His and Coombs’ heavy-handed style took a toll on the paper. By the early aughts it was hemorrhaging talent, and its once-outsized influence was dwindling. Then, in late 2006, The Nation published a devastating investigation, which exposed rampant racism in the newsroom and dredged up other unsavory allegations, including sexual harassment complaints against Coombs. Around this time, the paper’s parent company, News World Communications, enlisted Nixon Peabody and launched its own probe, which reportedly bore out most of the The Nation’s findings. It also began hunting for Pruden’s replacement. Under pressure, Pruden stepped down in early 2008 —though the paper has continued to run his columns in its news pages.
If those columns are any guide, Pruden still has strong opinions about race. In 2009, for instance, Pruden penned a handful pieces arguing that President Barack Obama was incapable of understanding America’s heritage. “He is our first president without an instinctive appreciation of the culture, history, tradition, common law, and literature whence America sprang,” he wrote. “The genetic imprint writ large in his 43 predecessors is missing from the Obama DNA.” In another piece, Pruden argued that Obama had “no natural instinct or blood impulse” for what America was about because he was “sired by a Kenyan father” and “born to a mother attracted to men of the Third World.”
These musings touched off an uproar, after which David Mastio, then the Deputy Editorial Page Editor, was assigned to edit Pruden’s work. Mastio says Pruden’s drafts were often sprinkled with subtle racism and pro-Confederate language. “He was constantly re-litigating the Civil War, and attacking the historical figures on the right side of the war, Lincoln and Grant being his favorites,” Mastio explains. “He also used terms with animal implications when referring to blacks”—“sired” being a prime example. Part of Mastio’s job was to strip the offending language.
Now it is Pruden wielding the red pen.
Already, his influence is apparent in the paper’s opinion pages. Pruden is a gifted prose stylist who is more interested in bludgeoning opponents than in reasoned debate. Under his leadership, the writing in Commentary has become snappier and more colorful, but also more strident and less thoughtful. Rather than offer a mix of perspectives, it continually hammers the same issue from similar angles. Pruden’s nativist leanings have also crept back into the Times’s pages. In a column last week, he tackled the renewed immigration-reform push. Pruden is against it, of course, but his take on Republicans who support it is telling. What’s driving them, he argues, is a desire to tap the “abundance of voters drawn to welfare-state” programs—meaning, presumably, that immigrants tend to be freeloaders bent on milking the government.
Just a few months ago, this kind of rhetoric abounded. But in the aftermath of the 2012 elections, the tone among the right-leaning punditocracy has shifted, especially on immigration. Rupert Murdoch, the conservative media kingpin, has called for “sweeping, generous immigration reform.” Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, who led the charge against George W. Bush’s ill-fated 2007 immigration-overhaul plan, have endorsed the Senate blueprint. So has Bill O’Reilly. Even Rush Limbaugh has signaled that he might be persuadable, by praising co-author Marco Rubio’s efforts as “admirable and noteworthy.” Against this backdrop, Pruden’s mud slinging—which in another era might have swayed public opinion—only make the Times seem out of step.
This is Mariah Blake’s first story for CJR’s United States Project, which covers the coverage of politics and policy. Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from her and the rest of the United States Project team.