Dr. King as a Political Tool


Jayson Blair One Year Later: The Political Utility of Dr. Martin Luther King

The New York Times management will contend that in the year since the Jayson Blair affair the newspaper has shone the bright light of scrutiny on significant instances of intolerance in America. It will say that the Times has investigated the problem of bigotry in the American political culture, and especially insensitivity on the part of the social, economic and political elite. It will also say that in observing intolerance there is no need to study the journalism profession, or the New York Times itself.

But there are a number of noteworthy instances where Times reporters missed a story, and a number of important cases where the Times editorial page failed to voice its opinion. These were key times when intolerance went uncovered and bigotry went uncriticized. Times decision makers will contend that after Blair the newspaper aggressively pursued stories of intolerance, and did so regardless of where the truth would lead. Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Keller will not acknowledge that their efforts followed an agenda, or that they were inspired by political partisanship. But in the twelve months since the Blair episode, the evidence suggests that management did indeed pursue an agenda. An analysis of Times reportage and editorials shows that leadership considered the device of tolerance not as a moral or philosophical guidepost that is universally applicable, but rather as a political sword to be utilized to de-legitimize the opponents of the Democratic Party.

The sacking of Jayson Blair in May 2003 was called by the Times “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.” The immediate problem was plagiarism. But the real issue had to do with the culture of the Times — namely, its fixation with tolerance and race and politics. And while Mr. Sulzberger dealt with Mr. Blair’s plagiarism, Times coverage in the aftermath of the affair continued to show an artificial and skewed obsession with race and politics.

On October 31, 2003, Howard Dean told the Des Moines Register that “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.” The comment caused an uproar, and Dean immediately apologized. “I deeply regret the pain that I may have caused,” the Democratic candidate said.

The Times did an editorial on November 6. The editorial, titled “Dr. Dean and the Pickup Truck,” said that Dean “obviously is no racist, and no one who criticized the flag comment imagined that he is.” The piece suggested the issue be put behind Mr. Dean. The final paragraph framed the episode in the past tense: “After his run-in with the pickup truck,” it said, Dean can be free to move on. To anyone who read the editorial, the impression that appealing to Confederate flag voters was not politically crippling was unmistakable.

Except, of course, that the Times had already said that appealing to the Confederate flag was a serious political liability. “Dr. Dean and the Pickup Truck” was quite different from an editorial the newspaper did during the presidential primaries in 2000. At that time, the issue involved Republicans. On January 14, 2000, the Times commented that Republicans’ refusal to distance themselves from the Confederate flag “recalls earlier efforts by the Republican Party to tap into residual segregationist impulses.” “Today’s Republicans,” the editorial went on, “are playing a cynical and, one might have hoped, obsolete game.” The piece was titled “Republicans and the Confederate Flag.”

In reportage, the Dean Confederate flag story quickly disappeared from the newspaper. In an article by R.W. Apple on December 10, 2003, titled “Dean’s Role Is Redefined by Gore’s Endorsement,” Apple asked plaintively “Is (Mr. Dean) more of a centrist, as he said in the South over the weekend, who can appeal to general-election voting blocs that have seemed highly antagonistic to each other?” The article didn’t mention the furor caused by Mr. Dean’s remark.

That the Times was uninterested in covering and criticizing Howard Dean did not stop the newspaper from positioning itself as an advocate for tolerance, however. On February 24, 2004, President Bush announced he would support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. The Times responded with an editorial the very next day. “Putting Bias in the Constitution,” the lead editorial on February 25, said Mr. Bush’s proposal would “inject meanspiritedness and exclusion into the document embodying our highest principles and aspirations.” The piece used the terms “meanspiritedness”, “taking rights away from gay Americans”, “bias”, “radical” and “stigmatize and exclude” in association with Bush’s proposal.

But the concern for tolerance purported by the February 25 editorial still didn’t mean that the Times would speak out against bias by members of the Democratic Party. The same day the editorial appeared, Representative Corrine Brown told a briefing in Washington that US policy toward Haiti was conducted by “a bunch of white men,” and that Hispanics and whites “all look alike to me.” A day later, the distinguished congresswoman explained that she didn’t mean to offend anyone. She explained that it was Bush policies that were racist, rather than the people who were at the meeting.

