March 4, 2005


Libertarian Rhapsody: From our September 2001 issue: John Tierney is a clever contrarian, but he doesn't always bring the facts with him. (Chris Mooney, 03.02.05, The American Prospect)

Since the 1994 launch of "The Big City" in the New York Times Magazine (it now runs Tuesdays and Fridays in the Metro Section), Tierney has, among other things, dressed up in a ski mask with a fake bag of loot and tried to hail cabs outside banks (he went five for five); advocated stealth egg-throwing to punish urban boors for noisy car alarms ("Have you enforced a norm today?"); and escaped from a stopped subway car and jogged along the tracks back to the station, arguably risking his life.

Tierney's best friend and fellow conservative gadfly, Forbes FYI editor Christopher Buckley, calls Tierney "a bit of a merry prankster" but concedes that even his pranks have a political point. When out-of-town liberals like Rosie O'Donnell and Hillary Clinton were attacking Mayor Rudy Giuliani for clearing the homeless off the streets, Tierney dressed up as a bum and slouched on the sidewalk outside O'Donnell's Westchester County mansion. A cop promptly forced him to move on. In feature articles for the Times Magazine, Tierney has also savaged rent control and enraged environmentalists with a 1996 cover story titled "Recycling Is Garbage" (see "Garbage In, Garbage Out," below), which prompted a record number of letters and a book-length refutation by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Indignant responses to Tierney's articles often vastly exceed his original word count. [...]

Tierney's ability to blend ideological crusade and puckish provocation is an important factor in his rise at the Times. The paper nominated him for a Pulitzer last year, and there are murmurs of a promotion to the op-ed page. Along with featured nonliberals William Safire, Maureen Dowd (whom Tierney used to date), and Times Magazine contributor Andrew Sullivan, he's part of the conservative counterbalance to a paper whose moderate leaders view it, perhaps too charitably, as liberal.

But Tierney also has his detractors at the nation's paper of record. Noting that "Recycling Is Garbage" is viewed as "archetypal" at the Times Magazine--the Platonic form of contrarian, controversialist journalism--one former Times editor points out that Tierney's contrarianism fails when it becomes such a formula that its ostensible unpredictability is itself predictable. "If you ran a piece that said murder is good," says this editor, "you would also get a lot of letters."

The entire Tierney formula was on display in his recent Times Magazine piece on Hasbro's new handheld video game Pox. Tierney followed market researchers onto Chicago playgrounds looking for what marketers call "alpha pups"--the coolest kids in the school. These kids then got free games and a $30 payment, plus additional free games to give out to their friends. Pox includes a short-distance transmitter, allowing players to compete at a distance of up to 30 feet--say, by holding the devices under their desks in class. This promotional strategy of disseminating the games among third-grade opinion leaders is known as "viral marketing."

Tierney was delighted by it all. In his account of the campaign, Hasbro was the ally of nine-year-old boys having a fun time at the expense of grim school administrators trying to keep video games out of school. Where a conventional journalist might raise an eyebrow at the manipulativeness of the whole enterprise, Tierney's antic sympathies were with Hasbro and the kids. He found an expert to debunk the idea that video games cause violent behavior and he got in a nice dig at the concern that it's mainly boys who play these games. ("Both sexes were still ignoring grown-ups' advice to play together, and maybe they knew best... . While academics plotted to get boys and girls playing together on computers, the kids seemed to recognize all along that it was a lame idea.") Tierney wondered whether he'd want his own kid playing Pox at school but shrugged: "Well, it was probably no worse than shooting spitballs." So there it is: grown-ups as scolds, the market as liberator, all packaged as a cool story with the ideology deftly added in light touches.

It's hard to criticize the Times for pursuing ideological breadth, and Tierney is clearly a talented and inventive writer. In disarming columns ranging from epistolary parodies to a series of mock standardized-test questions, he seldom seems at a loss for unconventional ways of promoting his ideas. Reading Tierney, you often get a hearty dose of libertarianism without really noticing it. When it finally comes, the occasional screed catches you almost by surprise.

Anything to breath life into their largely moribund op-ed page.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 4, 2005 2:19 PM

Along with featured nonliberals William Safire, Maureen Dowd...

Excuse me? Am I reading that right?

Posted by: Timothy at March 4, 2005 6:58 PM

When out-of-town liberals like Rosie O'Donnell and Hillary Clinton were attacking Mayor Rudy Giuliani for clearing the homeless off the streets, Tierney dressed up as a bum and slouched on the sidewalk outside O'Donnell's Westchester County mansion.

I like this guy already!

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 4, 2005 8:07 PM

Tim already made the comment I would have made. God help us if anybody thinks that MoDo is anything but a standard issue blue state liberal. It is true that she dissed Clinton, but any real liberal knew that Bill was going to take them over Niagra Falls in a barrel.

Tierney is a good guy. He is a libertarian, not a conservative, although I am certain that the NYTimes cannot tell the difference. All they know is that he is not one of us, and he is not a maoist, so he must be somekind of a wacko right winger. Of course they think that mild as peppermint David Brooks is a conservative also.

I wonder what color the sky on Mooney's planet is?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 4, 2005 10:21 PM

Well, the article was from 2001, when MoDo was still best known for her skewering of Bill Clinton during the Monica scandal in 1998 (though some people forget she turned her wrath onto Ken Starr once the report was released, when it appeared Bubba's Hollywood pipeline of visitors to D.C. that made Maureen's heart go pitter-patter might be endangered).

As for Tierney, he comes across as a bit of the 21st Century version of Tom Wolfe, whose eccletic writing style and subject selection at the New York Herald Tribune and its New York magazine spinoff in the 1960s either masked or made palitable the underlying conservatism of his writings to the liberals in the audience.

Posted by: John at March 4, 2005 11:45 PM

Tierney doesn't strike me as particularly ideological. He is certainly no refugee from the rubber room like most of the Cato Institute. He reads like a smarter, hipper, more honest Mike Barnicle. NYC is the world's largest one-party town this side of Shanghai, and Tierney catches the sheer stupidity that is the inevitable net result. If one were to follow the NY City Council comings-and-goings, one would see all manner of idiotic proposals that don't become law, but are seriously discussed nonetheless. The stuff that becomes law defies logic and reason enough. You get a major league case of cynicism as a result and an eye for the follies of big institutions.

One hopes that the Op-Ed people don't strangle his puckishness. He is as funny as Safire believes himself to be.

Posted by: Bart at March 5, 2005 10:26 AM

"Where a conventional journalist might raise an eyebrow at the manipulativeness of the whole enterprise...."

I thought "traditional journalists" were suposed to just give us the facts, and not let their views intrude. Or at least that's what they're always claiming....

Posted by: ralph phelan at March 5, 2005 9:39 PM