Press Box

Pity the Poor New York Times

A pitiful, helpless giant has fallen and can’t get up.

Did New York Times Managing Editor Gerald Boyd read Richard Nixon’s memoir RN before penning his memo to the staff defending his decision to spike sports columns by Dave Anderson and Harvey Araton that dared to take issue with a Nov. 18 Times editorial? The hubba-hubba self-congratulation and extreme defensiveness of the memo sounds like something Nixon might have composed to blot out the din of anti-war protesters chanting outside the White House gates. Give a listen, and imagine a set of five-o’clock jowls quivering:

Our sports staff, with help from many desks, is doing exactly what some “accuse” us of doing: asking questions that no other organization is raising, and pressing energetically for the answers our readers want. …There is only one word for our vigor in pursuing a story—whether in Afghanistan or Augusta. Call it journalism. …None of what appears here should be taken as criticism of our columnists, whose work we value tremendously. And we would be happy to discuss our thinking over lunch or in any appropriate setting. …At any rate, we hope no member of our staff really needs this assurance that our news columns enforce no “party line.”

Notice the condescension of the quotation marks in the first sentence. Boyd’s sense of self-importance as he wraps himself in the flag of “journalism.” The obvious lie contained in the statement, “None of what appears here should be taken as criticism of our columnists” and the double-speak in asserting there is no “party line” for news columns. Somewhere Nixon is collecting royalties.

As I wrote earlier this week, the Times needs to get out of the corner that it’s painted itself into and exhibit a little uncharacteristic humility by conceding that the spiking of the sports columns was wrong. Nobody I’ve seen quoted on the furor shares Boyd’s assessment that Times columnists should never question or criticize Times editorials. “Intramural quarreling of that kind is unseemly and self-absorbed,” Boyd writes. Boyd has a point: Nobody wants to read endless Times copy criticizing other Times copy. But seeing as the Times editorial page and its news pages are aggressively leading the charge to sexually integrate membership at Augusta National Golf Club, isn’t it equally “unseemly and self-absorbed” for the paper to recuse itself from any dissenting view on the topic?

Boyd’s problem is really the New York Times’ problem of so scrupulously avoiding self-criticism that its pages sometimes seem inspired by infallible papal encyclicals. Even when the paper miscues, as it did by mischaracterizing Henry Kissinger’s syndicated op-ed about Iraq in August as anti-intervention, it ends up publishing an “Editor’s Note” instead of a correction and uses the sort of obfuscating language lawyers squirt into the water like squid ink to cover a retreat.

At other newspapers, most notably the Washington Post, the editors provide a number of forums where the paper’s conduct is questioned. In addition to letters to the editor, the paper publishes a stinging “Free for All” page on Saturday devoted to Post abuse. It employs an ombudsman who criticizes the paper on Sunday (although too many recent Post ombudsmen have been drafted from the Washington Post Co.’s ranks and afforded the paper too much compassion for my tastes). It allows its media reporter, Howard Kurtz, to bark the Post’s shins when the paper itself becomes part of the news. From time to time, the Post executive editor explains the paper’s policy on the op-ed page. And during the 10 years I edited Washington’s alternative weekly, the Washington City Paper, Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie and king cheese Donald Graham never ducked a call from me, even though they knew I only called to give them the hotfoot.

The Times affords itself no similar set of safety valves to release steam when the paper becomes the issue. Op-ed contributors cannot mention the Times in their Times pieces. The Times letters page routinely neuters the language and arguments of its contributors. Phone calls to Executive Editor Howell Raines for comment about Times coverage are routed to company spokesperson Catherine Mathis, a very helpful soul, might I add. In 99 cases out of 100, though, she states the paper’s maxim that rivals that of Henry “Never complain, never explain” Ford II. Mathis told the press, “We never talk about the internal decision-making process” and, “We don’t discuss our editorial decisions.” After a while, only a blockhead would bother calling the Times for comment.

To his credit, Boyd descended from the tower this week to defend his paper in a brief Editor & Publisher story. But it’s not enough. Meanwhile, the fellas down at Augusta National Golf Course must be laughing their guts out over this week’s Augusta coverage, which has made the Times the center of the controversy, displacing the club.

The newspaper of record—which pretends to hold government, business, academia, the press, foreign dictators, and all-male golf courses accountable—might try a little glasnost. Come out and play, Mr. Raines. We won’t hurt you.

(This just in: The pitiful giant has risen! Seth Mnookin of Newsweek reports that the Times is publishing the spiked columns this weekend. If this is glasnost, can perestroika be far behind?)

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