Taking on The Times
The New York Times was a powerful force in Martha Burk's war on Augusta National, until the club's hired gun shot holes in the newspaper's coverage
By Alan Shipnuck
Adapted from THE BATTLE FOR AUGUSTA NATIONAL by Alan Shipnuck, published by Simone & Schuster, Inc., N.Y.
In September 2002, while Hootie Johnson was at home in South Carolina recuperating from heart surgery, Augusta National entertained two important guests. They were flown in to play hardball, not golf. The two men, who visited separately, were public relations flacks auditioning for a job.
With the exception of a pair of very public statements by the chairman -- the initial fighting words that the club would not add woman members "at the point of a bayonet" and the announcement that the Masters' corporate sponsors were being jettisoned -- Augusta National had been stubbornly silent throughout the first contentious months of the membership controversy. The impenetrable privacy that for so long had defined the club had become a liability. From the beginning Augusta National's defenders howled that the press coverage of the membership controversy was one-sided, but that's because only one side was talking. Martha Burk estimates that from the "bayonet" statement in July 2002 through the 2003 Masters, she averaged 40 hours a week dealing with the press and working on Augusta-related business. "If the coverage is more favorable to us ... it's no accident," she says. "When you make yourself accessible, it is more likely that your words will be printed."
The brutal press that followed the dropping of the Masters' sponsors on Aug. 30, replete with personal attacks on Hootie, finally convinced Augusta National that it needed to change the rules of engagement. But the club's indecision on how to proceed was apparent in the clashing ideologies of the two spin doctors who were brought in to audition.
One was Jim McCarthy, who runs an eponymous boutique firm in Washington, D.C., specializing in the subset of p.r. known as crisis management. McCarthy's "core philosophy," as he puts it, is to take on clients who have run afoul of what he calls "the media/activist industrial complex," whose members "see the world in a very specific way and try to impose their views on the society at large. A lot of what I do is confront these assumptions and try to stop the assaults so the public can make an informed, unbiased decision. I like to take on causes that other firms might avoid. My clients appreciate that I like to get in the arena, take off the gloves and throw down."
McCarthy's competition for the Augusta National account would speak only on the condition that his name, and that of his firm, remain confidential, befitting their polished, low-key profile. He is a partner for a leading New York public relations outfit that deals with some of the biggest corporations in the world, specifically on messy financial issues. Getting recommended for the Augusta National job wasn't difficult. "Many of our clients are members," he says.
Both McCarthy and the other consultant met with two key members of Augusta National's paid staff, general manager Jim Armstrong and director of communications Glenn Greenspan, and a few influential members who were standing in for the recuperating Johnson. McCarthy obviously provided the hawkish point of view, that the club had the U.S. Constitution on its side and should fight on, while his competition was flown in to be a dove, offering Augusta National a way to compromise and end the public untidiness. "They were very serious meetings," says the New Yorker. "The representatives of the club had really done their homework, and they asked a lot of good questions. They were pros -- I was very impressed."
His message was that adding a woman member was inevitable, and he could help the club do so on its terms. "It was a moment in history for these guys," he says. "Hootie had a chance to go down as a great figure in the game. If they wanted to go a certain route, then we could have gotten behind them in a big way. It could have been handled in an elegant and dignified manner."
McCarthy espoused a more pugnacious approach. "The worst thing you can do when dealing with an attack activist like Martha Burk is compromise," he says. "To survive, you have to go on the attack -- investigate the activists, hold them accountable for their track record and their ideological inconsistencies. You have to take on the press that is often conspiring to give the activists a platform to espouse their views. It's like the argument of appeasement versus aggression in geopolitics, and we all know how Neville Chamberlain fared."
That kind of militancy appealed to the man who had introduced the bayonet into the golf lexicon, and McCarthy got the Augusta National job. Says the consultant who didn't, "It was made very clear that Hootie wanted a strategy to fight back. That wasn't us."
McCarthy went to work for the club before September was out. The days of Augusta National playing defense were over.
