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Times Trouble

From the Dec. 16, 2002 Dallas Morning News: The Gray Lady should learn that times have changed.

11:00 PM, Dec 17, 2002 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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THIS MONTH, the New York Times became a story when another paper reported that its editors had spiked sports columns written by staffers Harvey Araton and Pulitzer Prize-winner David Anderson.

The columns dealt with whether Augusta National Golf Club should admit women, a subject of evident importance to the paper's editors, who have used the news and editorial pages to challenge the club's men-only policy. The two sports columnists failed to join the crusade.

Anderson gave the New York Daily News his understanding of why the columns were spiked: "It was decided by the editors that we should not argue with the editorial page."

The editors replied that they don't publish columns that take issue with the paper's editorials. "Intramural quarreling of that kind is unseemly and self-absorbed," explained managing editor Gerald Boyd. Ridiculed for "censorship," however, the editors relented. They deleted references in the columns to the paper's editorials and then published the pieces.

All of which makes you wonder: Why didn't the paper do that when the columns were first written? You would think the editors could have moved past any "intramural quarreling"--assuming the problem was merely that.

But if Anderson is a credible source, the problem was deeper--an unwillingness on the part of the editors to endure an opinion at odds with the paper's. A statement Boyd made in a memo to the staff--that "our news columns enforce no party line"--is one that would have amused a good Times reporter, if one had been allowed to cover the story.

No paper in the country takes itself as seriously as the Times does, and it is hard to imagine another paper acting quite as the Times did in this case. Yet the story of the spiked columns is about more than the Times. In fact, it is a story about the old--i.e., the establishment--media. And the story shows why their influence has waned.

By "establishment media" I mean the several national newspapers of 50 and 60 years ago, including the Times, later joined by the TV networks. They determined what was news. And for them, news had a certain authority. Indeed, as Walter Lippmann contended, news precluded argument--or at least any argument that might conflict with what the "news" was believed to support.

That understanding of news still has adherents in high places at the Times. That explains why there was no rush to get the dissenting columns into print. It also explains why, as Jack Shafer, the press writer for slate.com, has written, the Times so scrupulously avoids self-criticism.

The Times doesn't provide forums--as other papers do--where its work can be questioned. It has no ombudsman, nor an in-house media reporter allowed to treat the Times like any other institution. And why not? Because such forums and such writers are unnecessary. News, you see, precludes argument.

The problem with that understanding of news--and of doing journalism--is that in the long run it isn't going to prove adequate. As regards public affairs, man--especially democratic man--is made for argument. In "The Revolt of the Elites," the sociologist Christopher Lasch explained why. It is only in the course of argument, he wrote, that "we come to understand what we know and what we still need to learn."

The history of the media since the 1960s may be described as a revolt against the old establishment and its definition of appropriate political discussion. Necessarily, it has employed argument to find out "what we know and what we still need to know."

At first, the revolt was led by so-called alternative media, including small magazines and weeklies. But with new technology have come the new media of cable news and nationwide talk radio. And now there is the Web with its blogosphere (see, among many, kausfiles.com, andrewsullivan.com, instapundit.com, volokh.blogspot.com, and nationalreview.com). There is a lot of argument out there--some good, some mediocre, some awful. And much of the new media has a conservative (to libertarian) cast, doubtless a response to the liberal tendencies of the old media (see the New York Times).

But the bigger point about the new media is that they have broken the hold the old media had on news for so long. Indeed, they advance stories even the most aggressive newspapers miss and in ways not predictably partisan--the one involving Trent Lott a case in point (see Josh Marshall's talkingpointsmemo.com).