Headwork and legwork marked the columns of Sydney Schanberg. For the past four years in The New York Times, Schanberg was a twice-weekly columnist who offered readers the rare mix of from-the-gut commentary based on solid reporting. He cared about issues of governmental power and the accountability of the strong. Schanberg had focus and fire. Last month, The Times announced the column was being dropped.
No explanation was offered. If The Times were just another media conglomerate and Schanberg only one more employe no longer hacking it, the canning of the column would rate, well, the two-paragraph terseness it did receive in The Times. But the paper is a journalistic leader and model, and Schanberg, on staff for 26 years and well honored throughout, was a force on the op-ed page. As is said of blunt columnists and Hulk Hogan, you knew where he stood.
By offering no comment on the Schanberg squashing, The Times in fact was commenting in another way: We demand openness from others but not ourselves. The public is weary of double-standard journalism. The press dogs other institutions when a celebrated head is chopped, but on this occasion a leader in the field hides behind a bland he's-being-reassigned statement worthy of General Motors shifting a vice president.
Schanberg had an eye for distinctions. The first one he would make, had he been writing a column about this happening to a colleague, is that the issue is larger than one paper and one writer. Both The Times and Schanberg will continue to do well. The question, which concerns all newspapers and all readers, is whether the treatment of Schanberg strengthens or weakens American journalism.
Some kind of forum was called for in which The Times -- its executive editor, perhaps the publisher -- could have leveled with readers and explained why the executives didn't like Schanberg's column. Make the case. Present some facts. Be as candid with the public as newspapers demand other powers to be with them.
This leads to messiness, but not to a loss of integrity. Last April, the Dallas Times Herald canceled a column of satire by a writer named John Bloom, who used the alias "Joe Bob Briggs." The paper's editor told the public his reasons for discontinuing the controversial column. Following that, news stories on reader reaction to the cancellation appeared, and space was provided on the letters page. Whether Dallas is better off with or without Joe Bob is open to debate. No argument exists, though, that the city was well-served by the editor's decision to take his chances with a public dialogue.
Why was that procedure -- common courtesy, it used to be called in Texas and parts elsewhere -- beyond The New York Times? It was news when Schanberg was removed, and now it is bigger news for the silence on why he was removed. A run of stories has appeared, from The Boston Globe and New York magazine to The Village Voice. All are warehousefuls of speculation.
It is being said that Schanberg was overzealous in attacking the real estate industry of New York. Perhaps he was, if you were a landlord. Perhaps not, if you were a tenant. He called the Westway development project in Manhattan a "mega-boondoggle" and criticized the city's dailies for being "strangely asleep" in covering the "scandal."
The words are stronger than the usual spoutings from the blowholes of many columnists. That was one reason, at least to my tastes and certainly to a large number of others', for following Schanberg.
Whether he occasionally ground his canines too loudly or whether he wouldn't let go of such a subject as New York City's treatment of the homeless, he was getting to issues that others in the craft did not. Op-ed pages are for dissent and diversity, whether it's fresh air or hot air being ventilated. Schanberg was well within bounds.
Except for the few who own their newspapers, no journalist is assured permanence. Editors of the nation's 1,700 dailies regularly add and drop columnists. Reasons range from who's marketable because he just left the White House staff to who's intelligent because he just left the pack to think for himself.
As for readers, they can discern the bores, the dispensers of argel-bargel and the class writers.
If a column appears to be tenured, it is an illusion. Schanberg understood this. The only permanence he sought was in the loyalty of readers who came to him for strong prose and stronger views. By staying mum, The Times has damaged its readers, who presumably go to the paper for information on issues they care about.
Instead of trying to reach the ideal the press likes to say it strives for -- the public's right to know -- here is a paper hurting all the media by saying: You only have a right to know what we want you to know.