I don’t generally read columns by the New York Times’ s ombudsman — or “readers’ representative” as the paper prefers to call it. By now, I’ve become confident that if any journalistic controversy is roiling in regard to the Times, the “readers’ representative” will ignore it or, failing that, will scratch his head for a few column inches and then Solomonically decide the Times was right after all.
But I did read the column this Sunday because it was about Bill Kristol — a friend and advisor to the think tank I run — being named a Times oped columnist. To call the piece a hatchet job would be unfair. More accurately, it was a Vegematic job: Its intent was to make many teeny tiny cuts. It did not succeed.
Before I make that case, let me give credit where it is due: editorial page editor Andy Rosenthal had the courage to bring Kristol aboard, knowing he’d get an earful from lefties and liberals who only want to hear themselves and their echoes.
Now into the fray: The column by the “readers’ representative” — Clark Hoyt currently holds that title — is headlined: “He May Be Unwelcome But We’ll Survive.” Could one demonstrate both ungraciousness and arrogance with more economy than that?
Hoyt then notes: “Of the nearly 700 messages I have received since Kristol’s selection was announced — more than half of them before he ever wrote a word for the Times — exactly one praised the choice.”
In other words, as Dorothy Parker might have said: The Times’s readership ranges all the way from A to B, a disability that may begin to be remedied by the inclusion of Kristol in the mix. That possibility seems not to have occurred to Hoyt.
Instead, Hoyt calls Kristol a “particularly polarizing figure in a polarized age.” This challenge, Clark: Name a single figure who is firmly on the Right who is not regarded as polarizing by people firmly on the left.
Kristol has been hired to serve up opinions and to bring a different perspective to the paper. Hoyt says he understands that — and then immediately goes on to criticize Kristol for being opinionated and for holding a different perspective (i.e. one with which Hoyt and his friends disagree).
For example, Hoyt writes that Kristol “is most identified today with ardently pushing for the war in Iraq, a war sold to the American people on the basis of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.” Actually, they did exist — they were used against Kurdish villagers. Of that there is solid documentary evidence. What we don’t know is what happened to those weapons. Did Saddam Hussein destroy them? If so, when and in what manner? To say that because U.S. forces did not find the weapons means they did not exist is like saying if Hoyt can’t find his car keys, his car keys did not exist.
Beyond that, Hoyt is annoyed that Kristol once opined on television that the attorney general should consider prosecuting the Times for publishing an article that revealed a classified government program to sift the international banking transactions of thousands of Americans in a search for terrorists.
Hoyt writes that “Kristol’s leap to prosecution smacked of intimidation and disregard for both the First Amendment and the role of a free press in monitoring a government that has a long history of throwing the cloak of national security and classification over its activities.”
Tendentiousness aside, if the Times can call for prosecuting others — as it has — why is it out of bounds for others to call for the prosecution of the Times? When was it established that the Times is above the law? If the Times’s publishing of classified information is protected by the First Amendment, surely that argument can be advanced by the Times lawyers.
(Actually, I would guess that in most cases the First Amendment does provide protection against prosecution for publication. But the reporter to whom the leak was given probably witnessed the commission of a crime by a government official and so might be obligated to testify — as would any citizen who witnesses a crime.)
Hoyt also is miffed that Kristol won’t talk to him about this issue. But Kristol is a columnist: Is it so hard to understand why he might prefer to put his opinions into his columns rather than answer questions from a less-than-neutral fellow columnist? And if Hoyt should mischaracterize Kristol’s answers or take them out of context, what recourse would Kristol have? Complain to the “readers’ representative”?
Finally, if Hoyt wants an interesting Times controversy to write about he need go no further than the front page of Sunday’s paper where he’ll find the headline: “Crazed Veterans Spark Nationwide Crime Wave.”
As John Hinderaker at the Powerline blog points out the story fails to even ask the most simple and obvious question: “How does the murder rate among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan compare to the murder rate for young American men generally?”
I can hardly wait to see Hoyt’s column next Sunday.
— Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.