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Harry Stein
Culture War on the Links
For the Times, liberal advocacy is par for the course, even in the sports pages.
2 June 2003

The New York Times’s reputation as “the newspaper of record” has eroded fast over the past few weeks, thanks to a continually unfolding saga of reportorial lies, plagiarism, and misrepresentation. Seeking to rescue its good name, the paper has gone to extraordinary lengths—including a 7,200 word May 11 mea culpa—to come clean about even the remotest appearance of journalistic impropriety. But as a growing chorus of critics charge, the real scandal at executive editor Howell Raines’s Times is its substitution of liberal advocacy for honest reporting. The advocacy has spread beyond the places where one might expect to find a liberal bias—the news pages and the Book Review—to corrupt the Style and Science sections, too, and now even the paper’s sports coverage.

Consider the paper’s stridently feminist take on female golfer Annika Sorenstam’s participation last week in an event on the men’s tour. In fact, there was little reason to cover the story as a contentious gender issue, since Sorenstam herself, a model of classy sportsmanship and Swedish straightforwardness, went out of her way not to cast it in such terms. By far the best golfer currently on the women’s circuit and arguably the greatest woman golfer ever, she emphasized that her goal was only to test herself against the top competitors in her sport.

Prior to the start of the tournament, the Times’s coverage—confined to the sports pages—steered clear of making a gender issue out of Sorenstam’s participation. The paper had, after all, stumbled badly only a few weeks earlier by its previous foray into gender conflict on the links, having thrown its prestige (in more than 80 articles, including several front-page features) behind the campaign by Martha Burk of the National Council of Women’s Organizations to get women admitted to the Augusta National golf club, home of the Masters Tournament. Raines even spiked columns by two sports writers who mildly challenged the paper’s editorial stance on the controversy. Finally, liberal Newsweek was moved to report: “The Times is being criticized for ginning up controversies as much as reporting them.” And compounding the embarrassment, Burk’s campaign fizzled, a mere 40 protesters showing up at the Masters to join her protest.

But the Times just can’t seem to help itself. When Sorenstam acquitted herself well during the first day’s play, her score placing her toward the bottom of the middle of the pack, tied for 73rd place (but ahead of 27 men), the paper’s ideological fervor erupted—FOR GOLF, IT’S ANYTHING BUT PAR FOR THE COURSE, ran the front-page headline. The article opened by exulting: “Annika Sorenstam was strong enough to handle everything: the immense pressure, the emotional atmosphere and a 7,080-yard golf course that is the longest any woman has faced in tournament competition.

“Under the microscope of being the first woman to play a PGA Tour event since Babe Didrikson Zaharias in 1945, Sorenstam did what Sorenstam does. She slashed tee shot after tee shot down the fairway. She hit green after green in regulation.

“In an endeavor that has captured the interest of golfers and nongolfers alike, Sorenstam shot a splendid one-over-par 71”—and on the story went, rapturously.

In the same day’s paper, Richard Sandomir, who covers TV sports, returned to the Masters controversy: “Did the man best known as Hootie watch Sorenstam, the first woman to play a PGA Tour event in 58 years?” he asked, referring to Augusta Chairman William “Hootie” Johnson, who steadfastly resisted the idea of admitting women to the club. “Or would he have preferred to watch a second morning episode of Nash Bridges?” Sandomir sneered, adding: “‘Bank of America [the tournament’s sponsor] is going to profit from Annika Sorenstam’s talent and celebrity, but they do not believe that she’s equal,’ Martha Burk, who heads the National Council of Women’s Organizations, said yesterday. ‘It’s corporate hypocrisy.’”

Dave Anderson, one of the sportswriters whose earlier piece on the Masters Raines had spiked, similarly dwelt on the event’s massive social significance. “‘We drove six hours to get down here,’” he quoted the father of twin 8-year old daughters as saying. “‘We wanted our girls to be part of this.’” Anderson added: “With more little girls than usual among the thousands in her gallery, Sorenstam understood her connection to the women’s movement.”

Even after the next day went poorly for the golfer, and she failed to finish high enough to continue in competition, the Times’s feminist cheerleading continued. ”SORENSTAM FAILS TO CONQUER, BUT WINS FANS ON THE WAY, ran the next day’s front-page headline. “If she could not quite stay on the bull today,” the story noted, comparing the tournament to a rodeo, “at least she had grabbed it by the horns. And she was definitely not one of the clowns.” These latter, so the story led us to understand, were the 11 men—including six past PGA Tour winners singled out by name in an accompanying story—who scored worse than Sorenstam.

The prize, though, goes to this passage, which takes swipes at (presumably) knuckle-dragging Texans and the president they helped elect: “Yet again, Texas [where the tournament took place] provided the front line in the war between the sexes. Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who in 1945 became the last woman to play on the PGA Tour, was from Beaumont. [Billie Jean] King defeated [Bobby] Riggs in Houston’s Astrodome. This, too, is the home state of President George W. Bush, whose administration, many advocates of women’s sports fear, will soon dilute Title IX”—which, by banning sex discrimination in federally-funded athletics programs, has resulted in the elimination of many men’s teams.

But just as telling as this politicized spin was what the Times failed to include in its coverage that day: two statements—essential to understanding the story—that the Associated Press reported and that appeared in hundreds of papers around the country.

First, a key admission from Annika Sorenstam herself: “It was a great week but I’ve got to go back to my tour, where I belong. I’m glad I did it, but this is way over my head.” Also, it seems that the previous day, President Bush had fielded a question about Sorenstam. “I hope she makes the cut,” he said. “I’m pulling for her, and I hope I’ll be watching her on Saturday and Sunday.”

So much for the New York Times’s renewed commitment to honest journalism.

At the conclusion of the tournament, Tim Finchem, commissioner of the women’s golf tour, called Sorenstam “a champion who so wonderfully represents the core values of our great game, sportsmanship and integrity.” Under Howell Raines, it seems, the Times too often represents a different set of values.

Harry Stein is a contributing editor of City Journal. A journalist and novelist, he is the author of How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy: (And Found Inner Peace) and the forthcoming The Girl Watchers Club.

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