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Jewish World ReviewDec. 9, 2002 /4 Teves 5763

Dave Shiflett

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The True Master: Howell Raines, intellectual bully -- So a couple of New York Times columns got spiked for daring to disagree with the paper's editorial page on the Augusta golfing "controversy." What does this tell us? Nothing that most people didn't already know: The Times is ideologically rigid and demands an intellectual conformity among its own employees that it would find unacceptable anywhere else. The Gray Lady runs a very tight ship. She is also nagging, hypocritical, and believes herself morally superior. The dissidents have been silenced for the greater good, its editors surely believe. Their tongues deserved trimming.

To be sure, there are some of us who do not take the Times nearly so seriously as its most severe critics, or its owners and top editors. Back in the day, when media outlets were much fewer, its strength was much greater. Diversity - one of the Times's great causes - has taken its toll. On top of that, most news consumers can tell when they're being hustled, and the Times is doing a lot of hustling these days.

Howell Raines, according to insiders and outsiders alike, is an intellectual bully. Like many in his tribe, he mistakes his personal obsessions with Universal Objective Truth, including his obsession with a private golf club's membership policies. In the Augusta matter, he has embarrassed his paper by giving this non-story more coverage than the Times might lavish on a medium-sized African war.

Like all tyrants, Master Howell brooks no babbling from the help, at least if the babbling is not pleasing to his ears. The Times may thunder on about the beauty of diversity, free speech, and open-mindedness, but those are theoretical positions. As its two columnists learned this week, they are about as free as a couple of North Korean street sweepers.

You've got to feel a bit of sympathy for the writers, who are regular Times sports columnists. Dave Anderson - a Pulitzer winner, no less - had written a column saying people should lay off Tiger Woods, who had been earlier advised by the editorial page of the necessity of sitting out the Augusta National. Anderson had a different view - and hardly a radical one. His position, as he recalled to a journalist from the Daily News, was to "let Tiger play golf. It's not his fight, or any golfer's fight." That's heresy at the Times - unspeakable heresy.

Sportswriter Harvey Araton got the same treatment. His thought crime was even less dramatic: "Araton is believed to have written that women face bigger issues than whether they can become members of a ritzy golf club." Beyond the pale, said Master Howell. Silence the lad.

The official reason for the spikings is pathetically lame. Anderson was accused of being "self-absorbed." How is that defined? Said a Times spokesman: "If it's his opinion versus the editorial board's opinion, it becomes self-absorbed." As for Araton's column, "the logic did not meet our standards." This is the paper that publishes Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd.

Let it be said that a bit of sympathy is in order even for them, because this incident makes it clear that Frank and Mo are what Harry Belafonte might call "house slaves." They may like to present themselves as free-ranging intellects who comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The overriding truth, however, is that they are considered safe columnists by Master Howell. Or, as Harry might put it, they know better than to get too uppity. They do not contradict the Creed.

It is worth wondering if there may be a great deal more intellectual diversity among the staffers of the New York Times than one would gather from reading the paper. Perhaps there are people there who reject the editorial page's opinions on everything from drilling for oil in Alaska to gay rights, tax policy, and even abortion. It would be nice if this incident inspired the creation of a samizdat publication to be passed around among the bolder members of the staff. If nothing else, it might improve morale a bit.

Meantime, the next time the Times starts chirping about the need for the rest of us to have open minds and honor conflicting points of view, we should remember Augusta. It is also worth keeping in mind that even the most provincial papers allow columnists to write on either side of most issues.

But not at the Times. Master Howell just don't allow no free thinking 'round there.

JWR contributor Dave Shiflett writes from central Va. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002, Dave Shiflett