In December 2001 Bernard Goldberg published the book Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News, which became an instant phenomenon, spending 20 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, including seven at No. 1. Goldberg's central argument was that the sophisticates who manufacture and package the news in New York City have little understanding of the people and beliefs in the red states that George W. Bush carried in the 2000 election. Consequently, their biases are being foisted upon a large segment of the public that sees the world differently. The Augusta National membership controversy erupted just in time to be part of that debate over media bias.
Goldberg's polemic had even more resonance because it echoed a similar dissatisfaction that had been gurgling up from the World Wide Web. In an era when the left-leaning Village Voice is owned in part by Goldman Sachs, the turn of the century had ushered in a radical new alternative media, the web log. Blogs offer a broad spectrum of political bents, but one thing is clear: Liberalism is as rare in the blogosphere as it is on the PGA Tour. "It is a fundamentally conservative/libertarian medium because liberals already have their own media outlets," says Clay Waters, the founder of the blog TimesWatch, which is dedicated to "documenting and exposing the liberal political agenda of The New York Times" at timeswatch.org. Media criticism is increasingly the specialty of blogging's biggest stars. Jim Romenesko (poynter.org), Glenn Reynolds (histaPundit.com), Mickey Kaus (Kausfiles.com) and Andrew Sullivan (andrewsullivan.com), among others, have commanded the attention of the journalism world by monitoring -- and providing links to -- what is being written elsewhere, and offering spiky commentary along with the links. They also serve as an outlet for leaks of juicy information. As the Columbia Journalism Review put it recently, "More than just A.J. Liebling-style press criticism, journalists finally have something approaching real peer review, in all its brutality."
A web junkie who requires hourly fixes, McCarthy knew instinctively that blogging could have a profound effect on moving public opinion about Augusta National. "Media crit through blogging has become so cutting-edge, the only analogies I can think of are military," he says. "It's like secondary shrapnel. It's like blowback. Because of the viral nature of linking, one story, one idea, can spread to thousands of websites in a matter of hours. It's a great way to set the record straight and get your point of view on record in an immediate way. It is a hypereffective way to defend clients in the face of a media onslaught. There is an old maxim that you don't get into a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel. Well, the Internet is equivalent to thousands of barrels of ink."
From the moment he was hired by Augusta National, McCarthy began "steering information and planting ideas" with about a dozen bloggers and online media critics. "I recognized that the mainstream golf press was going to be resistant," he says. "Certainly there was a core group of writers who were openly hostile to the club's views. Blogs opened up a new front. It was a process of germination. The plan was to construct ideas with the media that would act as a filter so they would read subsequent pieces of information with the lens that you created." McCarthy had no trouble picking out his first target (though, as he puts it, "I like to think it was a defense, not an attack"). "Stopping The New York Times dead in its tracks was critical to the overall effort, because the Times sets the agenda for the broader media world," he says. "The knuckleheads in the ESPN newsroom -- if you can call it that -- stop playing Nerf basketball only long enough to read, it seems, comic books and the Times. They're simply one of the many lesser media outlets that float like a flotilla in the wake of the Times."
An added bonus was that much of the blogosphere is openly contemptuous of the Gray Lady. "There has always been a low roar about Howell Raines and the Times," says TimesWatch's Waters.
Raines took over as the paper's top dog, executive editor, on Sept. 5, 2001, following a steady march up the masthead. For the previous eight years he had run the editorial page, earning the wrath of Democrats for his stinging criticisms of Bill Clinton and enraging the right with what was otherwise perceived as a hard-core liberal agenda. Raines's promotion led to a certain amount of chagrin among media critics. "It raises eyebrows any time an editorial-page editor moves to the news side, especially an ideologue like Raines," says Waters. "Naturally you wonder if they can be fair and objective."
Raines saw himself as an agent of change at a paper that had been around for a century and a half, and his oft-quoted mantra to "raise the competitive metabolism of the paper" rankled some within the Times because it implied that they had grown fat and happy. His vision of a more proactive, aggressive paper was quickly put to the ultimate test -- the Twin Towers were toppled six days into his reign as executive editor. Standing at the crossroads of history, Raines oversaw some of the best journalism ever committed. The reward was a record six Pulitzers for the 9/11 coverage.
