SADOW: The Times-Picayune’s Conservative No-Go Zone

Perhaps Gov. Bobby Jindal went a bit hyperbolic on the issue, but there’s no doubt that as far as the New Orleans Times-Picayune’seditorial page goes that’s a “no-go zone” if you’re a conservative columnist willing to stand on your feet and present heterodoxy when writing about state and local issues.

This week, the T-P announced that James Varney had been reassigned to report on the Northshore beat. Varney was moved from the opinion pages, where for nearly two-and-a-half years he had presented a perspective rarely seen on those pages about state and local political issues, with some forays into national events as well. When he started, this space wondered whether it signaled a change in the thinking of the newspaper, then on the cusp of transforming itself into a more Web-centric media outlet that put many of its stories into print, rather than act as a dead tree publisher than on the side posted its stories to the Web.

Orthodoxy reigns when it comes to Louisiana newspapers, enthralled to the political left that corresponds to the state’s recent history of populism. Only the Houma Courier and its sister publications and the Alexandria Town Talk among the larger outlets have anything close to ideological balance with opining in their pages about state and local issues while, among the smaller, the Hanna Publications chain, to which I contribute, does yeoman work in presenting alternative conservative viewpoints. At the time of Varney’s debut, the two hardest left editorial pages were the state’s two largest newspapers, the T-P and the Baton Rouge Advocate, with the latter the farther out there.

Interestingly, that has changed since. With the purchase of the Advocate by former gubernatorial candidate and New Orleans mayoral candidate John Georges and its decision to challenge the T-P in New Orleans when the latter made its move towards more online emphasis and less physical publishing, there seems to have been a slight moderation to its opinion content, including its expounding on state and local matters.

That comes not from its hiring of two T-P refugees from the left, James Gill and Stephanie Grace, but more like that its holdovers Lanny Keller and Mark Ballard haven’t drifted any further out. In particular, Keller’s coordination of the section produces pieces sometimes actually resisting the increasingly strident and tunnel-visioned ideological product typically comprising the declining newspaper industry’s editorial efforts. The contracting of Quin Hillyer, who has risen to national prominence in conservative intellectual journals of opinion but who started out as a political operative in Louisiana, to write some pieces brought at least an attempt to produce balance for those yearning for more intellectual and well-rounded efforts than Gill’s mellifluous prosaic mixture of cynicism and cocktail lounge liberalism that far outshines the analysis behind it and Grace’s leftist boilerplate so unable to contemplate life outside of this worldview that it echoes stay-on-the-path warnings in Ray Bradbury’s Sound of Thunder.

Meanwhile, even before Varney’s apparent ejection the T-P felt a need to veer harder left. The survivor of the rebranding on the editorial page, Jarvis DeBerry, was going nowhere not only because he could put out good, workmanlike if unimaginative leftist monologues, but also because if you’re a newspaper tagged with the name of a city where roughly 60 percent of the population is black and claims a metropolitan readership area of a population almost majority black where the greatest potential reader growth was among blacks, if you feel you have to choose among a black guy, a white woman, and a white curmudgeonly/gadfly-to-politicians expatriate, you know who you’re going to keep sending a paycheck.

Yet the T-P felt DeBerry wasn’t enough, as a while after Varney began contributing it then contracted out a space to Bob Mann, formerly a reporter then a mouthpiece for several Louisiana Democrats, who parachuted near the end of the Gov. Kathleen Blanco Administration from her office into a cushy academic job at Louisiana State University Baton Rouge. Whereas the above-mentioned opinion-spinners of the left tend to serve up meat-and-potatoes ideological fare (albeit Gill with some occasional bombast), Mann is of the throw-red-meat-to-the-animals-before-loosening-them-on-the-Christians style. His occasionally lucid and perceptive passages are more than swamped by writing, no doubt forged from years of spinning on behalf of his political masters, that too eagerly substitutes rhetoric for critical thinking, which might please the liberal circus but leaves starving serious consumers of information desiring cogent analysis.

Which tastes Varney catered to well. His pieces were refreshingly comprehensive in the scope of information presented and almost always displayed superior logical inference (the latter rather a given considering the intellectual basis of conservatism versus the emotive basis of liberalism in their modern derivations). These presented a compelling counterpoint from the political right to the orthodoxy from which the other Louisiana-based state/local seem unable to escape, and through them it was hard not to be impressed by the breadth of Varney’s knowledge that he brought to bear in them (how many regular columnists throughout the country not only speak another language fluently, but also can wax instructively about the finer specimens of Latin America literature in either language?).

But he’s the one apparently banished from the T-P editorial page (among the above mentioned, only Ballard functions mainly as a reporter, and it seems unlikely Varney will be given the same contributing opportunity), confirming its lack of seriousness and ability to contribute significantly to the policy debate. That may come as no surprise through such examples as its editorial page constantly rehashing (nearly 20 times now) the same old discredited arguments that fail to argue convincingly for Medicaid expansion in the state and never even acknowledging the existence of a superior expansion strategy despite its becoming official state policy because its basis differed ideologically (and continued this embargo in its newshole). If nothing else, at least Varney will be relieved of having to sit through meeting after meeting getting outvoted on what editorial product to put out and then gritting his teeth to see what a mess gets made of it.

So the question that was posed here is answered: no, the party line must be followed, even as at the state level almost of what has appeared in T-P editorials, both policy and candidates, meets with rejection, as well as with its remaining columnists. Of course, times have changed: no longer do those interested in comprehensive analysis of politics feel trapped by what appears in a newspaper, but have the entire Internet at their disposal to find places such as this one, even if the T-P tries to stand athwart of this reality by segregation in its own little world. That it seems to want to keep its leftist lapdogs around while jettisoning Varney makes its editorial page that less appealing to those who seek a stimulating and effective discussion of political issues and people at the state and local levels.



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