NYT Ombud: Paper Shouldn't Have Hired Kristol

As a conservative media critic, I often hear liberal journalists say that the reason there aren't more libertarians or conservatives in the media is simply because lefties are more interested in news writing and opinioneering than righties. They are quite quick to deny there is any kind of discrimination--despite the experiences of Susan Molinari at CBS, Ben Domenech at the Washington Post and pretty much any right-leaning journalist in the business who doesn't make a habit of bashing Republicans like Pat Buchanan.

This pattern of vitriolic anger and rage at the temerity of a right-winger daring to venture into the left's inner sanctum of the press is once again on display with the New York Times's recent hiring of Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol to be a columnist. Things have gotten so out of control that even the paper's public editor (aka public fig leaf) is protesting the hire. As before, inevitably, leftish reporters and editors are raising objections about the slightest thing. In Kristol's case, as Gabriel Schoenfeld writes (h/t Power Line), Times public editor Clark Hoyt is straining at a comment he made during an appearance on Fox News Channel:

Was it wrong for the New York Times to install William Kristol as an op-ed columnist? The move to put an outspoken neoconservative in such a visible position is roiling the newspaper, inside and out. First, a hailstorm of hate mail arrived at the paper for hiring a "war criminal"--one of the milder epithets hurled in Kristol's direction by some 700 letter-writers, all of whom but one were venting against the appointment. Then, taking note of this groundswell of reader opinion under the headline, "He May Be Unwelcome, But We'll Survive," the newspaper's own ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, called the decision a serious mistake: not because Kristol is an "aggressive unapologetic champion" of the war in Iraq--but for something else.

That something else is remarks uttered by Kristol on Fox News Sunday in June 2006. "I think the attorney general has an absolute obligation to consider prosecution" of the New York Times is what Kristol told a television audience shortly after the newspaper splashed details of the highly classified Terrorist Finance Tracking Program on its front page.

This "leap to prosecution," wrote Hoyt on Sunday in his weekly column, "smacked of intimidation." It also revealed "disregard for both the First Amendment and the role of a free press in monitoring a government that has a long history of throwing the cloak of national security and classification over its activities." Someone of such ill repute is not one to be "rewarded with a regular spot in front of arguably the most elite audience in the nation."

Is Hoyt right or wrong about Kristol? For the light it sheds on how the most elite journalists in the nation regard themselves, this little contretemps is rich in a variety of ways. [...]

On the eve of publication, Bill Keller, the top editor at the Times, was personally told by John Snow, Secretary of the Treasury, that the story would undermine "a highly successful counterterrorism program" and alert "terrorists to the methods and sources used to track their money trails." The co-chairmen of the 9/11 commission, former Gov. Thomas H. Kean and former Representative Lee H. Hamilton, one a Democrat, the other a Republican, also weighed in with the highest Times officials, imploring them to spike a story that would harm U.S. counterterrorism efforts. To no avail.

In light of the Times's cavalier attitude toward the publication of classified information, does Kristol's suggestion that the Attorney General "consider" prosecution really smack of intimidation, as Hoyt suggests? That is certainly one way of looking at Kristol's remarks. But another way would be that they smack only of a desire to uphold the rule of law. In this instance a newspaper had compromised a classified program aimed at tracing terrorists who had already killed thousands of Americans. Under such circumstances, the Attorney General would be remiss if he did not scrutinize the statutes to see if such behavior was enjoined by law.

Hoyt calls this perspective "disregard" for the First Amendment. But is there any plausible theory of the Constitution under which that make any sense? "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press" is what the First Amendment flatly says. But the courts have long held, and the press itself has long readily accepted, that these seemingly unequivocal words are fully compatible with legal restrictions on what journalists can and cannot say in print. Statutes forbidding certain kinds of commercial speech and punishing libel, to which virtually no one inside the media ever objects, have long been held to be fully constitutional abridgements of freedom of the press. Can it really be that Congress can make it crime, as it has, to publish false advertising--the unfounded claim, say, that Crest shines teeth brighter than Colgate--while it cannot make it a crime to publish material that causes grave danger to national security? Hoyt's view is nothing but unadulterated applesauce, and so, in the few cases that have come before it, the courts have held.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013