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A Matter of Opinion

The tortured reasoning behind the Times' rejection of McCain's op-ed
July 22, 2008

“It would be terrific to have an article from Senator McCain that mirrors Senator Obama’s piece” on the Iraq War, wrote New York Times op-ed page editor David Shipley in an email to the McCain campaign on Friday. Strangely enough, Shipley was writing to reject an opinion column already submitted by McCain; the piece, he explained, was not up to par with the column that the Times had run under Obama’s name on July 14. Where Obama’s op-ed “offered new information” and “went into detail about his own plans,” Shipley asserted, McCain’s did neither.

McCain partisans have decried the Times’s decision—and, if you read the two columns side by side, Shipley’s justification does seem rather thin. The similarities between Shipley’s words and an unsigned July 17th Times editorial denouncing McCain for not having “matched Mr. Obama’s seriousness on Iraq” suggest that the rejection is an expression of its heightening exasperation with the presumptive GOP nominee—not an adherence to general principles of newsworthiness. Failing to be straightforward about this was a mistake. Instead of making a statement about its judgment of McCain’s leadership—a judgment that it could defend on principle—the Times has only reinforced its reputation on the right as a biased liberal broadsheet.

It is unclear what detailed “plans” sounded new to the Times when it accepted Barack Obama’s July 14th submission. Presumably, Shipley had in mind the four paragraphs towards the bottom, in which Obama reiterated his commitment to a sixteen-month withdrawal timeline, adding that he would work with commanders to “redeploy troops safely” while retaining a small force for “limited missions,” pursue “a diplomatic offensive,” and shift brigades to Afghanistan. This was preceded by seven paragraphs laying out his criticisms of McCain and reminding readers that he had opposed the war since its beginning.

What, exactly, is new about that? To my eyes, Obama’s column was just a summary of positions on Iraq that he had already offered in various forms. And, with the exception of the sixteen-month time frame, its components are general principles for proceeding in Iraq, not something that could be reasonably considered to constitute a “detailed plan.” But in his email to the McCain campaign, Shipley was specific about what “details” he expected from the Arizona senator:

[T]he article would have to articulate, in concrete terms, how Senator McCain defines victory in Iraq. It would also have to lay out a clear plan for achieving victory — with troops levels, timetables and measures for compelling the Iraqis to cooperate. And it would need to describe the senator’s Afghanistan strategy, spelling out how it meshes with his Iraq plan.

Shipley’s request for a definition of “victory” echoes the Times’ July 17th editorial, which complains, “We have no idea what winning means to Mr. McCain.” Shipley’s detailed description of what the Times would consider a “detailed plan”—reminiscent of a teacher explaining to an elementary school student why his failed homework didn’t fulfill the assignment—underscores the editorial’s frustration that “Mr. McCain is still tied in knots, largely adopting Mr. Bush’s blind defense of an unending conflict.”

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The whole point of McCain’s rejected op-ed, published today in the New York Post, is that he doesn’t think it is wise to offer the kind of Iraq statement that would satisfy theTimes. McCain declares that “any draw-downs must be based on a realistic assessment of conditions on the ground—not on an artificial timetable crafted for domestic political reasons. This is the crux of my disagreement with Sen. Obama.”

The Times editorial board is well within its rights to pronounce this position unacceptable. And the editor of the Op-Ed page has the right to decide what to publish and what to reject. But if the editorial board’s negative opinion of McCain’s approach to Iraq is indeed shared by the opinion pages, as Shipley’s note suggests, then the Times could have made a stronger statement—and been more honest—if it had simply said to McCain, “The Times does not consider your stay-the-course position serious, and we only publish serious arguments on our Op-Ed page.”

This would have undoubtedly provoked even louder howls from the right. But wouldn’t the Times rather be defending itself for taking a principled stand—instead of defending tenuous arguments about newsworthiness that serve only to feed the paper’s reputation as a vehicle for thinly veiled liberal bias?

Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.