November 26, 2011 · 1 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Find out what you can and tell the people what you know.
That was how Tom Wicker, a New York Times columnist for 25 years, defined a journalist’s charter.
Tom Wicker died yesterday. After stints as a reporter and Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, Wicker was a Times opinion writer from 1966 till 1991. His syndicated column “In the Nation” appeared two or three times a week. Wicker, an unabashed liberal, stepped comfortably out of his role as columnist and into the part of advocate. At a 1971 Harvard teach-in against the Vietnam War, he urged students to “engage in civil disobedience…. We got one president out, and perhaps we can do it again.” Wicker didn’t mind becoming part of the story. In fact, his most famous extra-curricular role was as a mediator and monitor of the 1971 Attica (New York) prison uprising. Tellingly, Wicker went to Attica at the invitation of the inmates, not of the state. Another of Wicker’s journalistic credos:
We stand against privilege and we must question power.
As a columnist, Wicker criticized every president who held office during his watch. He was one of the journalists who made it onto Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” As Robert McFadden of the New York Times writes in his obituary of Wicker,
Mr. Wicker applauded President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but took the president to task for deepening the American involvement in Southeast Asia. He denounced President Richard M. Nixon for covertly bombing Cambodia, and in the Watergate scandal accused him of creating the ‘beginnings of a police state.’ … The Wicker judgments fell like a hard rain upon all the presidents: Gerald R. Ford, for continuing the war in Vietnam; Jimmy Carter, for ‘temporizing’ in the face of soaring inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis; Ronald Reagan, for dozing through the Iran-contra scandal, and the elder George Bush, for letting the Persian Gulf war outweigh educational and health care needs at home. Mr. Wicker’s targets also included members of Congress, government secrecy, big business, corrupt labor leaders, racial bigots, prison conditions, television and the news media.
But Wicker was even-handed and quick to offer praise, even to politicians whose ideologically he deplored. Look, for instance, at this August 1976 column, in which Wicker applauds Ronald Reagan, with whom he “disagreed vigorously,” for Reagan’s pragmatic 1976 campaign performance and the classy way he handled defeat. “In some campaigns,” Wicker wrote, “the loser is the biggest winner.”
Wicker stood up to power at the New York Times, too. In 1968, Times publisher A. O. Sulzberger, at the behest of the Times‘ managing editor Clifton Daniel and his assistant A. M. Rosenthal, decided to replace Wicker as Washington bureau chief with a person who would be beholden to Daniel and Rosenthal. Wicker and Washington-based editor and columnist James Reston confronted Sulzberger. When word leaked out that Wicker and Reston had won the day and Sulzberger had changed his mind, the Times‘ New York newsroom “broke out in spontaneous applause.”
Contrast Wicker with today’s New York Times op-ed writers. With the exception of Paul Krugman, who labors under the distinct advantage of not needing his New York Times gig, the rest of the regulars stick to writing columns that will not aggravate the management.
In today’s paper, for instance, we have Joe Nocera praising the gumption and tenacity of a couple of cabaret singers. In the slug to the column, we are told, “The slow and steady careers of two great musicians provide some meaningful life lessons for the rest of us.” Cutting edge. It would appear that editorial editor Andy Rosenthal assigned columnists to do some nice “life lessons” stories to get readers into the holiday spirit. Yesterday, David Brooks produced a whole column of “life lessons” he culled from aged New York Times readers. Nicholas Kristof turned his blog over to Noorjahan Akbar, a young Afghan women’s rights activist, who told an inspiring story of organizing a women’s protest in Kabul. Rosenthal himself copied some “Thanksgiving wisdom” from a Great Depression-era Connecticut governor urging Nutmeggers to be thankful for God’s grace, however meager.
The edgiest column yesterday came from Tim Egan (technically a post, not a column; for some reason Egan – a Pulitzer Prize winner who I think is the Times‘ best op-ed writer after Krugman — doesn’t count as a columnist). Egan touted his preference for wild game and “free-range, organic, emotionally stable heritage turkeys rather than the usual top-heavy, hormone-injected, pellet-stuffed mound of arid meat — the McMansion of American foods.” (I’m with Egan; I buy only free-range.)
Gail Collins bucked the life-lessons assignment today, but her column, in which she reviews the writings of presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, is scarcely hard-hitting. It is part of a continuing series, in which Collins ridicules the published works of the Republican candidates but finds something to love (or not absolutely loathe) in all of them. Today she likes Paul for calling Dick Cheney a “chicken-hawk.”
Not an aggravating column among them, unless you’re a Butterball executive. Or Dick Cheney.
In his final column for the Times, Frank Rich wrote,
During my time on the page, the most frequent question I’ve been asked by readers is: Did The Times ever censor you, or try to censor you? The answer is no. The same, by the way, was true when my theater reviews regularly antagonized some of the paper’s biggest advertisers.
I’ll assume that is true. (It is not, by the way, surprising that arts critics are allowed to criticize art. While some arts sections in smaller papers do run more to boosterism, the Times brand itself requires its critics to actually say something.) Still, Rich’s testimony doesn’t make the Times op-ed page look any better. It suggests instead that Times op-ed writers are either ideologically in lock-step with the publisher and management or they simply self-censor when they are not.
As for Rich (and for that matter, Bob Herbert), it is hard to fathom why the Times let him slip away. Rich’s portfolio at New York Magazine is broader than was his weekly assignment at the Times. But there is more to the Times than the op-ed page. The Times Sunday Magazine, its on-line product, combined with the editorial pages, offer a variety of venues that could easily accommodate Rich’s desire to try “something different.” He isn’t doing anything at New York Magazine, as far as I can tell, that could not be done within the Times framework. Rich was far and away the best columnist the Times had and he continues to excel at New York Magazine. His precise, densely-packed and elegantly-composed prose, along with his ability to make keen connections among political, cultural and historical elements, is unmatched by any contemporary news and opinion writer. In that respect, Rich is a far better essayist than was Tom Wicker.
But every major newspaper needs a Tom Wicker, someone who understands and practices “standing against power.” Today there are few such writers working within the mainstream media. The New York Times still has opinion writers whose portfolio is to scrutinize and criticize the powerful. But the “scrutiny” and “criticism” coming from the Times op-ed page is careless, sometimes inaccurate or purposely misleading, often snarky and usually shallow.
In his final column for the Times, Wicker urged the first President Bush, who famously didn’t get “the vision thing,” to “exercise in a new world a more visionary leadership…. As the U.S. did not hesitate to spend its resources to prevail in the Cold War, it needs now to go forward as boldly to lead a longer, more desperate struggle to save the planet, and rescue the human race from itself.”
Somebody “needs now to go forward and rescue” the New York Times op-ed page from itself.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com and until recently was a popular commenter on New York Times op-ed columns. A short time ago, she began boycotting the Times because of a change in Times policies that stratifies “trusted” and “mistrusted” commenters.