New York Times executive editor Howell Raines shares, with his fellow liberal Southerner Al Gore, a talent for driving his opponents batty. Conservatives and a few not-so-conservatives have been conducting a journalistic jihad against Raines ever since he decided that dissension within the military, within the Republican Party in Congress and within the Republican national security establishment–many of whose members served in the first Bush Administration–about George Bush’s decision to pursue a pre-emptive war against Iraq constituted a genuine news story. (Conservatives apparently hoped to be able to launch wars against whomever they please without any discussion, except those sanctioned from above and officially leaked to Bob Woodward.)
The latest right-wing bee-in-a-bonnet controversy for Raines concerns the paper’s coverage of the Cro-Magnon men-only admissions policies of Augusta National Golf Club. It was aptly described by the Toronto Star‘s Antonia Zerbisias as “a dust-up over how a rich white man’s club won’t let rich white women join, and how CBS still plans to showcase the course when it hosts the Masters, a tournament starring Tiger Woods who, as a black man, should know better than to play at a place which discriminates.”
So far the Times treatment of the controversy has elicited coverage and criticism in the Washington Post, CNN, Fox News, USA Today, Newsweek, Slate, the New York Daily News, the New York Observer and just about everywhere in the blogosphere. To the uninitiated, it’s hard to understand why all the tsuris. As a citizen of the Free World, I consider it my God-given right to ignore any newspaper story I damn please. Of the thirty-three stories on the Augusta controversy the Times published as of December 3, I noticed maybe two of them and read zero. The anger, moreover, is curious because Times coverage has hardly been out of whack with the rest of the nation’s newspapers. As of December 3 it had published four fewer stories than the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s thirty-seven, where Augusta is a local story, and just slightly more than the Los Angeles Times (twenty-seven pieces), USA Today (twenty-four) and the Washington Post (twenty-two).
Conservatives see a plot on Raines’s part to turn the nation’s newspaper of record into an adjunct of The Nation. This is just silly. On any given day one can find reports in the Times that gladden a liberal’s heart alongside those that infuriate it. There is bias evident in the paper every day, but it’s conservative as often as liberal. To give one tiny instance, during the height of the Augusta flap, the paper ran a 2,500-word front-page story on the National Bureau of Economic Research terming it “nonpartisan” and the “nation’s premier economic research organization,” without mentioning that it enjoys $10 million in conservative philanthropic underwriting from the likes of the Bradley, Olin, Scaife and Smith Richardson foundations. (Thanks to Rob Levine of mediatransparency.org for that tidbit.)
Earlier this year, Ken Auletta’s 17,225-word profile of Raines in The New Yorker provided virtually no support for the “liberal crusader” critique. The only incident that touched on it was Raines’s decision that a study revealing that blacks in New Jersey tended to speed more than whites–hence, complicating the issue of racial profiling–should be run on the front page of the Metro section rather than on page one. But as Raines noted in the New Yorker story, the newspaper did not possess a copy of the study and the editor had concerns about its methodology.
If Raines is a liberal at all, he is not a very consistent one. After all, when he ran the editorial page, it sounded almost like the Wall Street Journal on Bill Clinton and Monicagate. “Until it was measured by Kenneth Starr,” thundered the voice of the paper of record, “no citizen–indeed, perhaps no member of his own family–could have grasped the completeness of President Clinton’s mendacity or the magnitude of his recklessness.” Meanwhile, the only problem with Starr’s Torquemada-like investigation, opined the Times, was “legal klutziness…. In the main, Mr. Starr did his legal duty.” As Michael Tomasky pointed out in these pages, as of December 13, 1998, the day after the House Judiciary Committee voted on the fourth and final article of impeachment, this alleged bastion of Upper West Side knee-jerk liberalism had published some fifty-five editorials in re Monica Lewinsky. Exactly two concerned themselves with Starr’s egregious investigative techniques. The other fifty-three found fault with the President.
I am of the opinion that newspaper editors have the right to crusade against whatever and whomever they choose, so long as they observe the basic rules of fairness to their readers and their subjects. That’s one reason we have them. The Times coverage of Augusta, while a bit over the top, appears to have adhered to this rule, with everyone being given the opportunity to make his or her case in the paper’s news columns. The editors did make a mistake in this regard by killing two sports columns by staff writers that took issue with the crusade. In the end, though, Raines did the right thing and reversed the decision.
I wrote a column in May 2001 arguing for an ombudsman at the Times, and I stand by it. Its top editors exercise too much power and influence for any fallible person to deploy without the requisite checks and balances. But all this controversy over Augusta is a smokescreen. Conservatives demand perfect fealty to their worldview from every media institution. They are pretty successful at getting it through their constant battering of the phantom “liberal media.” The Times, like just about every other mainstream journalistic institution, was pretty slow off the mark on the Trent Lott story, in addition to giving the racist/segregationist Republican leader a pass on the issue for his entire career. Lott’s feet were held to the fire almost entirely by the blogosphere, led by Josh Marshall, until Tom Edsall of the Post and the Times‘s Paul Krugman picked up the story and pushed it into the faces of the rest of the media. That Lott almost got away with it may be seen as a tribute to the conservative assault on honest reporting, of which the campaign against Howell Raines is merely the latest chapter.