Suddenly the toast of a media-obsessed town, Raines used his newfound capital to shake up his staid old paper. After the 9/11 coverage wound down, he finally had the chance to attack what he perceived as the paper's two weakest sections, Sports and Business. In his mind the former had a regional emphasis and was forever getting beat on big stories by the likes of USA Today, and the Augusta National membership controversy was the perfect story for Sports to shed its parochial traditions. "The Times's future is as a national newspaper, which means it has to be strong on this kind of story," the ordinarily media-phobic Raines said in an interview for this book. "Augusta National is not a New York story per se, but I think it was important to the national readership. I don't want to get too fancy about this. I like breaking news. And I don't define that as getting to the train wreck first. It is finding stories of such significance that your competitors have no choice but to follow them, or finding stories of such compelling interest that no reasonable reader is going to go past them. And that was the kind of journalism we were trying to do."
It took a few months for Raines, and by extension his paper, to become fully engaged in the Augusta National membership controversy. In his mind the Times got "back in the ball game" with its Oct. 20, 2002, A1 exclusive in which Tiger Woods made his most forceful comments to date about the membership controversy. By mid-November the Times was churning out almost daily Augusta National dispatches, many of them given prominent placement. An interview with Hootie Johnson went on A1 on Nov. 12. The next day Sports carried two stories on its front page: MEMBERS OF CLUB WHO FAVOR CHANGE TOLD TO BACK OFF was the headline on a news piece that ran alongside a Selena Roberts column headlined AUGUSTA'S CHAIRMAN LIVES IN A TIME WARP. The next day two more stories ran in Sports, one questioning the validity of an opinion poll that had been commissioned by McCarthy, the other a column by Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Anderson. The usually mild-mannered Anderson ripped Johnson's record as chairman -- his bungling efforts to rescind the Masters playing privileges of some older past champions, the compromising of the golf course and now the ugly public spat with Burk. Three days later, on Nov. 17, the Times devoted as much space to Augusta National as it would during Masters week. In the important National Desk news hole in the front section, there was a long story forecasting the economic (and psychic) impact on the city of Augusta with a tarnished Masters looming. On the op-ed page Maureen Dowd, the provocative columnist whom bloggers love to hate, called Saudi Arabia "the Augusta National of Islam, a sand trap where men can hang out and be men." In Sports, Robert Lipsyte chimed in with another column, this one declaring, "Hootie, an elderly white Southerner with a good-old-boy nickname, is too easy to mock in New York."
The following day, Nov. 18, the paper ran a grandstanding editorial calling Johnson a "poster boy for a particularly regressive branch of the golfing set." It opined that "Tiger Woods, who has won the Masters three times, could simply choose to stay home in April. The absence of golf's best player would put a dreaded asterisk by the name of next year's winner. And a tournament without Mr. Woods would send a powerful message that discrimination isn't good for the golfing business. Of course, if Mr. Woods took that view, the club might suddenly find room for a few female members. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, for example, is said to be a very good golfer."
A gleeful Raines was flooding the zone -- his pet term for overwhelming a story -- and some inside and outside the paper were drowning in disbelief. The most visible protest of the paper's coverage could be found in the Nov. 24 edition of The New York Observer, the gossipy bible of Manhattan media circles, which carried an 1,800-word story about the Times's "tactical assault against the Augusta National Golf Club." Sridhar Pappu, the Observer's eagle-eyed media critic [and now a staff writer for SI], put down on paper a feeling that was beginning to ferment among the bloggers: "The New York Times has prodded and pulled the story, refusing to let it slip from the table of conversation. From its front-page features examining Mr. Woods's place in speaking out about the matter to its strongly worded editorials, the paper has made women and Augusta the biggest sports-and-society story of the year."
Pappu's piece was prominently displayed in Romenesko's blog, for which McCarthy takes some credit. "I had been sending Romenesko stuff on the Times for months," he says, "pushing the idea that its coverage was ideologically driven, that it was a crusade being pushed as part of the paper's larger liberal agenda. Obviously this story supported the thesis."
