A small civil war broke out last week in the august warrens of the New York Times, which decided that a couple of its sports columnists wouldn’t be allowed to take issue with the Revealed Doctrine offered readers in its editorial columns.
The world-shaking question being debated was whether the Augusta National club/tournament should admit golfers of the feminine persuasion, and by the weekend the Times’ editors had capitulated to its sportswriters. It was a rare victory for good writing over stodgy thinking at the Times.
It was the right, if disgracefully late, decision. Why pay for all that talent if you’re not going to share it with readers?
In defense of the Times’ one-opinion-fits-all rule, it was argued that to have columnists and editorial writers take different tacks would be unseemly. It’s one thing for a paper’s writers to be feuding with politicians and other newsmakers, but not with their colleagues. What would people think? Better not let them see.
It’s an interesting thesis, but an unconvincing one. After all, we who are free to make fools of ourselves daily in the public prints are scarcely engaged in what, by the standards of old-fashioned ladies and gentlemen, is a seemly business to begin with.
We in the press routinely discuss scandal, speculate about others’ motives, raise Cain, and pry into others’ affairs in order to further what we take to be the public interest and then proceed to shout the results from the rooftops. It’s not exactly dignified, but it’s our job.
And if the editors of the Times can’t take as good as they give, or better, it doesn’t say much about the quality of their opinions. Or their confidence in their ability to expound those opinions in a fair fight. There has to be a better rejoinder to columnists who disagree with a newspaper’s editorials than “shut up.”
Just how seemly the occasional difference between a newspaper and its columnists turns out to be depends on the columnists and editorial writers involved, and how they conduct themselves in print with grace and style and a sense of humor, or tastelessly. The result can be as amusing as Fred Allen vs. Jack Benny, or as crude and boring as the talking heads shouting at each other on the well-named “Crossfire.”
The news of the Times’ decision to gag its columnists came as part of a sad pattern at what was once the country’s paper of record. The Good Gray Lady has been morphing into Mommie Dearest, and now seemed bent on stifling its own.
More and more these days, the Times records only its politically correct editors’ crimped view of a world that, again and again, refuses to fit their preconceptions. This sad but revealing little affair is one more chapter in the decline of the times and the Times.
It’s not the opinions on the editorial page of the Times that disturb, but its editorials in the guise of news stories. See the vigorous editorial campaign it’s been waging to forestall a war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its news columns.
The Times has always been a tight little world of its own, but it used to allow office jokes and the dissenting view. Even on crucial topics like golf.
I’ve always enjoyed an occasional exchange of words at 20 paces within the friendly confines of the paper where I work, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Our columnists occasionally take potshots at the editorials and vice versa in the same crammed pages. With us, it’s something of an unruly tradition.
Our readers may be amused, disgusted or even informed by the show. Chaos has its uses, especially when it comes to a robust exchange of opinions in a free country or in a free newspaper.
Besides, nothing delights an opinionator who loves the game like drawing fire. It’s really a great compliment, though not as great as being gagged. In this affair, the Times’ sports columnists have seldom looked better or the Times worse.
Every time I hear that journalism is a profession, I think: Well, newspapering ain’t. It’s more a quest, an eye-opener, an unseemly spectacle, and, along with all the leg work, a lot of fun. A good newspaper ought to be a satisfying mix of straight news and assorted nuts.
Readers are entitled to the satisfaction of keeping up with the cast of characters in their daily paper, including their foibles and even intramural feuds. It’s like being part of a family, even one that squabbles over how to make the dressing on Thanksgiving, and starts throwing the cranberry sauce around on festive occasion.