A Red Smith sports column was killed this week for the first time in his 35-year career when his editors at The New York Times claimed his appeal for a boycott of the summer Moscow Olympics contained errors and amounted to a personal crusade.
The 74-year-old Smith, an institution on the American sports scene, said today he also was told that The Times didn't like the column's tone.
Smith's assertion that "sentiment in favor of a boycott [would] spread as Soviet tanks and trucks press on with their bloody work [in Afghanistan]" especially vexed Le Anne Schreiber, The Times' sports editor.
"Hell, I told her, you could have changed it to 'charitable work,'" Smith said.
"It's all a little difficult to figure out," Smith said of the decision to keep his Wednesday column out of The Times and to kill it after it had been sent out to clients of the paper's news service.
"If it hadn't gone out on the news service there wouldn't have been a problem," Schreiber said of the controversy.
Schreiber said she didn't relish being the first editor to kill a Smith column, but argued she had no choice because Smith had quoted "inaccurate" information he had picked up from a Washington Post story.
Smith cited a report by The Post's Moscow correspondent, Kevin Klose, that Soviet authorities were preparing to ship dissidents, drunkards and psychotics out of Moscow to clean up the city for the 300,000 Olympic visitors expected in Moscow for the July 19-Aug. 3 games.
Schreiber said The Times earlier had asked its Moscow correspondent, Craig Whitney, about such reports and had been told they were only rumors and not fit to print.
"Had I known that, I wouldn't have used these facts. They weren't necessary to the column," Smith said, adding that he wondered why the offending paragraphs weren't simply excised.
"It was my best editorial opinion that to do that would butcher the column," Schreiber said. The decision was entirely hers, she said, though she added, "I would have liked to pass the buck to someone else."
[The report Smith quoted ran in The Washington Post Dec. 17, 1979. Philip Foisie, assistant managing editor for foreign news, said today that Klose's account was accurate and that the public needed to be aware of the situation in Moscow.]
The column was doomed anyway.
Had it survived Schreiber, it would have next faced deputy managing editor Arthur Gelb, who said he would have killed it even if it had been free of its alleged errors.
"The inaccuracies are one thing, but the main thing is that it sounded like a crusade," Gelb said.
In his Jan. 4 column, Smith called for a boycott as the nation's most telling response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. "He'd already struck that note. It really began to sound like a crusade."
Gelb and Schreiber agree that neither has any objection to Smith's advocacy of a U.S. pull-out from the Moscow games. "Ideologically, I agree with him," Gelb said, "but journalistically, we don't agree that Red should be on a crusade."
Is Smith free to write about the Olympics again?
Gelb and Schreiber's answers differ, at least in tone.
The sports editor said he is free to rewrite his killed column any time and it will be printed when it is error-free.
Gelb said Smith could write about an Olympics boycott after The Times had done more reporting on the subject and new facts were available.
"I never have questioned the right of an editor to say what can go in his newspaper, but I can disagree with that decision as I do in this case," said Smith, who finds the flap about the column "a bloody bore." He said: "I can have my own fights inside the office."
Smith, who won the Pulitzer prize for commentary in 1976, said that his first reaction to the killing of his column was "that us kids should stick to fun and games" and leave events like the invasion of Afghanistan to people more serious than sportswriters.
When asked what his future columns will deal with, Smith said dryly, "I'll write about the infield fly rule."
His column was potentially objectionable to The Times for one additional reason: In it, he referred to his paper in a not altogether admiring way.
"Chances are," Smith wrote, "savants who write editorials in The New York Times weren't even reading that page in 1936, but the newspaper opposed participation in the Nazi [Berlin] Olympics of that year. When the Nazis 'deliberately and arrogantly offend against our common humanity,' The Times said, 'sports does not transcend all political and racial consideration.'"
As a matter of Times policy, any reference to the newspaper on any page except the editorial and op-ed pages must be checked by news editor Allan Siegel.
Gelb said that the column would not have been killed for the mention of The Times of 1936, however.
The calls and letters Smith has received since word of the column kill got out support his call for a boycott, he said. "To my amazement, everyone agrees."
He finds something the Olympics chairman said in 1936 interesting. At the conclusion of the Hitler-inspired Berlin games, Avery Brundage declared, "except for the ancient Greeks, no country caught the Olympic spirit so well as Germany."