The Nov. 25 edition of the Times gave its critics more fuel by running one of its most controversial Augusta National stories. Stretched across A1 was the headline, CBS STAYING SILENT IN DEBATE ON WOMEN JOINING AUGUSTA. The story was cowritten by Bill Carter, the brand-name TV writer whose book, The Late Shift, deliciously detailed the late-night television wars involving David Letterman and Jay Leno. The article was supposed to be a probing think piece, but it turned out to be a muddled amalgam of different themes, regurgitating the broad strokes of the membership controversy, awkwardly working in the results of a Times opinion poll and laboring to provide insight into CBS's predicament, even though the story admitted that "no current company executive agreed to comment on the matter, even behind a cloak of anonymity." Given how little the article advanced the narrative of the membership controversy, it was a head-scratcher that it wound up on A1. It turns out the story had been assigned personally by Raines, an unusual move for an executive editor.
"That story was something I've never had occasion to discuss publicly," Raines says. "I assigned it because I was interested in this question: Here is a network that was once iconic in American broadcasting, that was traditionally, in the years of Cronkite and his predecessors, identified as being on the forefront of social policy reporting and coverage of the civil rights movement. Now it's basically at the mercy of the Masters, and what does that say about what had happened at CBS? What did it say about CBS's relationship with the Masters, and what did it say about CBS's relationship with its sponsors? That was the story that I was pressing to get."
Raines, however, was out of the office when the story was filed, edited and slapped on the front page. (His mother, Bertha, had died on Nov. 23.) "I would have run the story, but I wouldn't have fronted it," he says. "I'm not backing away from it, but as a matter of news judgment, people were right to question its being on the front page. I don't think it was executed as well as it could have been, but I think the concept of the story was dead-on."
The backlash about the Times's coverage on Augusta National that had been steadily building suddenly exploded with the publication of CBS STAYING SILENT. On the same day the story appeared, Slate's Jack Shafer, one of the most influential online media critics, wrote, "At some point, saturation coverage of a story begins to raise more questions about the newspaper's motives than about the story being covered. The Times reached -- and passed -- that point this morning with its 40th-plus news story, column or editorial (since July!) about the Augusta National Golf Club's refusal to admit female members. Only a five-star general like Raines could have commanded such extravagant coverage as this. The headline of today's Page One, above-the-fold story, CBS STAYING SILENT IN DEBATE ON WOMEN JOINING AUGUSTA" -- here Shafer offered a link to the piece -- "is the giveaway that the Times is blowing on embers in hopes that the story will reignite. The fact that the network is still silent isn't big news today any more than it will be big news tomorrow, even if the Times were to contrive a story titled CBS STAYING SILENT: DAY 150. This sort of churning and whisking of yesterday's topic, adding new ingredients in incremental proportions in story after story until you build a 12-foot-tall meringue isn't news coverage, it's blogging!"
McCarthy's description of the viral nature of blogging was well illustrated in how opinions about the Times spread from website to website and, ergo, reader to reader. Sullivan blogged the Slate column the next day, writing, "Jack Shafer does an excellent job limning the now almost comical hyping of nonnews stories to fit Raines's paleo-liberal agenda, specifically on the Augusta National Golf Club.... The Mickster has sharper comments." That would be Mickey Kaus, whom McCarthy had been pestering for months about the Times. Earlier on Nov. 26 Kaus had written, "Jack Shafer points out the strained quality" -- and here he supplied a link to the Slate story -- "of the most recent NYT front-pager" -- yet another link to that story -- "on the Augusta National Golf Club controversy ... which might as well have been headlined CBS FAILS TO PAY ATTENTION TO NEW YORK TIMES CRUSADE. Shafer, echoing Sridhar Pappu" -- here again, another link -- "thinks NYT executive editor Howell Raines is replaying (as a Guilty Southern White Boy should) the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. The Times, Shafer suggests, latched onto 'a story that it could conveniently exploit for months to the smug satisfaction of its liberal readers.' Raines is on the verge of a breakthrough reconceptualization of news here, in which news comes to mean the failure of any powerful individual or institution to do what Howell Raines wants them to do.... P.S. If the NYT makes a huge fuss about Augusta's refusal to admit women and it turns out that nobody cares (READERS STAY SILENT IN DEBATE ON WOMEN JOINING AUGUSTA), doesn't that have the effect of ratifying the practices of same-sex private clubs?"
