Nobody would ever call New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines a demagogue. Oh, he breathes sulfurous fire on his foes from time to time, as Bill Clinton can attest, and like many editors he enjoys enlisting his troops in journalistic crusades. We should be grateful, for example, for the Times’ aggressive coverage of the coming war with Iraq, especially the stories that illustrate the bloody downside of intervention. Raines’ Times has applied more serious cogitation to the merits of President Bush’s war resolution in a half-dozen news articles than Congress did in all of its “deliberations.” If, as H.L. Mencken put it, reporters should always belong to the party of opposition, Raines is only doing his job.
But at some point, saturation coverage of a story begins to raise more questions about the newspaper’s motives than about the story being covered. The Times reached—and passed—that point this morning with its 40th-plus news story, column, or editorial (since July!) about the Augusta National Golf Club’s refusal to admit female members. Only a five-star general like Raines could have commanded such extravagant coverage as this.
The headline of today’s Page One, above-the-fold story—”CBS Staying Silent in Debate on Women Joining Augusta”—is the giveaway that the Times is blowing on embers in hopes that the story will reignite. CBS, which has broadcast the Masters golf tournament for the last 46 years, first abstained from the issue in July, when the war of words broke out between Augusta chairman William “Hootie” Johnson and Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations. The fact that the network is still silent isn’t big news today any more than it will be big news tomorrow, even if the Times were to contrive a story titled “CBS Stays Silent: Day 150.” This sort of churning and whisking of yesterday’s topic, adding new ingredients in incremental proportions in story after story until you build a 12-foot tall meringue isn’t news coverage, it’s blogging!
The New York Observer’s Sridhar Pappu put the Times saturation coverage in excellent context last week, writing that the paper has “prodded and pulled the story, refusing to let it slip from the table of conversation” at Raines’ insistence. As a Southern liberal who came to political consciousness during the civil-rights struggle, Raines equates the ban on women members at Augusta with racial discrimination, Pappu explained. When Pappu called Raines to discuss the coverage, a Times spokesperson told him the editor was unavailable for comment. If Pappu were to put another call into Raines for comment about the Masters this week, he could easily headline his next story “Raines Stays Silent in Debate on Times’ Augusta Coverage.”
As crusades go, the intensity of the Times’ against Augusta, which included a Nov. 18 editorial urging Tiger Woods to boycott the Masters in protest, seems somewhat out of proportion. If Augusta’s ban is such a godawful thing (and I’m not saying that it isn’t), then where was the Times all those decades that the club was practicing its unholy discrimination—out shooting the back nine? A Nexis search of “New York Times and August National and women and member” before this summer’s confrontation produces less than three stories a year going back to 1990 and none before. This indicates that either the Times overlooked one of the decade’s greatest injustices until alerted to it by Johnson and Burk’s summer duel, or that the Times found a story that it could conveniently exploit for months to the smug satisfaction of its liberal readers: A nation of 140 million women against a men’s club of 300.
Calling the Times on its posturing last week was the Kansas City Star’s crotchety business columnist Jerry Heaster. “Instead of encouraging Tiger Woods to boycott the Masters, the New York Times should make its own statement by refusing to cover the prestigious golf tournament until Augusta National admits a female member,” Heaster wrote.
That would free up the sports pages for the Times to pursue additional crusades for social justice in baseball (no black owners), swimming (what a white sport!), hockey (still not enough American-born), stock-car racing (too Southern), and yachting (how about scholarships for poor folks?).