Weekly Standard: NYT Hates Criticism and Won't Publish Challenging Letters

According to an expose in the August 18 Weekly Standard, the New York Times hates critical comments and won't print letters to the editors that challenge NYT facts. Writer Kenneth L. Woodward detailed a behind-the-scenes battle to get the paper to correct inaccurate information by Maureen Dowd. 

After dealing with an editor, Woodward recounted, "In sum, the Times was telling me that they will accept letters that offer a different opinion, but those that challenge assertions of fact are relegated to the editors of the Corrections column, where minutiae like misspelled names and erroneous dates are corrected for the record."

Woodward, an author and expert on how the Catholic Church determines sainthood, wrote a letter correcting a Maureen Dowd column: 

On April 24, I wrote a 190-word letter to theTimes contesting a very angry column entitled "A Saint He Ain't" written by Maureen Dowd on the dual canonizations of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. Dowd's main beef was that Pope John Paul II did not deserve canonization because, she argued, the clerical sex abuse scandal and its cover-up occurred during his reign, for which she held him accountable. She also criticized the now-retired Pope Benedict XVI, whom she dissed as John Paul's "Rasputin," for rushing to canonize his "mentor." In other words, Dowd was saying that here was a case of one conservative pope canonizing—and therefore justifying the papacy of—another.

In my letter to the Times, I did not question Dowd's opinion of Benedict or John Paul II, or challenge her clichéd political categories for distinguishing one pope from another. What I did do was contest her basic assumption that the canonization of a pope means approval of everything he had done as a pope. On that point, I wrote, "Nothing could be further from the truth," and then went on to give examples from history that disprove her point. 

Since the Times loves to publish letters from people with a claim to expertise, I identified myself as the author of the book Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Is a Saint, Who Isn't and Why. And because the Times trusts the judgment of its own reviewers, I noted that my book had been reviewed (at length on publication in 1990—and very enthusiastically, though I did not mention this) in the Sunday Times Book Review.

Two hours later I received an email from Mary Drohan of the Letters Department telling me that they wanted to publish the letter if I approved of their editing. Gone from the original letter was my dig at Dowd for once again reminding readers of her Catholic childhood, as if this credentialed her as a judge of which popes are worthy of canonization. Okay, I already knew that the Times does not publish letters that reply in kind to their sharper-elbowed columnists. But I did object to the editors' replacing my "Nothing could be further from the truth" with "I disagree." 

This bureaucratic process continued: 

Ms. Drohan was very gracious and straightforward in explaining why: “Here’s the problem,” she wrote. “Saying ‘this is a common misunderstanding’ sounds like a correction of a factual error (which in this case it is). We don’t use letters to make factual corrections. That’s for the corrections people. There is no such problem with ‘I disagree.’?” 

For the same reason, she went on, another line I offered was unacceptable: “Likewise, ‘Ms. Dowd claims that Pope Benedict chose to make his predecessor a saint, but popes do not choose saints: they merely approve candidates found worthy after due canonical process.’ So unless we find a way around this, I don’t think that we’ll be able to use this letter.” 

We couldn’t and they didn’t, which was fine with me. 

Woodward recounted just how different the Times's response was to other media outlets: 

This was alien to my experience at Newsweek, where I wrote some 750 stories, including nearly 100 cover stories, over my 38 years at the magazine. Like the Washington Post, theWall Street Journal, and every other publication I have written for except the New York Times, Newsweek acknowledged errors in its Letters column and, in the days when the magazine was flush with staff, very often wrote letters back to those who contested something we had published to explain why we stood by our story. 

The Weekly Standard writer concluded with the impact of the Times's no complaints" policy: "...It permits Ms. Dowd and her colleagues an illusion of authorial infallibility that even a pope might envy." 

This is certainly true of Times writers. Since the paper doesn't want to be bothered with criticism, you can find them, courtesy of the MRC, here.

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the associate editor for the Media Research Center's NewsBusters.org site.