The roar was so loud that the mainstream media could no longer ignore the story. In the Dec. 9 issue of Newsweek, Seth Mnookin used the CBS STAYING SILENT backlash in his lead, and went on to quote Shafer. He came to the same conclusion the bloggers had long ago: "Increasingly, the Times is being criticized for ginning up controversies as much as reporting them out." Gee, you think?
On Dec. 3 the Times offered the perfect rebuttal to the criticism of its Augusta National coverage, as its aggressive reporting bagged one of the biggest scoops of the membership controversy: In an exclusive interview former CBS chairman Tom Wyman announced he was resigning in protest from the club. "I am not anxious to make this personal," Wyman said, "but Hootie keeps writing that there has not been a single case of protest in the membership. And he absolutely believes this will all go away. It will not go away and it should not. I know there is a large number of members, at least 50 to 75, who believe it is inevitable that there will be and should be a woman member. There are obviously some redneck, old-boy types down there, but there are a lot of very thoughtful, rational people in the membership, and they feel as strongly as I do."
Though Johnson was irate about Wyman's high-profile defection and his unsparing language -- in the Times's story the chairman was also described as "pigheaded" by a 25-year member -- the club issued only a blandly worded statement to the Times: "We are disappointed that Mr. Wyman has chosen to publicize a private matter. While we respect the fact that there are differences of opinion on this issue, we intend to stand firm behind our right to make what are both appropriate and private membership choices."
This was exactly the kind of high-impact story Raines had been lusting after. Every paper in the country was forced to credit the Times a day later, including USA Today, which mentioned its competitor three times in its catch-up account while grudgingly admitting that Wyman could not be reached "despite repeated attempts."
Wyman's resignation had been triggered by a letter he sent to Hootie Johnson on Nov. 20. "There is no question it is our right to decide who is invited to join our club," read the letter, a copy of which was made available by the Wyman family. "At the same time it is also our responsibility to protect the interests of the thousands of people around the world who see Augusta as a treasure to be admired for its role in the golf world. The continuing stream of negative publicity surrounding the controversy is damaging our image seriously and it will continue to do so until we realize that protecting our right of choice is only part of our responsibility." In closing, Wyman sounded an ominous note. "While I hope you will act responsibly and with reason on this issue, I feel obliged to tell you that your failure to do so would cause me to reevaluate my association with an organization that fails to recognize the role of women in our society. While I have, up to this point, respected your request that this issue not be a subject of discussion either with the public or with other members, I feel that continuing the status quo would cause me to make my views known to a broader audience -- if only to remove any doubt that I approve of the present policy."
As Martha Burk can attest, Johnson is not the most tender of pen pals. He blew off Wyman in a response dated Nov. 22. "Obviously I was disappointed to receive your letter," Johnson wrote. "Although I respect your right to disagree, I must tell you that the Executive Committee unanimously adopted our present position on membership, and the overwhelming majority of our members are in complete agreement. I want you to also know that there is no timetable for the admission of women into our membership, nor do I expect there to be one in the foreseeable future. If you feel compelled to resign, we will certainly understand. I hope, however, you will continue to respect the rights of the rest of the membership."
Wyman officially quit Augusta National in a response dated Nov. 27. "Hootie, I recognize that it would be useful to you for me to resign quietly with no report of my departure (or the reasons therefore) beyond Augusta. I have decided to share my positions with the world outside in hope that others in and out of the club will speak up in favor of admitting women soon."
It was a convenient time for Wyman to walk away from Augusta National because, at 72, his health was slipping. Over the preceding five years he had been suffering from a blood disorder that necessitated weekly injections of white blood cells. Fatigue and balance problems were among the side effects. "His playing days were reasonably limited," says his son Michael. "I told him, 'Dad, the decision would be a lot harder if you were 50 years old and had a lot of golf in front of you.'"
Upon hearing of Wyman's resignation, Wheelock Whitney, his closest friend among the Augusta National membership, sent Wyman a Christmas card, "as I have every year for the last 30," Whitney says. "I told him I was disappointed that he resigned and that he had gone too far. I told him that I felt this issue would be resolved soon enough."
