The New York Timess 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 lengthsincluding a 7,200 word May 11 mea culpato 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 Rainess 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 biasthe news pages and the Book Reviewto corrupt the Style and Science sections, too, and now even the papers sports coverage.
Consider the papers stridently feminist take on female golfer Annika Sorenstams participation last week in an event on the mens 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 womens 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 Timess coverageconfined to the sports pagessteered clear of making a gender issue out of Sorenstams 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 Womens 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 papers 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, Burks campaign fizzled, a mere 40 protesters showing up at the Masters to join her protest.
But the Times just cant seem to help itself. When Sorenstam acquitted herself well during the first days play, her score placing her toward the bottom of the middle of the pack, tied for 73rd place (but ahead of 27 men), the papers ideological fervor eruptedFOR GOLF, ITS 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 71and on the story went, rapturously.
In the same days 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 tournaments sponsor] is going to profit from Annika Sorenstams talent and celebrity, but they do not believe that shes equal, Martha Burk, who heads the National Council of Womens Organizations, said yesterday. Its corporate hypocrisy.
Dave Anderson, one of the sportswriters whose earlier piece on the Masters Raines had spiked, similarly dwelt on the events 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 womens movement.
Even after the next day went poorly for the golfer, and she failed to finish high enough to continue in competition, the Timess feminist cheerleading continued. SORENSTAM FAILS TO CONQUER, BUT WINS FANS ON THE WAY, ran the next days 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 menincluding six past PGA Tour winners singled out by name in an accompanying storywho 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 Houstons Astrodome. This, too, is the home state of President George W. Bush, whose administration, many advocates of womens sports fear, will soon dilute Title IXwhich, by banning sex discrimination in federally-funded athletics programs, has resulted in the elimination of many mens teams.
But just as telling as this politicized spin was what the Times failed to include in its coverage that day: two statementsessential to understanding the storythat 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 Ive got to go back to my tour, where I belong. Im 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. Im pulling for her, and I hope Ill be watching her on Saturday and Sunday.
So much for the New York Timess renewed commitment to honest journalism.
At the conclusion of the tournament, Tim Finchem, commissioner of the womens 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.