The Problem with John Tierney

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.

Environmental Defense, an environmental advocacy organization, provided a 17-page, item-by-item rebuttal to each of Tierney’s claims. The group called the article “anything but a fact-based assessment,” and accused Tierney of “unquestioningly repeat[ing] the claims of a group of think tanks and consultants” with ideological objections to recycling, like the libertarian Cato Institute and Reason Foundation. One of the major opponents of recycling quoted by Tierney headed an environmental consulting business for hire to solid waste companies, giving him a clear financial interest in opposing recycling.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), another environmental advocacy organization, produced an 86-page rebuttal of its own. Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, a NRDC scientist, called Tierney’s story “an intellectually dishonest piece of advocacy.”

In September of this year, Tierney wrote another story for the Times magazine, in which he attacked opponents of suburban sprawl, and called for “more tolls, more roads, and yes, more cars.” As a way to reduce driving, Tierney proposed a punitive tax on the cost of gasoline. In return, environmentalists would have to support new toll lanes and road construction.

When environmentalists pointed out that a gas tax would do little to reduce driving as long as people continue to need to travel long distances to get to work, Tierney abruptly changed the terms of the debate, arguing that opposition to driving is mere snobbish elitism. “If people are willing to keep driving,” he wrote, “why are they and their cars any more objectionable than the commoners who offended the Duke of Wellington with their desire to ride the railroad?” Along the way, he ignored entirely the reasons that environmentalists want to reduce driving in the first place: to curb global warming and air pollution. Indeed, in a 5,468-word story extolling the benefits of driving, the phrase “global warming” appears just once, in passing, and “climate change” not at all.

Neha Bhatt of the Sierra Club, who spoke to Tierney at length for the piece — he quoted one sentence — doesn’t believe Tierney approached the issue in good faith. (Full disclosure: I used to work at Sierra Club. Bhatt was a colleague.) “There was no real sincere intent to look at the problems [of sprawl, smart growth, and global warming],” she told CJR Daily. “I think he wrote that article before he even called us.”

Perhaps Tierney’s lack of alarm at the looming threat of global warming isn’t surprising — he’s on record as believing that it could be a good thing. A Tierney column from 2001 touted a study suggesting that expected future rises in mean air temperature were likely to be a boon to the U.S. economy. There’s a far more substantial body of research that shows the opposite, of course — that global warming and its effects will cost the U.S. billions of dollars. That research was ignored.

A 1999 Tierney column used a similar method of selective sourcing, arguing that the worker safety regulations inspired by the 1911 Triangle shirtwaist factory fire did little to protect workers, whose lot only improved as a result of free-market competition. In the sweatshops of early twentieth century New York, Tierney saw a “dynamic economy” in which “a worker could walk across the street to a competing company or a whole new industry.” But again, he cherry-picked a single study by a University of Arizona professor who had reached a conclusion he liked, and gave short shrift to the vast body of evidence showing that workers had little job mobility 90 years ago, and that safety improved as a direct result of the labor movement and government legislation.

It’s in the nature of an opinion writer to advance arguments, and sometimes to generate opposition. But a good opinion writer deals with the arguments of those with whom he disagrees fully and fairly, then goes on to explain the merits of his position. Tierney’s record, at least when he addresses major national policy issues — which are what, presumably, he’d be focusing on for the Times op-ed page — suggests a different modus operandi.

The Times famously gives its op-ed columnists a large degree of leeway. That’s why the job requires someone who has demonstrated a willingness to deal genuinely with opponents’ arguments. Tierney is an innovative and an engaging writer, but that sort of honest deliberation doesn’t appear to be his strong suit.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.