Did that mean he agreed with Wyman's estimate that up to a quarter of the membership favored making the club coed? "I think it's true," Whitney said in an interview two months after Wyman resigned. "Everybody in the club anticipated that it would happen eventually. I heard it discussed. I think a lot of members feel the way Tom did -- but not to resign over."
And what of these other members? How did they take Wyman's desertion and criticism? "Put it this way," says Whitney, "I'm sure Tom didn't get many other Christmas cards."
Raines and his troops at the Times had all of one day to revel in the Wyman scoop. On Dec. 4 the New York Daily News dropped a bombshell, under the headline TIMES EDITORS KILL 2 COLUMNS IN AUGUSTA RIFT. Paul Colford's lead had the staccato rhythm of gunfire: "Editors of The New York Times killed a column by Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Anderson that disagreed with an editorial about Tiger Woods and Augusta National's refusal to admit women as members. A column by sportswriter Harvey Araton also was zapped, sources said, because it differed with the paper's editorial opinion about the golf club standoff."
The blogger outrage was immediate, predictable and entertaining. Kaus offered condolences to all the poor Times columnists, who had been reduced to, he wrote, "voices in Howell's Castrati Chorus, apparatchiks obedient to the party line. It's Orwellian, I tell you." Romenesko's blog nearly melted, so furious was the linking. In the first 48 hours after the story broke, he had more than half a dozen postings, each directing readers to a wide variety of stories excoriating the Times. The best reading could be found in a string of soul-searching articles in industry journals like MediaNews and Editor & Publisher that more or less predicted the end of journalism as we know it.
Observing all of this bloodletting with satisfaction was McCarthy. "For months I've been pushing the idea that the Times coverage is biased, that it was reflecting Raines's heavy-handedness, his expectation that everything conform to his worldview," he says. "When the story breaks that they've killed the columns, the feeding frenzy begins. Suddenly the story is no longer Augusta National, it's the paper and its ideology. The story is no longer sex discrimination but journalistic integrity. That is how you turn down the heat on a crisis, by changing the subject. Would the Times's spiking of the columns have been a big story without all of the groundwork I laid? Of course. But I'd like to think I played a part in the backlash."
The notion of Raines's quashing any challenge to the Times's crusade against Augusta National made for an irresistible story line, but the truth is more complicated, and more interesting. "Yeah, we screwed that up every way possible," says Raines. "And I'll give you the ticktock on that."
The melodrama had begun on Nov. 18, when Araton submitted a column around 5 p.m. in which he made the point that, while Burk's battle with Augusta National was getting all the attention, other challenges facing women's sports were being overlooked, particularly the groundswell to roll back Title IX. "There are a whole lot of Hooties out there, and many with the power to inflict far greater damage on women in sports," Araton wrote. Though he made the point that Burk could be a powerful advocate for women in sports, Araton was dismissive of the meaning of the membership controversy, writing, "The symbolism of breaking any barrier -- and especially one erected by the rich and powerful -- is surely important, but no one should pretend that golf as a social institution will ever be more about inclusion than tokenism."
Raines was in Paris when the column came in, helping to oversee a bloody boardroom deal involving the International Herald Tribune, in which The New York Times was buying out its partner, The Washington Post. In his absence managing editor Gerald Boyd was steering the ship back in New York. Even more than his boss, Boyd, an African-American, was attuned to issues of discrimination. He had grown up in humble circumstances in St. Louis, raised by a grandmother, and first made a name for himself in journalism at the hometown Post-Dispatch covering the White House, where he was one of only two minorities on the beat. Clearly Martha Burk's message of inclusion had resonance for Boyd. "I was told Gerald objected to the [Araton] column on the grounds that it seemed unfair to Burk," says Raines. "And I'm told there were other editors, including some of the women senior editors, who felt the same way. So it was held on that ground."
Araton rewrote the column for the next day, Nov. 19. By that afternoon Raines had returned from Paris and was back in the office. "Gerald briefed me on the background on Araton's column," says Raines, "and he said that once again he wasn't going to run it. That was my chance to intervene if I wanted to, but I didn't. I did say, 'You've been involved in it -- that's your decision.' That was my only involvement in the Araton column."
