By: Brian Orloff
John Tierney, named yesterday to fill the recently retired William Safire’s slot on the New York Times op-ed page, has been been variously described as a conservative, more libertarian than conservative, and simply iconoclastic. “Tierney’s ability to blend ideological crusade and puckish provocation is an important factor in his rise at the Times,” Chris Mooney once wrote in an American Prospect profile of Tierney.
Following his appointment, Tierney told E&P: “My goal is to do a lot of reporting and come up with columns that surprise readers and entertain them at the same time. I’ve always tried to look at things from a contrarian view.”
Whatever Tierney mainly is, his appointment brought cheers from several right-leaning columnists. although some liberals and media critics fault his sourcing.
“I think he’s a great choice,” San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders, whose work is distributed by Creators Syndicate, told E&P. “He is iconoclastic. I think it makes sense to have two conservatives, one of them with a more libertarian bent.” The other conservative, of course, is David Brooks.
Tierney’s selection is “good news,” said Jonah Goldberg, the National Review Online editor-at-large and Tribune Media Services columnist. “But he’s not part of the conservative movement in any way, shape, or form,” Goldberg added. “In many ways, maybe it’s better news that he’s not from the conservative movement. These days, with the level of partisanship out there, guys who are from my kind of world, they may get just written off without reading them.
“And Tierney has a very good, common-sense approach to writing. I think a lot of classic New York Times readers will be reading his stuff and be saying, ‘I don’t know why people call this guy a conservative. He’s just making sense.'”
Goldberg’s point was echoed by Tribune Media Services columnist Kathleen Parker. “I’m not that familiar with Tierney The Columnist,” she e-mailed, “but if he has a sense of humor, I’ll be a fan.” For eight years, Tierney wrote a regular column for the Times’ Metro section. “The fact that he fraternizes with Chris Buckley is a good sign,” Parker added.
E-mailed conservative stalwart Cal Thomas, also with Tribune: “I am not familiar enough with his work to offer an informed opinion. Is he a conservative, libertarian, or what?”
Some liberals and media critics have long faulted Tierney, however, for a tendency to acknowledge only the evidence that supports his preconceived positions.
“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,” Zach Roth of Columbia Journalism Review wrote in December, “either by willfully ignoring major sides of the debate, or by flouting basic journalistic norms whose observance might weaken his case.”
Roth cited a 2000 column attacking a CBS report suggesting that apples sprayed with Alar caused a cancer risk; Tierney had written that the American Council on Science and Health had found fault with the report but didn’t mention that the group is funded by corporate donors, including Alar’s manufacturer.
Roth also delved into Tierney’s probably most famous piece, a 1996 Times Magazine cover story titled “Recycling Is Garbage,” which argued that recycling is inefficient, too expensive, and largely unnecessary. Tierney was accused of so many inaccuracies and misrepresentations in that piece that a rebuttal prepared by the Natural Resources Defense Council ran to 86 pages.