He May Be Unwelcome, but We’ll Survive", says Clark Hoyt, New York Times' public editor:
In 1972, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, was looking for a conservative columnist for his left-leaning Op-Ed page.
At a charity dinner, he wound up sitting next to William Safire, the Nixon White House speechwriter who coined Spiro Agnew’s famous denunciation of the press as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” They soon had a deal.
But, as described in “The Trust,” the authoritative history of the family that has controlled The Times for more than a century, Sulzberger neglected to involve John Oakes, his cousin and the editor of the editorial page, in the decision. Oakes was appalled when he heard about the negotiations, and not realizing it was too late, offered alternatives. How about Irving Kristol, he suggested.
More than 35 years later, Sulzberger’s son, Arthur Jr. — this time in full partnership with his editorial page editor, Andrew Rosenthal — has hired another conservative columnist for their left-leaning Op-Ed page: Irving Kristol’s son, William.
The choice of Safire, who retired in 2005, set off a storm of protest. “The Times could have saved themselves about 50 grand a year if they just sent an office boy over to the White House to pick up the press releases,” fumed Nicholas von Hoffman of The Washington Post. Kristol’s appointment has not fared any better. “Pretty much the worst idea ever,” grumped Gawker, the New York media gossip Web site.Clark Hoyt
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.
Rosenthal’s mail has been particularly rough. “That rotten, traiterous [sic] piece of filth should be hung by the ankles from a lamp post and beaten by the mob rather than gaining a pulpit at ANY self-respecting news organization,” said one message. “You should be ashamed. Apparently you are only out for money and therefore an equally traiterous [sic] whore deserving the same treatment.”
Kristol would not have been my choice to join David Brooks as a second conservative voice in the mix of Times columnists, but the reaction is beyond reason. Hiring Kristol the worst idea ever? I can think of many worse. Hanging someone from a lamppost to be beaten by a mob because of his ideas? And that is from a liberal, defined by Webster as “one who is open-minded.” What have we come to?
Sulzberger told me he was surprised by the vehemence of the reaction. But Kristol is a particularly polarizing figure in a polarized age. While he holds the full range of conservative Republican views on economic and social issues, he 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, though a fair reading of Kristol’s statements includes broader arguments. Today, the public widely sees the war as a mistake, but Kristol remains its aggressive, unapologetic champion. In his first column last Monday, he warned against electing a Democratic president who would “snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory in Iraq.”
Rosenthal said: “Some people have said we shouldn’t have hired him because he supports the war in Iraq. That’s absurd.”
That is not why I think Sulzberger and Rosenthal made a mistake, and I agree with their effort to address an Op-Ed lineup that, until Kristol came aboard, was at least six liberals against one conservative who isn’t always all that conservative. I’ve heard all the arguments against Kristol — he is “wrong” on Iraq, he is overexposed as editor of The Weekly Standard and a regular commentator on Fox News with nothing new to say, he is an activist with the potential to embarrass The Times with his outside involvements — and one of them sticks with me:
On Fox News Sunday on June 25, 2006, Kristol said, “I think the attorney general has an absolute obligation to consider prosecution” of The New York 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.
Publication of the article was controversial — my predecessor as public editor first supported it and then changed his mind — but 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. This is not a person I would have rewarded with a regular spot in front of arguably the most elite audience in the nation.
Kristol refused to talk with me about this issue, or an earlier statement that The Times was “irredeemable,” or the reaction to his appointment — an odd stance for someone who presumably will want others to talk to him for his column.
Rosenthal said Kristol’s comment about prosecution bothered him. It was, Rosenthal said, “a heavy accusation that put him in a category other than a journalist.” But he said that Op-Ed columnists are not necessarily traditional journalists, and he did not think that “holding one opinion” should be the basis for selecting or rejecting a columnist.
Sulzberger said The Times wanted “a columnist who brought to our pages a deeply held and well articulated point of view in line with what you might call the conservative Republican movement. ... Our Op-Ed page is a marketplace of ideas. He’ll strengthen the discussion.”
That may be, but Kristol’s first column joined the pack in its first paragraph and wrote off Hillary Clinton with finality the day before she won the New Hampshire primary. He also misattributed a quotation that had to be corrected.
This is a decision I would not have made. But it is not the end of the world. Everyone should take a deep breath and calm down. Safire was greeted with jeers and got off to a rocky start, calling Watergate “a tempest in a Teapot Dome” before eventually acknowledging that he had been “grandly, gloriously, egregiously wrong.” He went on to a distinguished, 32-year career at The Times and, agree or disagree with him, he was a compelling presence on the Op-Ed page. (He still writes a column on language in the Sunday magazine.)
Kristol was hired on a one-year contract for what amounts to a mutual tryout. He will continue as editor of The Weekly Standard and on Fox, but Rosenthal said Kristol would not advise candidates or take any other active part in the presidential campaign. If Kristol is another Safire, he has the chance to prove it. If not, he and the newspaper will move on, and the search will resume.
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The public editor serves as the readers' representative. His opinions and conclusions are his own. His column appears at least twice monthly in this section.