A day in the life of the Times

Saturday is not normally the worst day of the week to read the New York Times. On Friday, one has to suffer through Paul Krugman's screeds blaming all the world's ills except for the tsunami on President Bush.  Sunday brings Maureen Dowd and her special keyboard where R has been replaced by Rummy, and Frank Rich blasting the intolerant God believers in the red states.

But Saturday, the week's lowest circulation day, includes a column by David Brooks, the conservative that liberals dislike the least.

If one concedes, as the Times' new ombudsman Daniel Okrent has, that the Times is a liberal paper, one should not expect anything but that liberal perspective on the editorial, op ed, letters and culture pages. 'Liberal' on these pages once meant 'tolerant,' but the Times' voices are now harshly intolerant of perspectives other than its own. The best bits of evidence of this were the extraordinary columns by Jane Smiley and Gary Wills, published right after President Bush's re—election.  Both writers claimed that the Bush voters were unreachable by reason, that they were an unthinking collection of fire breathing biblical zealots, and it was just wrong that the rational thinking classes were for now outnumbered by these idiots. This is the new progressive tolerance in which the Times leads the way.

This Saturday's paper was remarkable for what was included, and what was excluded from the news pages. On Friday, two political scandals of different sorts became news. Armstrong Williams, a conservative black writer and broadcaster, admitted that he had received $240,000 from the Department of Education for his efforts in promoting the No Child Left Behind initiative.  Williams stated that he supported the initiative, but admitted it was wrong to have accepted payment for promoting that position.

The second story concerned David Rosen, the former finance director for Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign. Rosen was indicted on Friday for 4 counts of filing false reports with the Federal Election Commission. The FBI stated in Court papers that the campaign had deliberately understated its fundraising costs from an event in August 2000 so as to have more money to spend on the campaign. Each of the four counts with which Rosen is charged carries a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines upon conviction.

The facts about the Rosen indictment were obtained from the Chicago Tribune.  The story about Rosen was nowhere to be found in the print edition of the Times received by me in Chicago. In the online edition of the Times, an AP story appears on the matter, the same one that was in the Tribune. But the story is not in the national print edition of the paper, where the Times has roughly half of its circulation. One might wonder why.

Imagine that the exact same charges were filed against the Finance Director for Senator Bill Frist, the Republican Majority Leader, who also was elected in 2000. Do you think the Times would have ignored the story?   Frist is one of several people mentioned as a potential candidate for the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton is widely acknowledged to be the leading Democratic candidate for her party's nomination that year. Might the Times have ignored the Rosen story so as not to injure Mrs Clinton's effort to get re—elected in 2006 or her Presidential aspirations in 2008?  Since when has the Times been reluctant to follow a story where some public figure associated with a prominent national political official might go to jail for criminal activity?  The fact that the Times in its online edition relied on an AP story shows its lack of interest in the story.

On the other hand, it is of interest to note how the Times dealt with the Armstrong Williams story. Predictably, it was on the first page. No problem there — the Tribune, my control group for slightly more balanced reporting on these stories, also included the story on its front page. Both the Times and Tribune stories provided similar background information on Williams, and included comments by several academics, and media personalities who were critical of the arrangement. If anything the Tribune story might have been expected to be harsher to Williams, since his weekly columns were distributed by Tribune Media services until Friday, when the Tribune terminated the arrangement after the payment to Williams was disclosed. 

But it was the Times, which went further. Here is the first sentence on Williams in the story by David Kirkpatrick:

'Armstrong Williams, a prominent conservative commentator who was a prot é of Senator Strom Thurmond, and Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court, acknowledged yesterday that he was paid $240,000 by the Department of Education to promote its initiatives on his syndicated television program and to other African—Americans in the news media.'

It is interesting to see how many errors or misleading statements one can find in this single sentence. To begin, Strom Thurmond is not a US Senator, but died two years ago.  It would have been easy enough to say the late Senator. The word protégé linking Williams to Thomas and Thurmond is also of interest. Protégé means someone under the care or protection of another. Williams had jobs working for both Thurmond and Thomas a long time ago. We learn this in paragraph 19 of the 22 paragraph story.  Do we know that he was under the care or protection of the people he worked for then or later in his career? Is it automatically assumed that someone who worked for someone was once, and becomes forever his protege?

