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The Orange County Baron Flies Again

Marty Baron would be a fine choice to replace Howell Raines at the New York Times. He learned long ago that sometimes conservatives can be trusted.

12:00 AM, Jun 19, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
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NEWSWEEK'S media reporter Seth Mnookin handicapped the race for the job of New York Times executive editor last week, putting Los Angeles Times managing editor Dean Baquet as the 2-1 favorite, Bill Keller (runner-up to Howell Raines in the last go-round) in the second position at 3-1, and Boston Globe editor Marty Baron as a reasonable 5-1 shot.

Baquet has widespread respect within the newsroom of the west coast Times, and Keller's writing since September 11 has often been riveting, but I'm hoping Baron gets the job. Baron has a peculiar advantage over the others: the experience of having blown a huge story because he distrusted the conservative messenger who brought it to him. It is the sort of scar that reminds its wearer not to repeat a painful mistake.

None of the candidates above--or any of the other long shots--are going to set the New York Times on a course of moderation and objectivity. The paper has sailed too far to the left during the last two decades to get itself back to "paper of record" status anytime soon. But if its leadership was committed to at least covering the failures and foibles of the political left, that would be a major and welcome change. Those stories often arrive on platters served up by the center-right. Some media elites sniff at such gifts and turn away. Baron is unlikely to do so.

Before his award-laden tenure at the Miami Herald, which included coverage of Elián González and the 2000 election, a Pulitzer, and being named "Editor of the Year" by Editor & Publisher Magazine, Baron had a short stint at the New York Times. That was a rebound move after a disastrous run as editor of the Orange County Edition of the Los Angeles Times.

Baron joined the Times shortly after his graduation from Lehigh University and a brief stint as a business and state reporter for the Miami Herald. He spent two decades with the Los Angeles paper, during which he absorbed all that editor Shelby Coffey had to teach--especially Coffey's brand of noblesse oblige towards Los Angeles's minority communities, disdain for its middle class and suburbs, and contempt for almost all conservatives. When Baron was promoted to editor of the Orange County edition, he brought with him a generous attitude towards his reporters but an almost perpetual sneer towards the community he was supposed to serve--white, affluent, and Republican Orange County.

In the spring of 1994, a Republican candidate for county treasurer, John Moorlach, brought Baron and his staff a detailed analysis arguing that the Democratic incumbent was dangerously gambling with the county's public funds. The paper dismissed Moorlach's analysis as politics, and went so far as to endorse the incumbent, Robert Citron, for reelection. By year's end, Moorlach's warnings had proven true and Orange County filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in history, having lost $1.6 billion on a hugely leveraged securities portfolio, a staggering loss that would cripple the county with service cuts and crushing debt for years to come. Two years later, Baron departed for New York having seen the appointment of a one-time junior, Bob Magnuson, to a position over his own. Since then Baron's career has skyrocketed. Orange County is still paying the huge interest tab on the loans it was obliged to take out because the media refused to believe a Republican flagging bad news about a Democrat.

Most sins of the media elite are sins related to pride--to the faux detachment that reporters and editors allow to feed a thinly disguised superiority complex. Because the First Amendment so thoroughly protects the newsroom from the maddening and often incoherent burdens of government regulation, captains of the newspaper industry have zero experience with the crushing weight of bureaucracies. Because they are often called to journalism as a result of a crusading passion, the same troops arrive with the biases of an activist of the left and the maturity of a college newspaper crowd. And because the career paths and salary ceilings of journalism are starkly limited, the disappointment that comes with decades in the business can add bitterness to the toxic mix of arrogance and power.

It takes powerful character to survive such an apprenticeship and then be able to correct the tendencies of a newsroom. Baron has the advantage of having been burned by his own blindness--a mistake he's not likely to make again. Proponents of fairness in the media could do a lot worse.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. His new book, In, But Not Of, has just been published by Thomas Nelson.