Let's quickly touch
on this matter of Maureen Dowd. I'm far from one of Dowd's
fans. In the last post
I linked to an April 1999 column
I wrote on her Pulitzer Prize -- a piece that was, to say the least, not positive.
(For that matter, I'm no fan of Howell Raines, who did as much as anyone to advance the Clinton pseudo-scandals while he was editor of the Times Op-Ed page. Note to 'wingers: think twice before you try to ditch him, he's done a lot for you guys!)
Here's the issue.
In a May 14th column ("Osama's Offspring") Dowd quoted the president thus ...
'Al Qaeda is on the run,' President Bush said last week. 'That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated ... they're not a problem anymore.'
And here's the complete quote.
Al Qaeda is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated. Right now, about half of all the top Al Qaeda operatives are either jailed or dead. In either case, they're not a problem anymore."
That's a very misleading ellipsis. Luckily, journalism has an established remedy for such a lapse: a prominent correction -- probably at the footer of a future column. That corrects the misleading information and gives the equivalent of a pricey, over-90-mph speeding ticket to the columnist. Get enough of 'em and you lose your license.
Yet, predictably, this is being turned into case #3 in the Times scandal. Zev Chafets today in the New York Daily News wrote ...
If Dowd intentionally misrepresented the President's words, she is guilty of a journalistic offense much worse than Bragg's intern problem, or even Blair's fantasies.
It's hard to imagine a more ridiculous statement. All sorts of arguable statements can be cobbled together by attaching a slippery 'if this, then that' phrase at the front of a wild-minded charge like this. But it's still ridiculous. One misleading ellipsis is more egregious than chronic fabrication and plagiarism?
If this is the standard we're going to apply for felony offenses in journalism -- in OpEd's no less -- then the profession will rapidly be depleted to no more than a saving remnant. And many of those now going after the Times most ferociously would be among the first before the firing squad. None of them minded far more egregious ridiculousness when Bill Clinton was in Dowd's crosshairs. (For what it's worth, the earlier claim that the Times had misrepresented Henry Kissinger's position on Iraq was utterly bogus.)
This gets to a bigger problem. As I said above, I have little positive feeling for Raines, only a touch more for Dowd. The Blair scandal has exposed some very serious management problems at the Times. And the more recent Bragg scandal-ette shows what I'd call an institutional arrogance that is at a minimum troubling. For that matter, how many other major stories did the Times utterly blow during the 1990s? Whitewater? An utter embarrassment. The Wen-ho Lee case? At least as bad. And there are many others.
And yet the agenda here is also unmistakable (not everyone criticizing the Times, certainly, but the usual suspects). As much as the Times is an institution with some serious problems, it is also one of those enduring institutions which stands apart from the government, clear partisan affiliation, the crudest dictates of money, and so forth -- in other words, precisely what an organ of a free press, a part of the scaffolding of civil society, is supposed to do. A certain sort of conservative (an increasing number, but still only a part) have always seen it -- rightly -- as to their advantage to tear such institutions down.
That would leave the ground to a jumbling mix of Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and feckless jabbering at the Nation and perhaps a reemergence of Phil Donohue -- a world entirely to their liking. The difference between imperfectly striving for balance in reporting the news and making no attempt to achieve it whatsoever would be obliterated. Indeed, it would become just a quaint artifact.
That doesn't all rest on the NYT of course. But it's an important building block in the edifice.