Williams later became the business partner of Stedman Graham, the boyfriend of Oprah Winfrey. This is mentioned in paragraph 20 of the story, and not in the opening sentence or paragraph, which is all that many will read.  Would there be a different orientation to the story if Williams were linked to Graham (and by extension, to Oprah) and not to Thomas and Thurmond in the opening sentence? Or better yet, what if the Times just stuck to the facts, with no insinuating references to people with no relation whatever to Williams' current problem?

The impact of the opening sentence is that Williams, obviously a bad guy, is linked to Clarence Thomas, a Justice the Times detests (as it does all back conservatives).  Thomas is a potential candidate for Chief Justice, should Chief Justice William Rehnquist, stricken with cancer, be forced to resign. The Times, aware of this, has already been piling on Thomas of late, with several stories about his acceptance of various gifts over the years. That story was a pale reminder of one recently departed First Family's looting of the White House on their way out the door, and on their way to ten million dollar book deals. Linking Thomas to Williams, an employee decades ago, appears to be an attempt to dirty Thomas a bit more. As for Thurmond, the old segregationist is always an easy target, dead or alive. It is not hard to figure out what the Times thinks about blacks who worked for Thurmond. 

The references to Thurmond and Thomas are gratuitous attempts at guilt by association, in this case, in both directions. This linkage is similar to the way the Times finally dealt with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, once it deigned to write about their charges.  Much of the article on the Swift Boat Veterans described how some of the contributors to their cause were Republicans. Imagine that.

The former employment of Williams by both Thomas and Thurmond had nothing to do with the current controversy surrounding Williams, and Williams has worked with and for many others before and since. It is simply not believable that it was just accidental that the Times chose to highlight only these relationships. The Tribune (AP) story focused much more on the current controversy about Williams, and does not mention the former employers. It makes no claim that Williams was anybody's protégé. 

The absence of any story on David Rosen (remember this is the paper that will publish 'all the news that is fit to print'), and the attempt to link Justice Thomas to the Williams story (perhaps the Times believes that all black conservatives must have ethics problems), is evidence that the news pages of the Times are little different at this point from the opinion pages. The selection of what does and does not appear, where stories are placed, the headlines and pictures that are used, and the tone of the stories, are all part and parcel of the same bias that is evident on the opinion pages. The Times writers either cannot help themselves, or understand that this is what the editors want to see.

There have already been several articles describing the Times' effort during the campaign to help defeat President Bush.  The contention of a few that the Times called the campaign straight is ludicrous. By my count, the phony 'theft of Iraqi arms' story (the October surprise) was on the front page of the Times for four days running in the final week of the campaign.

One other Saturday story is worth mentioning. On Friday, a Mississippi grand jury indicted a 79 year old man in the 40 year old murder case involving three slain civil rights workers in Mississippi, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. The story of their murders, and the subsequent trials in Mississippi, were the subject of the film Mississippi Burning. The Times makes the indictment a front page story, and fills a page inside the paper with the family reactions and an accompanying piece on the Mississippi county where the murders took place. Clearly, this is a big story for the Times.

But one little detail with which I was unfamiliar is revealed in the 24th and 25th paragraphs of the Times' inside page story about the mothers of the slain civil right workers.  James Chaney, the one black man of the three murdered men, had a brother Ben Chaney, now 52. We learn that Ben Chaney is now head of advocacy for the James Earl Chaney Foundation, which he established in 1989 to raise funds for the repair of his brother's desecrated grave. Mr. Chaney, according to the Times,

'went through a period of hating white people. He served 13 years in prison for his role in the killings of three white people in  Florida and South Carolina in 1970. He was paroled in 1983, and said yesterday that he now has several white friends, some in Mississippi.' 

There is no cynicism whatever attached to the Times statement about Ben Chaney.  Obviously, Ben Chaney, a mass murderer guilty of hate crimes, has, in the Times' eyes, been rehabilitated.  But Strom Thurmond, dead for two years, is still linked to present day crimes or ethical issues. There was no rehabilitation in his case.

The Times' stories or non—stories this one day appear to have a pattern to them.  Ethical lapses, or even crimes associated with Democratic officials are not to be reported. Ethical lapses by individuals linked to the Bush administration are to be headlined, and the evil—doers need to be linked to those in their past who might compound the embarrassment. Blacks who murder whites, however, can be rehabilitated. One time segregationists can not be rehabilitated.  As for black conservatives, they have no ethics.  

The collapse of a once great newspaper continues.