Censorship at the New York Times

What would you think if I told you that one of America's great daily newspapers was censoring its opinion columnists? No, I'm not talking about the Nevada Appeal. I'm talking about the venerable New York Times, the nation's "newspaper of record."

Ever since I studied at the University of Washington Journalism School many years ago, I've held the Times in high regard. In fact, in one of my advanced journalism classes, our task was to replicate the newspaper's popular "News of the Week in Review" section, which we accomplished with mixed results. I've never forgotten that challenging academic exercise and our professor's insistence that we separate fact from opinion, something you learn in Journalism 101.

So I was surprised and disappointed to learn that the Times had withheld two opinion columns because they didn't agree with the paper's editorial stand on the issue of whether golf's Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, should boycott the annual Masters Tournament until the Augusta (Georgia) National Golf Club decides to admit women as members. Regardless of how one feels about this particular question -- and I think that a private golf club should be able to choose its own members, just as women's organizations choose theirs -- it's shocking to discover that the Times censored two of its own columnists over such a relatively unimportant issue. After all, this isn't about whether we should go to war with Iraq.

After a two-week delay, the Times finally ran edited versions of the offending columns last Sunday with a front-page explanation of the delay by Executive Editor Howell Raines. According to Raines, the Times' decision not to publish the columns by Pulitzer Prize-winner Dave Anderson and Harvey Araton was "based not on the opinions stated in the columns but on separate concerns." Anderson's piece, he argued, "gave the appearance of unnecessary intramural squabbling with the newspaper's editorial board" while Araton's column "presented problems of structure and tone." But what does that gobbledygook really mean?

It means that the sports columnists had the temerity to disagree with the Times' editorial policy on the admission of women to private golf clubs. Horrors! After all, America's flagship daily had already published 37 stories and several editorials in its journalistic crusade on this burning issue and the editors didn't want any internal challenges to that politically correct policy. Here's part of what Anderson wrote: "Some voices have suggested that (Tiger) Woods, the three-time Masters champion, could stay home during next April's tournament. His boycott could presumably persuade the club to admit a female member. Or two or three.... Woods, always polite, had a polite answer. 'As I've said before, everyone is entitled to their own opinion,' he said. 'I think there should be women members, but it's not up to me.'" Are you offended yet? Me neither.

Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd denied that they had censored the columns. "That's not what happened here," Raines said. "There is not now, nor will there ever be, any attempt to curb the opinions of our writers ... or to get them to agree with the editorial page..." But that's not how it looks from here.

In comments to Newsweek magazine, one Times staffer said this incident "makes it hard for us to have credibility on other issues," and another Timesman commented that Raines "is in danger of losing the building." The Newsweek article described "a growing divide between staff and management ... that may have something to do with management's effort to squash independent-minded reporters (and columnists)." At the newspaper of record, this represents a full-blown journalistic crisis.

"The columns were spiked because they were at odds with the position taken by the paper's editorial page," declared the conservative Weekly Standard. "A newspaper is, of course, free to put whatever it wants in its pages (and) to publicly insult its own writers ... but only the New York Times is conceited enough to stifle dissent and then call it journalism." Well, that's pretty much how I feel about this tempest in a journalistic teapot.

While I haven't discussed this issue with Appeal Publisher Peter Starren or Editor Barry Smith, I can tell you that they've never pressured me to agree with their editorials, or even made suggestions as to what I should write. In fact, for all intents and purposes, they've left me alone to express myself and/or make a fool of myself, as the case may be.

That's how it's been ever since I began writing this political column six-plus years ago. And even when I've disagreed with Appeal editorials, as I did during the recent election campaign, they've remained silent. What more can an independent columnist ask?

Apparently Starren, his predecessor Jeff Ackerman and Smith believe that the Appeal's editorial page should reflect a wide range of opinion on current issues. Which is probably why they publish Vince Coyle and Susan Paslov along with me and Bob Thomas. When it comes to editorial opinions, the more the merrier. In this sense, the Appeal is adhering to a higher journalistic standard than the great, gray New York Times.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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