The Times never told readers about Corrine Brown’s remarks. Adam Nagourney, who had been assigned five articles on the Trent Lott affair between December 1, 2002 and December 30, 2002, wrote none on Corrine Brown. And the editorial page never criticized Brown. The silence was particularly remarkable given that Bill Keller had raged against Lott: He wrote in a commentary titled “Who’s Sorry Now?” on December 28, 2002 that “I loved watching Senator Lott clamber up the remorse curve, from clueless (If you’re so thin-skinned that you found my innocent remarks insulting, I feel sorry for you) to defensive (I’m sorry I gave you the erroneous impression that I’m a racist) to abject (I am one sorry bigot). I loved the way he went on what he probably thinks of as the television network all the black folks watch, and declared he would make up for his sinful past.” If the editorial page was signaling by its silence to Corrine Brown’s bigotry that the Times intended to use the ideas of Dr. King about racial tolerance as a political tool to protect the publisher’s political party, then it should have explained this explicitly.

But it didn’t. And even as the editorial page refused to condemn the racism of Corrine Brown, it continued to portray the Times as being vigilant on the issue of intolerance.

“The Ghost of Emmett Till” appeared on the editorial page on March 22, 2004. The piece discussed the unsolved 1955 killing of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The event was a hallmark in the civil rights movement. The editorial concluded by saying “There are still millions of people who are eager to know what happened to Emmett Till on that terrible night in Mississippi almost 50 years ago.” The editors made it seem in “The Ghost of Emmett Till” that they saw the civil rights tragedies of the past as events that have a meaning in their own right, apart from political partisanship.

But they continued to protect Democrats who uttered insensitive words. Two weeks after the Emmett Till editorial, the newspaper failed to speak out against Chris Dodd’s praising of former segregationist Robert Byrd.

In words that were a paraphrasing of the comments that knocked Trent Lott out of his position as Senate Majority Leader, Senator Christopher Dodd said in early April 2004 of former Ku Klux Klan official Byrd that “I do not think it is an exaggeration at all to say to my friend from West Virginia that he would have been a great Senator at any moment. Some were right for the time. Robert C. Byrd, in my view, would have been right at any time. I cannot think of a single moment in this nation’s 220-plus-year history where he would not have been a valuable asset to this country.”

Times reportage was silent on the astonishing comments. Mr. Apple, who in an article on December 22, 2002 titled “G.O.P. Faces Aftershocks of Lott’s Fall” wrote that “Mr. Lott’s rebel yell has put his party’s whole approach to racial matters in question,” was never assigned an article on whether Chris Dodd’s rebel yell put his party’s whole approach to racial matters in question. Nor did Mr. Keller direct Adam Nagourney to write any articles on Dodd. Nagourney had written of Lott in “A Troubled Senator’s Allies Come To His Aid,” on December 15, 2002, that “The (Republican) senators … discussed arguments that Mr. Lott’s allies would use in their appearance on the Sunday morning talk shows to defend the senator and his party. According to participants, Mr. Lott’s surrogates would say they accept Mr. Lott’s apology and believe that he sincerely changed his ways over the years. They also intended to portray Republicans as moderates who embraced civil rights.” An ongoing issue for Mr. Keller and Mr. Raines before him was whether Republicans, conservatives, businesspersons, military officers and ordinary people were sensitive on the issue of race. But they never seemed curious about whether nationally prominent Democrats were sensitive on race.

The editorial page, which did six editorials between December 1, 2002 and December 30, 2002 on Trent Lott’s remarks, did zero on Mr. Dodd. In “Who’s Sorry Now?” Mr. Keller led the reader to believe that he saw social justice as a principle which possesses intellectual integrity in its own right. But the refusal to condemn Dodd was a breathtaking omission. If the editorial page and the executive editor of the most influential newspaper in the United States regard the idea of social justice only as a political tool to empower the Democratic Party and de-legitimize its foes, they at least owe it to readers to explicitly inform them of this fact. Utilizing race and tolerance as a sword to empower a newspaper’s political friends and strike at its foes is a peculiar way to profess journalistic leadership.

