Hell of a Times
Coombs believes immigration is "the number-one issue in America today," and he has played an instrumental role in pressing far-right positions into the mainstream. In a move that many sources considered emblematic, on August 22 Coombs splashed a favorable review of Pat Buchanan's book State of Emergency across the paper's front page. Buchanan's book is a diatribe calling for an immediate moratorium on all immigration, to stave off the demise of Western civilization. "There were a lot of other things going on [in the news] that day," a Times senior staffer said. "Any other paper would have reserved that for the book review section, but Coombs had to have Buchanan on the front page." Coombs, the staffer continued, "will literally stand there and scan websites and look for anything that's anti-Hispanic, that's immigrant-bashing, and he will order the editors to go with it." According to Archibald, in 2001 Pruden issued a memo instructing reporters to stop using the term "illegal immigrant" and instead use "illegal alien"--a lead the rest of the conservative media soon followed.
Coombs oversaw the Times's coverage of the anti-immigrant Minutemen patrols along the US/Mexico border in 2005. A 2006 report by the ACLU, "Creating the Minutemen," singled out the Times for inflating the number of volunteers and overlooking the involvement of white supremacists in the Minutemen ranks. The Times correspondent tasked by Coombs with reporting on the patrols, Jerry Seper, was subsequently honored by an anti-immigration think tank, the Center for Immigration Studies, for his "dogged, committed" coverage. (Seper, for his part, is an ex-cop whose anti-immigration leanings are driven more by his close relationship with Border Patrol agents than by nativist ideology. He is described by a Times senior staffer as "disgusted" at Coombs's views on race and has been posited as a potential successor to Coombs as managing editor.)
In an interview, Coombs spoke proudly of his influence on the immigration debate. "Every article used to be about how the government abuses immigrants," Coombs told me. "Not one showed the negative impact of immigration. I don't want to suggest we led the way, but we were the first or one of the first to discuss immigration not from some feel-good perspective."
Countering the "feel-good perspective" on race appears to be Coombs's passion. George Archibald told me that when he showed Coombs a photo of his nephew's African-American girlfriend, Coombs "went off like a rocket about interracial marriage and how terrible it was. He actually used the phrase 'the niggerfication of America.' He said, 'Not in my lifetime. If my daughter went out with a black, I would cut her throat.'"
Archibald recounted a discussion in 1992 among several Times reporters and editors: "We were having a conversation about abortion. We were all prolife, antiabortion, and we were trying to explain how we would discuss this in the paper. All of a sudden Fran blurts out that he is pro-abortion. I argued with him and he said, 'How do you think we're going to stop the population growth of the minorities and all the welfare people?'" Another Times senior staffer recounted similar statements about abortion and race by Coombs at a party, where Coombs called himself a "racial nationalist." A former staffer alleged that Coombs used racial slurs including "spic" and "towel-head" inside the Times.
Coombs told The Nation that while he favors abortion rights, "Anybody who told you that I support some kind of genocidal abortion policy is beyond deluded." When asked if he has ever used racial slurs, Coombs exploded: "Are you going to accuse me of being the twentieth Al Qaeda hijacker next? I mean, please. I find those terms to be beneath contempt. Do you truly believe that in a modern American newsroom a person could use phrases like that? That is beyond preposterous. That is just unbelievable. Anyone who says that is a complete liar."
But why were so many of his former and current colleagues leveling these allegations about him? Coombs could only speculate. "Maybe there's a chorus there," he said.