In a stupendous muff that's had the rest of the media establishment chortling up its sleeve, The New York Times recently killed two pieces by sports columnists who trod on what has become sacred turf for The Times: the Augusta National Golf Club's refusal to admit women. The Times had been bashing Augusta for months in both news columns and editorials, and in different ways the two columnists—Dave Anderson and Harvey Araton—had run up against the paper's prevailing line.
When the spikings were reported last week in the New York Daily News, Times editors initially tried to defend the actions. Even as they did so, one of the aggrieved columnists, Anderson, was on CNN describing exactly what he'd written in the spiked column that had so offended his editors. At one point in the interview, anchor Lou Dobbs noted that Anderson was speaking from The Times itself, with the paper's name on display right on the screen.
It was a fantastic moment, a graphic tableau of how porous major news organizations have become, and how impossible it is today for any single outlet to perpetrate an outrage for very long. The once-genteel media world has become a savagely competitive place where somebody is always looking over your shoulder, waiting to pounce on your errors. In this case, it was a lot of somebodies. No sooner were the Augusta spikings reported than countless reporters and media critics were feasting on the story. The Times finally surrendered and ran both columns, slightly edited from their original versions, in last Sunday's paper. But by then publication was beside the point: The whole world knew what the columnists had said before they were edited. And thanks to the brouhaha, their views had gotten vastly more attention than if the paper had just run the columns in the first place.
Throughout the episode, what I found striking, and a little odd, was the widespread longing for another New York Times, for the fabled "paper of record" that allegedly existed until a few years ago and would never have made such a mistake. That phrase, "paper of record," appeared over and over in this latest round of Times-bashing. "This is certainly a shift from The New York Times as the 'paper of record,' " Alex Jones, a former Times reporter who is now at Harvard, told Newsweek. "This is a different New York Times now," said Fred Barnes on Fox News' Beltway Boys. "It's not the paper of record; it's not the Gray Lady. This is a paper that is moving under Howell Raines, the editor, far to the left, anti-Bush, anti-war in Iraq, anti-Republican." A USA Today story tartly referred to The Times as "the nation's so-called paper of record."
It's true that The Times of today is not The Times of a few years ago. Raines has taken a paper that once strove for moderation in all things and turned it into a paper that's striving to be the soul of immoderation. The news columns have a decidedly ideological edge. The features have more attitude, and there are more buzz-seeking stories on entertainers and of-the-moment trends. Even the paper's taste in photos seems to have changed: From the moment Raines took over, I've noticed a lot more aesthetically arresting pictures, especially on the front page.
Back in the media Stone Age—say, 20 years ago—some of these changes would have been genuinely troubling. When there were still just a handful of powerful news outlets, and the news was largely defined by a tight club of editors and producers, any radical changes at one of those outlets could dramatically alter the whole news landscape. If the Stone Age Times became oddly passionate about a subject, or took on a definite political leaning, there weren't many ways to counter its sway. If a columnist got quashed by the editors for running up against editorial positions—as happened in 1980 to the late Times columnist Red Smith—he didn't have a dozen cable channels begging him to discuss his martyrdom.
Yes, The Times is a different paper today. On the plus side, its new passion and swagger are drawing the paper more attention, and for my money making it a more electric read. On the minus side, its crusading personality often takes it into dangerous territory and leads to mistakes—which the spikings of those columns certainly were. Though still powerful and hugely influential, it's no longer widely viewed as the unimpeachable newspaper of old. But then, was it ever really a true "paper of record" in the first place? Has any newspaper ever deserved that ridiculous title?
If we've learned anything in the last few decades, it's that all journalistic institutions are fallible. They all make mistakes, and the truth emerges in various places, in pieces, over time. If anything has sharpened our trade's quest for the truth, it's media competition, the ceaseless vying and mutual vigilance that keeps all outlets, even The New York Times, on their toes and now corrects most journalistic gaffes with stunning speed.
In the last few weeks, the most eloquent critic of The Times has been Jack Shafer, of the online magazine Slate. In one column, he argued that if The Times allowed more internal criticism, as The Washington Post does in its ombudsman column, it might put out the fires sparked by the paper's new personality. It's a worthy proposal, but I'm not sure it's necessary. The brawling media establishment now serves as ombudsman to all its constituent parts, including The Times. And it's doing beautifully.