Thank You Martha

Thanks to last year's campaign by Martha Burk and her small cadre of feminist activists, the Augusta National Golf Club decided to spare the corporate sponsors of the CBS broadcast of the Masters from any nationwide boycott of their products, by having CBS televise the tournament commercial—free.  This was also the case this year, and as a result, golf fans were awarded a riveting final round on TV without commercial interruption.


I have watched coverage of a few Olympics and World Cup soccer games in Slovenia—region>, and these broadcasts were always without interruption with commercials. The ads appeared at the beginning and end of the day's coverage, and never interrupted any event.  In America—region>, one has to put up with Katie Couric or Bob Costas telling us that while 'we were gone' the following nations' Olympic teams entered the Stadium : Cyprus—region>, Czech Republic, Denmark—region>, Djibouti—region>, Dominica—region>, Dominican Republic—region>, Ecuador—region>, Egypt—region>, and El Salvador—region>. 


The controversy over the Masters and its all male membership is worth recalling in light of a lengthy article by Howell Raines, the disgraced and then fired former Editor of the New York Times in the May issue of the Atlantic.  Raines's effort at self—rehabilitation is notable for never mentioning his paper's obsessive coverage of the Masters controversy, one that his paper, almost alone, fueled, and to no avail.  Raines does mention that it was his goal to lift up the 'back of the book' —— sections such as business and sports. He said he wanted to make the Times an essential read for those in business, much like the Wall Street Journal, and to make the Times sports coverage as important for sports enthusiasts as USA Today. 


Raines's comments are revealing in several ways. He views the Wall Street Journal as a business paper, rather than a serious competitor to the Times for news and opinion. In fact, more and more readers prefer the Journal to the Times for international and domestic news coverage  for a simple reason: the Journal does a much better job than the Times does of separating its new and opinion  pages. The political spin from the opinion pages of the Times routinely controlled the coverage of major news stories in the Raines era, and still does today.  The Journal has a very pointed take in its opinion pages, but the news pages tend to give it to you straight, even if the coverage may throw into question some of the shibboleths of the paper's editorials.


The failure of the Times to separate opinion from news was clearest during the run—up to the Masters last year, well—reported in a long article in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated. The Times published over 40 stories on the boycott effort by Martha Burk's small group (about 20 demonstrators eventually showed up to picket outside the gates in 2003), many of the stories getting prominent display on the front page of the paper. Editorials urged Tiger Woods, the two time defending champion, to boycott the tournament, presumably to lend his name to this great civil rights crusade. For the Times, admitting some wealthy white woman to the all—male country club, say a Carly Fiorina, or Darla Moore, would make the world a better place. 


Raines grew up in Alabama during the real civil rights struggles in the 60s. One might think he would know better than to cheapen the nobility of the real civil rights struggle for something so casual as this crusade.  Woods, to his credit, paid no heed to Raines, and has shown the strength of his character twice in recent weeks. After competing in a golf tournament in Dubai, he visited American servicemen aboard an aircraft carrier. After his disappointing finish in the 2004 Masters, Woods flew down to Fort Bragg to spend a week with the troops in basic training, trying to better understand, perhaps, what his father went through during his military training 40 years ago.


Woods also understood that Raines wanted to use him as a racial symbol to help achieve cross—over support for this fake civil rights effort.  Woods has steadfastly refused to allow his name, or his mixed race background, to be claimed by any group for racial identity purposes. Woods is an unhyphenated American, however alien this attitude must be in the editorial rooms of America—region>'s major papers, particularly the Times, where ethnicity and group obsessed thinking is all the rage.


Raines went so far as to spike two columns by sports columnists who did not support the party line on the Masters controversy.  Had he listened to any sports talk radio for an hour, Raines would have known that sports fans like argument (can anyone disagree that the Big East is the best men's basketball conference?). If supporting the Burk boycott effort and eliminating debate were Raines' way of making the Times an essential read for sports fans, he knows little of what sports fans want.  Sports fans and golf fans want to watch the Masters and see a gripping drama unfold on the final nine on Sunday, as occurred this year between Ernie Els and Phil Mikkelson.  What they are not interested in is having the tournament cancelled or not televised, or having the game's best player sit it out.


Sports fans could also tell Raines that the USA Today is NOT their paper of choice. In fact, almost nobody I know actually buys USA Today.  Rather, America—region>'s road warriors get it free, most often from hotels, but also at the airports and rental car companies. USA Today is certainly a better read than the local newspaper in almost all cities. To Raines' chagrin, some hotels, rental car companies and airlines will also give away the Wall Street Journal, but almost never the Times, outside of New York City itself. It is just too parochial for the cross section of Americans represented by business travelers.


Raines used a football expression to describe how he wanted the paper to cover big stories. He would 'flood the zone' with his paper's large news team, and produce a better, more comprehensive story, than any other paper. When the San Francisco 49ers had the excellence of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice to call on, they did not need to flood the zone to win. Montana simply threw it where Rice could catch it, and then Rice would outrun the defenders.  As a Bears fan, I shivered and watched this tragedy unfold before my eyes in the 89 NFC Title game.


When there is no story to tell, flooding the zone won't make a better story. The Times' angles on the 2003 Masters story were all created by the Times —— they were not there waiting for a journalist to uncover. The overwhelming majority of America—region>'s sports fans, men and women, black and white, rich and poor alike, were sick of Martha Burk. In the midst of a war on terror, and a war in Iraq—region>, sports is a welcome distraction. It needn't be part of the ugliness of the main news pages of our paper, except occasionally.


The best answer to Burk and Raines was a very politically incorrect emailed photo that flew around the internet after the 2003 Masters. I never discovered whether the picture was real, or the product of somebody working with Adobe Photo Shop. Standing behind the group of women protestors carrying signs near the golf course in Augusta, was a single man holding up a sign reading 'Iron my shirt.' Sports fans found this very funny.  Political correctness has eliminated such humor in much of America—region>, especially in its newsrooms. Raines and his crew would not and could not laugh at this, for the gap separating them from the readers they proclaimed a desire to serve was simply too great.