The New York Times has made terrible predictions on everything from bagels to Picasso to Apple to computers to air and space travel.
The New York Times is not good at making predictions. And that’s fine, because it’s a newspaper, not a Magic 8-Ball, so it isn’t expected to be a go-to source for soothsaying.
And yet… they just won’t stop making predictions. And subsequently whiffing on so many of them so very, very hard.
I’ve collected these 11 examples of bad, misguided, sometimes racist/anti-Semitic, and always flat-out wrong predictions made in the pages of the New York Times, dating back more than a century. Enjoy, and be happy the future didn’t work out the way they saw it…
1 | On television, 1939
The problem with television is that the people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it.
A NYT reporter wrote the above assessment of television after seeing it at 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. Little did he realize that the average American family really WOULD somehow find the time to “sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen.” In fact, they’d come to prioritize that time over time spent doing literally anything else.
2 | On Hitler, 1922
Several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semite propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep the aroused, enthusiastic and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.
I really, really hope they dropped those “reliable, well-informed sources” from the roster. Also, while it’s reductive and wildly inappropriate to make connections between today’s American politicians and Hitler, there are, at least, themes at play in this NYT quote that resonate truer than they should in modern context.
3 | On the potential of Aerosmith, 1973
Aerosmith, the opening act, played loud, derivative rock, distinguished only by Steve Tyler’s fawning imitation of Mick Jagger.
I never really drew the “Steve” Tyler – Mick Jagger comparison, although I get it. But derivative? They were way more shouty and screechy than their predecessors. (The would get derivative of themselves eventually, though. I still can’t believe Crazy and Cryin’ were released as different songs.)
4 | On whether airplanes were feasible in 1903… then whether space travel was feasible in 1920
First, an editorial on airplanes…
Hence, if it requires, say, a thousand years to fit for easy flight a bird which started with rudimentary wings, or ten thousand for one with started with no wings at all and had to sprout them ab initio, it might be assumed that the flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years — provided, of course, we can meanwhile eliminate such little drawbacks and embarrassments as the existing relation between weight and strength in inorganic materials.
So just before the Wright Brothers’ first flight, the New York Times declared we were still millions of years away from air travel. They were only off by, approximately, millions of years, but whatever, it was natural to question something that seemed so futuristically far-fetched. But surely, then, the Times would learn from its misplaced skepticism when the idea of space travel came up 17 years later, right?
Nope. Here were their thoughts on that…
That [rocket pioneer Robert] Goddard… does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.
To their credit, the day after the moon landing in 1969, they published a tongue-in-cheek and self-effacing correction for this story.
5 | On Picasso and cubism, 1911
It is to be regretted that this unquestionably talented artist… should now make his debut with a series of childish, not to say imbecile, scribbles that are no interest either as independent works of art or as steps toward achieving the complete work. They have neither material beauty nor that ‘spiritual significance’… nor merit of any other sort.
Wow, this critic really hates cubes, huh? Sure, they would go on to be (arguably) Picasso’s most famous works and revered as some of the best works in history, but critics gonna criticize.
6 | On Wheel of Fortune, 1986
It is generally conceded that ‘Wheel,’ entering its fourth year in syndication, can’t go on as it has forever. But most industry observers maintain that while the show may be nearing its peak, its impact remains huge.
Nope, Wheel just MIGHT go on as it has forever.
7 | On laptop computers, 1985
On the whole, people don’t want to lug a computer with them to the beach or on a train to while away hours they would rather spend reading the sports or business section of the newspaper… the real future of the laptop computer will remain in the specialized niche markets. Because no matter how inexpensive the machines become, and no matter how sophisticated their software, I still can’t imagine the average user taking one along when going fishing.
This writer couldn’t foresee just how light, powerful and versatile laptops would get, to the point where, starting in the early 2000s, they even became permanently more popular than desktop computers. I’m still not sure if people take them fishing, though, so good call on that part.
8 | On Apple in 1996… then the iPod in 2001… then the iPhone in 2006
The New York Times has not been particularly optimistic about Apple. Starting with a prediction on the company’s future during its tumultuous mid ’90s down period…
Whether they stand alone or are acquired, Apple as we know it is cooked. It’s so classic. It’s so sad.
Then again in 2001, when they entered the mp3 player market (and subsequently changed not only thatmarket but also the music industry itself)…
‘It’s a nice feature for Macintosh users,’ said P. J. McNealy, a senior analyst for Gartner G2, an e-commerce research group. ‘But to the rest of the Windows world, it doesn’t make any difference.’
But then, one more time, before they entered the cell phone market (and subsequently changed not only that market but also the telecommunications industry itself)…
Everyone’s always asking me when Apple will come out with a cell phone. My answer is, ‘Probably never.’
So yeah, whenever the Times makes an Apple prediction, go hard on the opposite.
9 | On (a super racist look at) the future of cocaine, 1914
The drug produces several other conditions that make the ‘fiend’ a peculiarly dangerous criminal. One of these conditions is a temporary immunity to shock, a resistance to the knock down effects of fatal wounds… seems to be produced in the cocaine-sniffing n***o. … Once the n***o has formed the habit, he is irreclaimable. The only method to keep him from taking the drug is by imprisoning him. … For the thousands of n***oes who have not yet acquired the habit, but who will do so eventually if present conditions continue, the outlook is scarcely more hopeful.
I’m wondering if the New York Times could Men in Black zap away one story in its history so it was immediately dropped from the record and everyone’s memories, would this be it? It’s between this and “Hitler’s not such a bad guy,” right? Because this one is genuinely sickening in every way.
10 | On Twitter, 2007
Using Twitter for literate communication is about as likely as firing up a CB radio and hearing some guy recite ‘The Iliad.’ … Whether the service can be made into a sustainable business, [is] quite unknown. I’m skeptical.
Ha, fools, back in 2007 they thought a company had to do things like “make money” or “have a plan to make money” to be a sustainable business.
11 | On bagels, 1946
Bagels, which are small, hard Jewish rolls with holes in the center, were sent to [the] Secretary of Agriculture… with notes warning that this is what a loaf of bread would look like if the government permitted bakers to make further reductions in size. ‘A bagel is a hole with a roll around it,’ [consumer advocate Dr. Helen] Harris informed the officials, “Another cut in the weight of bread and this bagel will go as a loaf at the present price of bread.’
Well if the Times didn’t think Hitler was really anti-Semitic, obviously they also didn’t consider it anti-Semitic to make an argument that “small hard Jewish rolls with holes in the center” were an attempt to financially rip off the hard-working middle American consumer. Especially since (1) bagels would go on to become super popular with all ethnicities, at least until the anti-carbbers ruined everything and (2) no, they didn’t replace loaves of bread or standardize a loaf coming with a hole in it.