By: Joe Strupp
In the wake of the The New York Times spiking two sports columns, most editors at a cross-section of major newspapers said they would not object to a columnist who criticized the paper’s editorial position, saying columnists are hired specifically to tell readers what they think. The Times recently killed two sports columns that raised questions about the paper’s strong editorial position that the famed Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia should admit women members.
Of the eight editors contacted by E&P about the issue, five said they would never hold a column just because it disagreed with the newspaper’s editorial-page position, but two said it would depend on the specifics of the case, and one said columnists should not take such stands in the paper. Each editor, however, agreed that the Times had the absolute right to decide what goes in its news pages.
Miami Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler backed The New York Times‘ position. “That is something I wouldn’t want any of our columnists to do,” said Fiedler, a former political columnist. “That strikes me as unprofessional, to take on the editorial position of the paper.”
But others disagreed. “Our columnists have such wide latitude it would never be a consideration here,” said Leonard Downie, jr., executive editor of The Washington Post. “They can do what they want. It has never been an issue for us.”
Carole Leigh Hutton, executive editor of the Detroit Free Press, agreed. “My feeling is, unless a column uses inappropriate language, they have a lot of latitude,” she said. “We pay these people to have an opinion. We expect them to have some personality and that includes a point of view.”
The Times spiked columns by veterans Harvey Araton and Dave Anderson. They reportedly disagreed with a Nov. 18 Times editorial urging golfer Tiger Woods to boycott The Masters golf tournament, which is played at Augusta, because the club has no women members.
Boyd told E&P on Thursday that the columns’ viewpoint had nothing to do with their being spiked. He said the Araton column, which did not openly address the Times‘ editorial stance, needed to be rewritten, while the Anderson column was held not because it disagreed with the paper but because it focused on the editorial too directly. Anderson and Araton did not return calls seeking comment.
For most editors who spoke to E&P, giving columnists space to spew their beliefs should mean they can take on anyone, even their own paper. “If it is well-written and interesting, it ought to go in,” said Phil Bronstein, executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. “It doesn’t depend on some notion that people are not allowed to criticize the paper.”
William Marimow, managing editor of The Sun in Baltimore, echoed that view. “As long as it is done based on reporting and analysis, it is OK,” he said. “As long as they do it with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.”
Two other editors did not see it as an easy choice. Karin Winner, editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune, said the decision at her paper would depend on the issue at hand, and how the columnist had made his or her point. “It would depend on how fair the criticism was done,” she said. “I think we need to have a range of opinion.”
Jeff Cohen, editor of the Houston Chronicle, also urged caution in such cases. “Each one of these incidents is different,” he said. “I would have to see the specific situation.”