The New York Times has killed two sports columns about the controversy over Augusta National Golf Club's refusal to admit women members because the writers differed with the paper's editorial page.
After a Times editorial last month urged Tiger Woods to boycott the Masters tournament over the issue, Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Dave Anderson wrote a piece saying that Woods should play because the Augusta National dispute wasn't his fight. Anderson's editors spiked the piece.
"I was disappointed that they felt that way, but the editorial page is sacrosanct there," Anderson said yesterday. "I always thought you could still disagree with it. But in this case I couldn't."
Managing Editor Gerald Boyd told the staff in a memo that "part of our strict separation between the news and editorial pages entails not attacking each other. Intramural quarreling of that kind is unseemly and self-absorbed."
Asked why a differing viewpoint by a sportswriter would be dismissed as "intramural quarreling," Boyd said in an interview: "It's not whether he had a different view from the editorial. It's how he executes it. If it's his opinion versus the editorial board's opinion, it becomes self-absorbed."
Boyd wrote the memo after the scrapping of the columns was disclosed by New York Daily News reporter Paul Colford.
The other spiked column, by sportswriter Harvey Araton, compared the Augusta National ban to the elimination of women's softball from the Olympics. Boyd said in the memo that "the logic did not meet our standards."
Alex Jones, a former Times reporter who now runs Harvard's Joan Shorenstein media center, called the decisions "appalling." But he said that "historically, the only thing that's been verboten for a Times columnist is to be critical of a New York Times position directly. I think it was a mistake in judgment. The appearance of a conflict of interest is damaging to the Times."
Brent Bozell, chairman of the conservative Media Research Center, said that "you would think a newspaper would encourage debate within its columns." Instead, he said, the attitude seems to be "you can have an opinion at the New York Times as long as it reflects the opinion of the editors."
Most newspapers do not have such policies -- at least not explicitly stated -- although sensitive columns are sometimes killed when they touch on internal matters or a paper's corporate interests.
Philip Taubman, the paper's deputy editorial page editor, said he knew nothing about the Anderson and Araton columns being killed because of a perceived conflict with the editorial page. "We would never dream of doing anything like that," he said. "We don't know until the next day's paper what the newsroom's sports columnists are saying about anything."
The muzzling incidents come as Times Executive Editor Howell Raines finds himself under growing media fire for pumping up the Augusta National issue and, in the view of some critics, imposing a left-leaning agenda on the nation's largest metropolitan daily.
Raines, a former editor of the paper's liberal editorial page, has been something of a lightning rod for criticism. While he helped the paper win a record seven Pulitzers this year, all but one for aggressive coverage of the war on terrorism, conservatives have accused him of using the news columns to mobilize opposition to military action against Iraq. There has been no reported instance, however, of editors refusing to run any column taking a contrary view on the situation in Iraq.
The Times's drumbeat of Augusta National stories grew louder on Nov. 25, when the paper ran a front-page story about the network that carries the Masters, headlined "CBS Staying Silent in Debate on Women Joining Augusta." That was the paper's 32nd piece on the controversy in three months. On Tuesday, the Times gave Page 1 play to an article headlined "Former Top Executive at CBS Resigns From Augusta."
"Increasingly," Newsweek said this week, "the Times is being criticized for ginning up controversies as much as reporting them out."
Boyd was adamant in the interview that the paper has nothing to apologize for. "We're writing about discrimination at one of the nation's most prestigious golf clubs and involving one of the world's most prominent tournaments. It's an important story, economically, socially, politically, gender-wise, racially. I don't know what it means to write too much about it.
"What we have done is to stay with the story, no doubt about it," he said. "I always thought that was the mark of good journalism."
Taubman said that Augusta National's ban on women "was highlighted by the news department, and we made our own decisions about when to chime in. Despite the views of some outsiders, it's not a coordinated campaign. There's a perception that's misplaced that sometimes the news department and editorial department get together and decide they're going to jointly pursue some issue. That's not the way we do business."
Slate's press critic, Jack Shafer, who has been chronicling the Times's heavy coverage, said the paper "has gotten a little carried away with this crusade. . . . When they run a headline 'CBS Stays Silent,' it's the New York Times grasping for some sort of news lead. We could write a column, 'Howell Raines Stays Silent,' because he's not a man who will pick up the phone and talk to his critics."
Bozell maintained that "nobody cares" about the Augusta National flap "except for a couple of people at the National Organization for Women and the New York Times."
The Boyd memo said columnists in the news pages have "wide latitude to speak with an individual point of view," but that unlike op-ed columnists, who are independent of the news staff, "all newsroom writers are subject to our standards of tone, taste and relevance to the subject at hand. We are an edited newspaper: that is one of our strengths."
Sportswriter Anderson said the spiked column began roughly like this: "Please, just let Tiger play golf. He's a golfer. It's not his fight. He has no obligation to get involved in this controversy." Anderson said he mentioned the Times editorial calling for Woods to skip the Masters because "I felt I had to."
Shafer remains skeptical. "If the editorial page becomes pro-New York Yankees," he said, "does that mean Dave Anderson won't be able to write a pro-New York Mets column?"