The New York Times, in an abrupt reversal, decided yesterday to publish two sports columns about Augusta National Golf Club whose spiking produced sharp criticism of the paper.
"I guess they realize they made a mistake," said one of the sportswriters, Dave Anderson, a 36-year veteran. Anderson had been told two weeks ago that his column -- on the Georgia club's refusal to admit women -- could not run because it differed with the paper's editorial position, sparking questions about the newsroom's independence.
"I'm very gratified the editors were big enough and gracious enough to do that," Anderson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, said after talking with the paper's top executives. "A lot of editors think they never make a mistake. It makes the Times a better paper."
Anderson's piece and the other spiked Augusta National column, by sportswriter Harvey Araton, will run in the next few days, Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis confirmed.
"There was a concern about the appearance of unfairness, and our response was one of openness," said Mathis. Asked about the editors' earlier objections, she said that "we want to be respectful of the editorial page," but she declined to elaborate, preferring to "let the columns speak for themselves."
Managing Editor Gerald Boyd had strongly defended the decision to kill the pieces, saying that news columnists -- as opposed to those on the op-ed page -- were not permitted to debate the editorial page. "Part of our strict separation between the news and editorial pages entails not attacking each other," he told the staff in a memo Wednesday. "Intramural quarreling of that kind is unseemly and self-absorbed."
In the case of Araton's column, which argued that the Augusta National ban was not as important as the elimination of women's softball from the Olympics, "the logic did not meet our standards," Boyd's memo said.
Many reporters at the Times were angered by the decision, saying it looked like the newsroom was being muzzled and that the sportswriters had been needlessly humiliated.
Anderson had argued that Tiger Woods should play at the Masters because the Augusta National controversy is not his fight. He referred to the fact that some critics of the club, including the Times editorial page, had urged Woods to boycott the tournament.
Anderson said yesterday that his column would run "almost word for word" but that he had taken out the reference to the Times editorial. "I would have taken it out that day if they'd asked me," he said of the two-week-old piece.
The dispute surfaced as the Times was drawing media criticism for pumping up the Augusta National controversy by running more than 30 stories on the subject in less than three months.
The National Association of Newspaper Columnists pronounced itself "befuddled" by the killing of the columns. "Was this small issue -- the real or imagined appearance of self-absorption -- worth the slap in the face it delivered to a veteran columnist by refusing to publish his work?" asked the group's president, Mike Leonard of the Bloomington, Ind., Herald-Times.
Alex Jones, a Harvard media analyst and author of a book on the Times, said he was "delighted" by the reversal. "They got so deeply into the trees they couldn't see the forest," he said. "It's not easy at the Times to admit you've made a mistake. . . . It gave the impression the editorial position was controlling the news."
A similar controversy erupted in 1980 when the Times killed a piece in which famed sports columnist Red Smith backed a U.S. boycott of the Olympics in Moscow, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The editorial page had opposed a boycott. Smith's editor said the piece -- the only column killed in his 35-year career -- contained errors and that he seemed to be on a personal crusade.
Anderson, it turns out, later edited a book called "The Red Smith Reader." He included the spiked column as the final selection by the late sportswriter.