Press Box

New York Times Yard Sale …

“Cardinals” and congressional seniority … the Times on steroids … the “Seemy” Times.

Back in the early ‘70s, the congressional seniority system was almost universally condemned by liberals as undemocratic because it gave disproportionate power to political hacks, usually septagenarians and as often as not pork-dispensing conservatives, whose greatest skill was in getting re-elected time and again by their gluttonous constituents.

Such rampant senior power frustrated the young turks entering Congress, and in one classic rumble from the ‘70s era (recounted by the Washington Post’s Eric Pianin in a 1994 article), the debate turned uncivil. When old bull Rep. John J. Rooney, D-N.Y., attemped to silence young turk Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., in committee by commanding, “Sit down, you smart-assed young punk,” Obey countered, “Kiss my fanny, you senile old SOB.”

Eventually, the Obeys beat down the Rooneys. The collapse of the seniority system, which began in the post-Watergate era and accelerated during the Gingrich Regency, has won bipartisan applause for increasing accountability and for reducing pork-barreling and legislative obstructionism by powerful members of Congress.

But that was then. David Firestone’s Page One story in the Dec. 2 New York Times, “G.O.P.’s ‘Cardinals of Spending’ Are Reined in by House Leaders,” frames the erosion of the seniority system as part of a conservative conspiracy. Firestone writes in paragraph two,

In a display of discipline applauded by some of the most conservative House members [emphasis added], the leadership pulled in the reins on the 13 Republican members who control most discretionary federal spending, a group of subcommittee chairmen so powerful they are known as the Cardinals.

Under the new arrangement, the new chairmen will be chosen by Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay and not according to seniority, Firestone reports. At the story’s jump, Firestone concedes that the ousted Cardinals may have overindulged themselves in dispensing pork, but then portrays them as independent souls—many of them moderates—who wouldn’t bend to the dictates of the conservative House leadership.

But exactly how onerous and dictatorial are the conservative Republicans’ new Cardinal-picking rules? Not very, Firestone writes three-quarters of the way through his story, eroding his opening thesis that the new rules might be “applauded by some of the most conservative House members” and not others.

Democrats, when they were in power, used a system for selecting subcommittee chairmen similar to the Republicans’ new one …

Oddly, I don’t recall a Page One New York Times story about Democrats “Reining in ‘Cardinals of Spending’ ” when they changed the system. Should we attribute today’s peculiar treatment to 1) ahistorical news judgment; 2) pervasive liberal bias at the New York Times (which I don’t oppose in principle); or should we cite it as 3) an example of a reporter capitalizing on the top editors’ political prejudices to write his way onto Page One?

Pump it up. Do I detect another New York Times journalistic crusade in the making? Today’s 3,000-word Page One story about steroid use (“With No Answers on Risks, Steroid Users Still Say ‘Yes’ “) plus its 750-word sidebar about the dangers of steroids, none of which is exactly hot news, comes less than two weeks after another Page One Times treatment (“Body-Conscious Boys Adopt Athletes’ Taste for Steroids,” Nov. 22), which actually broke new ground about the increasing numbers of teens using the drug.

Where might the steroid story go if the Times applies to it the sort of saturation coverage the paper has accorded Augusta National? The table is set for a more detailed medical take about steroids. (“Calling Dr. Lawrence Altman, Dr. Altman.”) The paper could start naming names of Major League Baseball players who’ve used the stuff. An investigative piece about the illegal steroid market could be exploited for another 2,000 words.

We’ll know the Times has a steroid crusade in mind if its editorial page weighs in. If it does, let’s hope that the coverage veers more toward telling stuff we don’t know than giving us the backfill that it did today.

What do you mean, “seem”? It’s news if it’s happening. It can also be news if it’s not happening. But is it news if it “seems” to be happening? Today’s top story in the New York Times claims that “Iraq’s Neighbors Seem to Be Ready to Support a War” and then repeats the weird hedging in the first sentence: “Most of Iraq’s neighbors seem prepared to support an American military campaign to remove Saddam Hussein from power.” It would seem (sorry) to me that Times reporters should be able to make a case that Iraq’s neighbors are ready to support the war or that they are not. What good does it do me to know that they “seem” to be ready to support a war?

I seem to read my mail at and am even known to answer it.