On Nov. 20 Araton was informed that the column was dead. "It was explained to me that Gerald felt the idea that I was trying to link the two [would] minimize one at the expense of another," Araton says. "I didn't think I was trying to dismiss what was going on at Augusta National, I was simply trying to say that there are far greater issues of gender equity in sports." At some point Araton spoke to Boyd and, says Araton, they "agreed to disagree."
If Araton sounds blasé, it's because columns get spiked every day in newsrooms across America. Editors are the gatekeepers of what shows up in print. It's a fact of life that every reporter understands, though the public at large might consider this untidy aspect of the newspaper business to be a low-grade form of censorship. Says Raines, "How we handle our columnists is a subject not well understood outside the Times. Sports columnists and other news columnists do not have a free-fire zone to write anything they want. It's a commentary on the news, in which the writer's opinion comes into play, but it's not a contract that you write it, we publish it. So the idea of holding a column is not a new one, not a revolutionary journalistic development. It's called editing." (Indeed, in 1980 the legendary sportswriter Red Smith, a Pulitzer Prize winner like Anderson, had a column killed by the Times in which he urged the U.S. to boycott the Moscow Olympic Games. Upon hearing the news, Smith sighed, "I guess I'll just write about the infield fly rule.")
When a writer runs afoul, "typically what happens," says Raines, "is that the desk editor will say, 'Gee, this is a little rough. Pull this back.' What was atypical with the Anderson and Araton columns was that Gerald and I were rung in, and I guess it was because of the buzz about the Masters."
It was this buzz that inspired Anderson to turn in his column on Nov. 21, a day early. In an interview he says, "I took my car in for servicing, and while I was waiting I was reading the paper. All of a sudden I realized, Hey, Harvey's column is not in here. I called the office to find out what had happened. At that point I got fragments of the story. [Sports editor] Neil Amdur then asked what I was working on. I told him, and he said, 'That might not fly.' So I wrote it a day early, to give him a chance to show it to whomever he needed to show it to." In the first sentence of his column Anderson made an explicit reference to the Times editorial that had run three days earlier, and then lamented, "Please, let Tiger Woods just play golf.... Just because Woods is the world's No. 1 golfer, just because he's a mixture of minorities with African-American, American Indian, Thai, Chinese and Caucasian ancestry, he's not obliged to take a sociological stand. It's not his responsibility. If he did boycott, it would be laudatory, but it also would be phony. It would not be him."
After filing the column, Anderson got the bad news from Amdur. "Neil told me I wasn't supposed to argue with the editorial page," he says. Anderson's reaction? "I thought back to Red Smith and the infield fly rule. I thought, Hey, I'm moving up in class. I was disappointed they did it. Not angry, but disappointed. They're entitled to do it. I don't think they should, but the top editors are entitled."
In The New York Observer Pappu fingered Boyd as the bad guy, but it was Raines who had spiked Anderson's column. "I think I overreacted to Dave's column," Raines says. "Neil Amdur brought the column to me, which is very unusual. I glanced at it, saw that it was using the editorial as a stepping-off point, and said, 'Let's not run it.' I should have stopped. I should have edited out the [reference to the editorial]. It was easily fixable. The fact is, Neil and I did not sit down and go through it carefully. It was a decision I made literally standing up, in a walk-by conversation, not because that's my style of decision-making, but because you have to make so many decisions so fast in that job. I booted that one. I should have sent it back to the writer for revisions, which is standard procedure."
When Colford's story hit newsstands on Dec. 4, Raines was once again in the wrong place at the wrong time: He was back in Paris dealing with the International Herald Tribune negotiations. Outrage and disbelief tore through the newsroom, and Raines received a series of frenzied phone calls. "I had actually forgotten there was a flap over this," he says. "So from Paris I wrote a memo to the masthead saying, 'Let's put both columns on the Internet immediately.' Sort of like, We shouldn't have held them, and here they are this very day. And, of course, we would also publish them in the paper, but let's deal with the issue right away.
"There was a very strong feeling on Gerald's part, and others', that that was the wrong thing to do on principle, that in both cases we had acted on reasonable journalistic principles -- in one case separation of editorial and news, and the other possible unfairness in the column. And we shouldn't simply reverse ourselves. At that point I had to face a decision. Do I overrule my masthead -- whose authority and confidence I'm trying to increase -- from 3,000 miles away or do I wait and get back to meet with them? I chose the latter. I wish I had gone on my initial impulse, but managerially, you can't overrule your six top executives without them having a chance to talk to you."
