By: Alicia Mundy
Sanctimony is never a pretty thing, especially when it involves journalists talking about other journalists.
The latest round of self-righteousness comes Washington’s way thanks to The New York Times and its ?ber-columnist, Thomas L. Friedman. In February, Friedman floated a peace proposal, which Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz allegedly supported, involving Israel, the Palestinians, and Arab League countries. It became a hot topic on news shows. Israelis and Arabs took swipes at Friedman. But that was nothing compared to the shots taken at him by fellow journalists.
“Has Friedman crossed the line from pundit to policy-maker?” asked some press packers in high dudgeon. Please. Was there ever a line for columnists?
Perhaps you suspect I have an attitude here. You’re right. I was raised hearing about the great Walter Lippmann and the policy role his columns played. I watched The Washington Post‘s George Will escape unscathed after prepping Ronald Reagan for a presidential debate. These days, I see Robert Novak on the Post‘s Op-Ed pages acting as the postal service for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, sending their messages on to the White House, to other Republicans, to Democrats, and to anyone else who isn’t obeying their rules. I love Novak, but, my God, he should have his own U.S. stamp.
On Fridays, a desperate Daniel Henninger of The Wall Street Journal practically begs anyone in power in Washington to read him and follow up. About once a month, The New York Times‘ Bob Herbert warns Texas that we’ll think the state uncivilized if it executes yet another prisoner. The Washington Times‘ Op-Ed pages read like “Dear Abby” for the Hill crowd, with bills as well as cabinet and judicial appointees being proposed weekly. The list of ersatz policy-makers is endless.
But now — now — we’re worried that Friedman’s articles may be creating foreign policy that would help the United States and save lives. Would that we were so lucky.
Columnists practically kill to have their advice heeded, their leads followed — they love acting as go-betweens who grease the communications skids. But you might not know this by reading some mainstream papers, including The Boston Globe. Recently, the Globe sniffed, “Neither the prince nor the columnist [Friedman] has a mandate to negotiate any peace agreement.” The National Journal‘s witty Howard Mortman, who writes the “Extreme Mortman” column for “The Hotline,” concluded that peace was too important to be left to the media. Well, since Middle Eastern “leaders” aren’t interested, why shouldn’t we pundits take a crack at it?
Ironically (and isn’t there always one ironic moment?), the Friedman fuss came along just as the Pew Center for Civic Journalism began mailing out invitations to its annual awards for civic journalism. You remember civic journalism, don’t you? The kind practiced by journalists who are actually supposed to care that somebody will read what they’ve written and act on it? So, let me see if I follow this: We like civic journalism, unless it’s somebody else’s.
I think a little old-fashioned journalistic jealousy may be at work here. I won’t mention the names of any New York Times columnists whose noses seem out-of-joint about Friedman. And it would be rude of me to laugh about the March 10 piece by The Washington Post‘s ombudsman, Michael Getler. He noted that a Washington bureau chief (with no dog in this fight) questioned whether the Post had deliberately reduced the Friedman-inspired peace plan to two graphs on the back page — while it was run on the front page by other papers — because it was the Times‘ story. “I doubt that,” Getler wrote. However, anyone who reads the Post knows its news-placement philosophy: If we didn’t have the story first, it didn’t happen.
Friedman seems to have risen above all this, and, like a true journalist, has been holding his sources, subjects, and himself up to scrutiny. He’s willing to question publicly whether he is being used by Saudi Arabia (hey, Tom, take a number and get in line). In his March 13 column, he jumped all over the semantic waffling by Arab leaders, including Syria’s president and Saudi Arabia’s own foreign minister, regarding the peace plan. They are talking only about “full peace with Israel” instead of “full normalization of relations with Israel,” which Abdullah supports. And Friedman is monitoring other Saudis’ attempts to water down the plan and stall, stall, stall.
Is Friedman being used? Of course, like almost every pundit in print. But it takes a journalist of integrity and consistency to say it to his audience and his peers — which is what makes Friedman’s work so valuable. Who ever heard of a columnist questioning his own role and retracing his own steps in print? It sets an unholy precedent — and a higher standard of ethics than most columnists can afford.
Friedman declined to comment for this piece. But his articles provide us all a chance to see who, if anyone, is serious about peace in the Middle East. For that alone, he deserves an unqualified pat on the back.