How to Read The New York Times

Every time I check out a substantive New York Times article, I do this:

1) skim the article

2) go to the comments and sort them so that the ones most recommended *by readers* (not the paper’s editorial staff) come first.

3) read the most popular comments carefully, and learn from them how to interpret the information given in the article.

Today’s example is an article about how more colleges are starting to teach a “top down” version of the history of capitalism that focuses less on workers and more on bosses.  The article is blandly interesting and neutral, but it’s the comments that really tell the story.

The first (i.e., most popular) comment is by Steven Stoll, a history professor at Fordham:

An article about teaching the history of capitalism that does not mention Karl Marx? The way I teach the History of Capitalism, students spend three weeks on the first volume of Capital, after reading Smith and some Malthus. The courses and authors mentioned here seem to emphasize institutions and practices without giving students a sense of how capitalism functions as a SOCIAL SYSTEM–the most astonishing and destructive in human history. The foundation of capitalism is not banking or credit or stocks but the surplus value earned by purchasing human labor power. That relationship is the reason for Wal-Mart, it is the basis for the wealth inequality everyone is talking about, and it came from the dispossession of people who once took care of their own needs and grew their own food. Students tend to come to my course thinking that capitalism is all about freedom and opportunity, markets and entrepreneurship. They leave seeing those things as having nothing whatsoever to do with capitalism–as existing long before and without capitalism. My question is whether or not these courses do anything more than “business history.”

The second comment states:

You completely miss one of the main driving forces of this ‘new’ viewpoint of college historians and that is donations from extremely wealthy individuals that come with explicit demands to teach history the way they want it taught, such as the Koch brothers’ donations to FSU that give them the right to even choose the teachers to be hired. This isn’t education, it is indoctrination.

Regardless of where are the political spectrum you sit, these would seem to be crucial points.

A perfect example (as if we needed one, post Judith Miller, of why I don’t trust New York Times pieces.


  1. Lee Busch says:

    This is a great example of how the web, and even minor attempts at activism, like posting a comment, can empower all.
    But more importantly, an example of “speaking truth to power”, which so few bother to do — or are equipped to do — any more.
    Thank you for helping us to maintain a democracy. And I say that without iron.

    • Hillary says:

      Sometimes people write to me and say that my comment got them thinking. Since in a lot of venues the comments that one does write get flooded with abusive or simply moronic retorts, I try to remember that I’m writing/commenting for those who are reading but not posting.

  2. I have a similar strategy, although I do read the NYT picks along with readers’ favorites. I agree that the comments often shed more light on the original article and, at times, are better written and contain more specific or nuanced information. What I don’t understand is why certain articles allow comments and others don’t; if there are no comments, I’m likely to skip the article.

    • Hillary says:

      Thanks Ilona. I do sometimes read the editorial picks, too. But I find them not as useful.

      I’m pretty sure some articles are “decommented” because the subject matter is likely to inspire abusive comments. But I also think the NYT moderates everything, so maybe they just can’t afford enough moderators.

Speak Your Mind