Boyd wanted to write a staff memo trying to quiet the outrage in the newsroom. Raines gave his blessing but did not see the memo before it went out. Boyd didn't make any allusions to bayonets, but his missive was as big a flop as Hootie Johnson's infamous manifesto. Boyd had barely pressed SEND when the full text showed up on Romenesko's website, touching off a parallel controversy. The document was so unusual that the Smithsonian Institution later requested a copy. It read: "First, we are proud of our leadership in covering this story. Our sports staff, with help from many desks, is doing exactly what some accuse us of doing: asking questions that no other organization is raising, and pressing energetically for the answers our readers want.... There is only one word for our vigor in pursuing a story -- whether in Afghanistan or Augusta.
"Call it journalism.
"Recently we spiked two sports columns that touched on the Augusta issue. We were not concerned with which 'side' the writers were on. A well-reported, well-reasoned column can come down on any side, with our welcome. One of the columns focused centrally on disputing the Times's editorials about Augusta. Part of our strict separation between the news and editorial pages entails not attacking each other. Intramural quarreling of that kind is unseemly and self-absorbed. Discussion of editorials may arise when we report on an issue; fair enough. But we do not think they should be the issue."
Boyd's revealing memo was parsed in Talmudic detail. No blogger had more fun with it than Kaus: In a posting with the heading FLOOD THE ZONE I (yes, there would be subsequent FTZ II, III, IV and V, all in the same day), Kaus wrote, "Alert reader J.L. notices another revealing sentence in that wonderfully awful and defensive Boyd memo: 'Part of our strict separation between the news and editorial pages entails not attacking each other.' A real strict separation, J.L. notes, would 'require that either side be free to say whatever it likes about the other. How convenient that the Times's "strict" ethical rules always somehow work to prevent criticism of the Times itself.' But in this case the paper's internal ideology ('Call it journalism') is so strong it unthinkingly perverts the meaning of plain English words: separation=suppression."
Here Raines picks up the tale: "So I come back from Paris and I dig into it. I read both columns. We decide to run them as the writers want them to run. Dave's ran with the voluntary deletion of the mention of the editorial page. I read Harvey's first column and I read the second column. I thought the second one was very good and should have run. I think Gerald made the wrong decision to hold the second column. That was the decision I approved without reading the piece, so I take the blame for it. That column should have run at the time it was fixed. Harvey had answered to me every reasonable objection that was raised to it, and the objections were reasonable. So I call up Harvey and tell him we're going to run this column. And he says, 'I think both columns are dated now, and I'd like to take another crack at it.' So he filed again, and the third column was the weakest of the three, and that's what we ran! I wish he had chosen the second column, but I had told him it was his call to make."
The columns finally appeared in print on Dec. 8, after four days of fevered debate. There was so much speculation about how the Times would clean up its mess that, a day before, the paper had run a 1,000-word story in the National Desk news hole of the front section under the headline 2 REJECTED COLUMNS TO BE PRINTED BY THE TIMES. Golfgate (as Pappu was referring to the spiked-column debacle in the Observer) set a problematic precedent for the Times. This same vicious cycle -- errors in judgment, breakdowns in the chain of command, scathing public criticism, internal turmoil, self-flagellation -- would repeat itself a few months later with cataclysmic results in the Jayson Blair affair, which ended with the resignations of Blair, Boyd and Raines. More immediately, the controversy about the columns destroyed the paper's momentum on Augusta National. The Times had helped make it an issue of national importance, and particularly with its revelation about dissatisfaction within the club, the paper had advanced the story significantly. But with four months still to go until the Masters, the Gray Lady would never recapture the same swagger, or relevance.
"The Times coverage fell off a cliff," says McCarthy. "It flatlined." Having accomplished his first objective, Augusta National's spin doctor could begin fighting other battles. "It was time to settle some scores," he says.
Copyright © 2004 by Alan Shipnuck. Printed by permission.
Issue date: April 6, 2004