I’m curious to see what the reaction of The New York Times will be, if any, to John Burns’ comments about Iraq this past weekend. Accepting Colby College’s Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for courageous journalism Burns ventured into that no-no area for Times reporters: offering personal opinions outside the pages of the paper.
Speaking about the war in Iraq, Burns said that, “If they [Americans] were to stay there another three to five years, we could see this becoming a two-trillion-dollar war, we could see thousands more American troops dead. And it seems most improbable to me, from my travels in America, that America is prepared to pay that price.”
Granted, there’s nothing necessarily controversial about this, but as we’ll see in a second, Times reporters have gotten into hot water for similar statements. But first, here’s some more from Burns’ talk, as relayed by the Colby Web site:
‘There is a potential for a violent cataclysm in Iraq that, bad as things are, could be very, very much worse than anything we’ve seen to date,’ he said, listing as likely consequences, ‘the possibility of hundreds of thousands of dead, … the possibility of regional conflict—a very high possibility in the vacuum that would be left by the withdrawal of American troops. There’s the security of the state of Israel (which could hardly be left unaffected by an even worse collapse in Iraq than we’ve already seen) and the threat that that would pose at least to the government of King Abdullah in Jordan.’
Now, all this talk of possibilities and potential threats doesn’t stray too far from what Burns has written in the Times at various points over the past four years, but if the past is any guide, what you write in the Times and what you say in public are judged by very different standards by the paper’s brass.
Back in January, then Times Public Editor Byron Calame criticized Michael Gordon, the paper’s longtime chief military correspondent, for venturing into the realm of personal opinion in a public appearance. In a discussion of Iraq on The Charlie Rose Show, Gordon said:
I think, just as a purely personal view…the gap between the rhetoric of having a so-called strategy for victory, and then the reality of what’s going on in Iraq. And I’ve always felt that people in Washington were talking about a strategy for victory, but we actually never marshaled the resources and didn’t work effectively enough in Iraq to accomplish this.
So I think, you know, as a purely personal view, I think it’s worth it one last effort for sure to try to get this right, because my personal view is we’ve never really tried to win. We’ve simply been managing our way to defeat. And I think that if it’s done right, I think that there is the chance to accomplish something.
In his column the next week, Calame gave Gordon a very public dressing down, (despite the fact that Gordon was doing little more than expressing things that he had previously written), writing that Times editors “have carefully made clear their disapproval of the expression of a personal opinion,” and quoted Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman as saying that Gordon “stepped over the line” and his comments “were a poorly worded shorthand for some analytical points about the military and political situation in Baghdad that Michael has made in the newspaper in a more nuanced and unopinionated way.” But the Gordon case wasn’t an outlier. Calame had previously leveled the same criticisms against Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse. In an October 2006 speech, Greenhouse said that the government “had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, other places around the world… And let’s not forget the sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.” Calame replied, again in his column, that, “Keeping personal opinions out of the public realm is simply one of the obligations for those who remain committed to the importance of impartial news coverage.”
Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.
While Greenhouse’s comments were much more provocative than Gordon’s or Burns’s, all three fall into the same category: statements by reporters at an institution that is notoriously ill at ease with its employees giving their opinions in public. Gordon’s and Burns’s thoughts on the war, as I said above, don’t stray too far from what they have written, but it will be interesting to see if Clark Hoyt, the Times new public editor, admonishes Burns as Calame did Gordon.