And not only didn’t the newspaper inform readers of the politicized nature of Times articles and opinion, but it gave the impression that the Times was impartial.

In “Brown v. Board of Education,” an editorial on May 16, the newspaper discussed the hallmark Supreme Court case on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. It described how Brown led to the modern civil rights movement, and was the first step in the process of integrating the nation’s schools, public transportation and public facilities. What the editorial didn’t point out — again — is that the Newspaper of Record pursues an open double standard on matters regarding racial tolerance and equality. Also, the editorial played to an old familiar demon: “In recent decades,” it intoned, “as the nation’s commitment to integration has waned, and the Supreme Court has become more conservative,” the trend to integrate has reversed.

In “Brown v. Board of Education” the newspaper contended that much progress on civil rights had been made and that the glass was more than half full. But anyone who was alive in Topeka in 1954 would no doubt see the double standards utilized by the Times today in how it covers and comments upon matters regarding tolerance and racial equality, and might well be inclined to see Brown’s glass as considerably less than half full.

So the record in the twelve months after the Jayson Blair episode is clear:

 When Republican Party leaders utter intolerant and racist remarks, Times journalists rush to cover the story, and the Times editorial page can’t wait to express its outrage. But when Mr. Sulzberger’s Democratic Party elite express racist, insensitive or intolerant sentiments, the Newspaper of Record is silent.

Indeed, the overt use of tolerance and the ideas of Dr. King as a political weapon opens up the newspaper itself to examination.

It is not that racism is not an issue at the Times. Jayson Blair, in a piece titled “Jayson Blair Talks: ‘So Jayson Blair Could Live, The Journalist Had to Die’,” which ran in the May 26, 2003 New York Observer, discussed the racism he found at the newspaper. Mr. Blair said that during his stay “both racial preferences and racism played a role. And I would argue that they didn’t balance each other out. Racism had much more of an impact.” Mr. Blair went on to say that “there are senior managers at the New York Times who want African-American reporters to succeed, and there are hundreds of white junior managers who resent that and don’t.”

And Mr. Blair is not alone in alleging racism at the Times. There is also the analysis done by Milton Allimadi. To date, New York Times reporters have not told readers about, and the newspaper’s Books section has not done a review of, Allimadi’s The Hearts of Darkness: How White Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa (Black Star Books Company, New York, New York).

There can be no mystery why. In Hearts of Darkness Allimadi charges the Times with using racial stereotypes and interjecting racially motivated fabrications into its coverage of Africa. “I believe the New York Times owes its black readers an apology for its ugly African coverage of the past,” the January 6-19, 2004 issue of Insight chronicles Allimadi as saying, “and an apology for the concoctions by editors to … perpetuate the racist imagery.” Neither Mr. Sulzberger nor Mr. Keller have issued the apology Allimadi believes appropriate.

Finally, when one looks at the Times editorial board, she is struck by the lack of minority representation. In a city with 28% African-Americans and 23% Hispanics, only one position on the editorial board is held by an African-American, and only one by a Hispanic. The numbers for George Bush’s cabinet are two African-Americans and one Hispanic.

In sum, the Times, it seems, feels no responsibility to cover and criticize intolerance in an even-handed fashion. On the one hand, the newspaper’s approach is entertaining — it’s comical to watch the Times condemn the intolerance of Mr. Sulzberger’s political foes while ignoring that of his friends. What is not funny, however, is the way this tactic can destroy the careers and reputations of innocent people, corrupts the ideas of Dr. King and the civil rights fathers, and needlessly sets groups against each other. What is more, the tactic jeopardizes the integrity of the journalism profession, and the reputation of the Times itself, which portrays itself as a fair and accurate newspaper.

Mr. Sulzberger is an activist publisher. He is free, of course, to use his newspaper to promote his agenda. But doesn’t he owe readers an explanation for why he won’t treat personalities and events according to the same standard? Also, if Mr. Sulzberger is going to use race as a tool for the benefit of the Democratic Party elite, then shouldn’t the Democratic leadership offer compensation to the innocent people who might be hurt by the tactic? And shouldn’t the Party leadership also be straightforward in explaining the tactic to Americans, and especially African-Americans, who form such a significant block of their supporters?