he built his Metro column to focus instead on major public policy issues of national scope, he has often stumbled. On several occasions, writing for the Times magazine, for his column, and in other parts of the paper, he’s advanced arguments in ways that border on outright intellectual dishonesty, either by willfully ignoring major sides of the debate, or by flouting basic journalistic norms whose observance might weaken his case.
Tierney has a tendency to support his point of view using sources with a clear ideological or special interest agenda, without properly identifying them. In a 2000 column Tierney attacked CBS for an old report in which it had suggested that apples treated with the pesticide Alar carried a cancer risk. He wrote that the American Council on Science and Health, which he identified as “a consumer education group in New York,” had demanded a correction and an apology from CBS. But Tierney left out the fact that ACSH is funded by major corporations — including McDonalds, Pfizer, Kraft Foods, ExxonMobil, and Anheuser Busch — all with stakes in the issues it focuses on. And one of those corporate funders, Uniroyal Chemical Company, is the manufacturer of Alar.
Tierney used the same sleight-of-hand again recently, when he argued in the Times’ “Week in Review” section that today’s children are overly coddled in school, leaving them ill-prepared for adult life. He quoted a scholar with the John Templeton Foundation to that effect. But as CJR Daily noted, Tierney never told readers that the foundation subscribes to an explicitly traditionalist, conservative view of education. One education project that it supports, for instance, aims “to encourage a greater appreciation of the importance of the free enterprise system and the values that enable it to flourish.” No surprise, then, that such an outfit would take the position it does on the coddling issue.
Tierney’s attack on recycling was written for the Times magazine in 1996. He claimed that recycling consumes more resources than it conserves, and in fact does little to save energy, or trees, or other natural resources. In addition, he wrote, landfill space in the United States is abundant, and poses little danger of leakage. Not a single representative of the recycling industry was quoted in the extensive piece.