The Magazine

GOING AFTER JEFF JACOBY

Nov 17, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 10 • By ABBY WISSE SCHACHTER
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JEFF JACOBY IS A CONSERVATIVE columnist at the Boston Globe. More to the point, he is the only conservative columnist at the Globe, and he was brought to the newspaper to serve as its conservative columnist. So, on October 23, he was doing his job, and doing it well, when he published a piece about tolerance and free speech. What Jacoby got for his trouble was an explosion of intolerance, and an effort to stymie his speech, from his coworkers.

Every year at Harvard University, gays and lesbians on campus celebrate National Coming Out Day. This year, Jacoby told his readers, a Christian group from the law school decided to offer an alternative on that day. The Society for Law, Life & Religion organized a meeting called "National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day." The posters advertising the meeting read: "For those struggling with homosexuality, there is hope in the truth. . . . You can walk away." The group announced a gathering open to all Harvard students with a valid ID at which they would hear a "message of compassion and hope for those who desperately seek a way to leave the lifestyle of self- destruction behind." The message was to be delivered by Michael Johnston, a man who had renounced a gay life and taken up both heterosexuality and Christianity.

Within a day, the Christian group's posters were either torn down or defaced and replaced with a parody that read in part: "For those struggling with Judaism there is hope in the truth. You can walk away. (To the gas chambers.) The National Coming Out of Diversity Day. Sponsored by the HLS Society for Law, Loathing & Hate."

The fraudulent posters continued with, "Open to the entire Harvard community . . . except you. Yes, the Jewish-looking kid. Or you Black and Asian guys. Or you, wearing the pink triangle. (American Nazi party ID will be required to present proof of non-mongrel ancestry for at least four generations.) Bring your own rope."

In his column, Jacoby criticized those at Harvard who would equate the advocacy of heterosexuality with fascism and genocide. "Dare to suggest that homosexuality may not be something to celebrate," Jacoby wrote, "and instantly you are a Nazi, a hatemonger, a gas-chamber operator." Jacoby asked how inviting a man to speak at Harvard about having turned from homosexuality to heterosexuality and Christianity could be considered on a par with marching Jews into gas chambers.

A fair question. But for some staffers at the Globe and especially for the paper's ombudsman, Jack Thomas, Jacoby was not only asking an unfair question; he was revealing his own bigotry.

The ostensible purpose of a newspaper ombudsman is to serve as an in-house critic, though it is more often the case that the ombudsman plays the role of kind-hearted apologist. But in an extraordinary and unusual move, Thomas devoted his entire November 3 column to an attack on Jacoby. He began no- holds-barred, describing Jacoby's writings on "gay men and lesbians" as " intolerant, frequently overbearing and sometimes downright insulting." He wrote that from the moment of his arrival from the Globe's conservative rival, the Boston Herald, Jeff Jacoby has been a thorn in the side of gay staffers. And not just any gay staffers. "The gods must have a sense of humor, " Thomas wrote, because they sent two "gay activists" to the Globe to serve as Jacoby's copy editors -- whose job it is to shepherd Jacoby's column from his computer into print.

According to Thomas, the op-ed page's copy editors, Peter Accardi and Robert Hardman, "were incensed" by the piece. They argued that Jacoby's column was insulting and in violation of a rule enunciated by editorial-page editor David Greenway that "free speech is not a license for the Globe to purvey bigotry or hatred."

Op-ed editor Marjorie Pritchard sent the piece to her boss, Greenway, because it made her "uncomfortable." But Greenway refused to touch Jacoby's work. "The thrust of the column was to attack those at Harvard who would not let others speak," Greenway told the ombudsman. That wasn't good enough for the ombudsman, who went on to question the accuracy of Jacoby's description of gay protests at the society's meeting. Thomas wrote ominously that "by means of rhetorical devices -- "gay activists thronged the entrance" -- Jacoby left some readers with an impression that the meeting had been unruly." A rhetorical device? Horrors! (And indeed, Thomas offers no evidence to contradict Jacoby's assertion that "gay activists thronged the entrance." He only quotes a Globe reporter in attendance, who said he thought the meeting peaceful and civil.)

Thomas ends his column by saying that, while in this case Jacoby's " offensive" column should have run, "it's a high price to pay for freedom of the press." When I asked Thomas how he came to write a piece denouncing his colleague in these remarkably strong terms, he told me he had received "six calls and one letter to the editor." These inspired him to "ferret out" the supposedly aggrieved gay Globe staffers. A previous Thomas column was based on over 200 angry phone calls to the paper about a specific news story. A paper with a circulation as large as the Globe's --493,000 -- receives several hundred letters and phone calls a week complaining about something or other. But when it comes to a matter involving a conservative's column on the need for tolerance of Christian views on sexuality and the inappropriate use of a Holocaust analogy, six phone calls were apparently enough to get Thomas to act.

Thomas's censoriousness underscores an important truth of our time: Homosexuality must not only be tolerated, it must be advocated. Anything that does not further the advocacy of homosexuality is by definition a condemnation of homosexuality and by extension all homosexuals. If you criticize any part of this orthodoxy, you show yourself to be a homophobic gay-basher. Jeff Jacoby wrote a column about intolerance -- the intolerance toward those whose views on homosexuality violate the new orthodoxy. It was titled "Where's the Tolerance Now?" His own treatment at the hands of the Boston Globe's ombudsman -- and his copy editors -- makesJacoby's argument all the stronger.