Readers of the "New York Times" got their first look at the Sunday magazine's redesign this week. But they also saw the tired old radical chic in a cover story about Lori Berenson, the “idealistic” American woman who spent 15 years in Peruvian jails on terrorism charges, after working in Salvadoran and Nicaraguan revolutionary movements. The article by Jennifer Egan describes how Berenson, recently paroled, is adjusting to her new life in Lima under terms of her release, along with a young son conceived in prison.
Berenson was arrested on suspicion of terrorist activities in 1995, at age 26. The police raided a house she had rented, engaging in a gun battle with members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a rival to the even more violent terror group, Shining Path. There they found a large cache of weapons and ammunition, as well as plans to seize the National Congress of Peru and take hostages. Egan quotes American human rights activists who maintained that the Peruvian government punished Berenson harshly to prove its antiterrorism credentials, and who described her as “brave and stoic-almostsaintly” in prison. Egan also allows Berenson to expound on the “oppression, exploitation and imperialism” which informs her worldview. Left unreported is that Peruvian human rights activists wanted nothing to do with Berenson once she admitted belonging to the Tupac Amaru.
The magazine's new editor, Hugo Lindgren, praised the piece as a “classic” story of a “wounded but resilient woman struggling to sort out a place for herself in the world.” John Podhoretz put it more skeptically, saying the reader could mistake Berenson for “a holy innocent---a good and noble person who made a few dumb mistakes out of an excess of ideological zeal.” Podhoretz added that it spoke volumes (about the Times) that Lindgren "considers this outrageous puffery---about a person who is at best a terrorist stooge---to be a wonderful calling card for the magazine's new era."
Egan's flattering story caps off a long train of "Times" editorials, news features, opinion columns and letters advocating for Berenson's release-in effect, turning the paper into an arm of the clemency campaign run by her parents. “Peru Mocks Due Process,” read one editorial headline in 1996. “Free Lori Berenson,” read another, in 2000. The "Times" labeled the proceedings against Berenson a sham, buying into her claim that she didn't know the Tupac Amaru were violent, and downplaying the infamous courtroom outburst when she clenched her fists and screamed: “In the MRTA there are no criminal terrorists. It's a revolutionary movement!”
Berenson's May 2010 parole occasioned three pieces by Simon Romero. In one, Berenson compared her experience with the Spanish Inquisition: “I think the difference is, people who [are] accused of terrorism weren't burned at the stake. I wonder if we had been, maybe we would be less interesting. I think for some reason it's useful that people still be considered dangerous.”
The affection for Lori Berenson was no anomaly at the "Times," where romancing radicals is a house tradition. A classic example was the profile of Bill Ayers, former Weather Underground terrorist, that had the misfortune to appear on September 11, 2001. Written by Dinitia Smith and headlined “No Regrets for Love of Explosives,” it centered on Fugitive Days, a memoir about Ayers' life as a Weatherman and in hiding. Smith explained that Ayers was hardly penitent about his part in bombings of New York Police Department headquarters, the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon, among other acts of terror in the 1970s. “I don't regret setting bombs,” he said. “I feel we didn't do enough.” He also wouldn't “discount the possibility” of doing more.
Another veteran of the Weather Underground graced with favorable treatment was Kathy Boudin, who in 1981, with her husband and other comrades, attempted to rob a Brinks payroll truck, killing a guard and two policemen in the effort. Given a sentence of twenty years to life, Boudin was denied parole several times. In 2003 her supporters-led by her father, an attorney and onetime Communist-mounted a campaign to win her freedom. The "Times" helpfully kept the story of Boudin's parole hearing in the news, emphasizing that she hadn't pulled the trigger in the Brinks holdup, and pointing to her good works in prison. Todd Gitlin, former SDS president, was quoted saying that Boudin “represents the possibility for redemption.”
Shortly after Kathy Boudin was released in August 2003, the "Times" ran a front-page profile of her 22-year-old son, headlined “From a Radical Background, a Rhodes Scholar Emerges.” Jodi Wilgoren described Chesa Boudin as part of the “radical aristocracy,” raised by Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, and triumphing over “striking challenges, such as epilepsy, dyslexia and temper tantrums.” Wilgoren also portrayed him as a victim, whose parents missed his “Phi Beta Kappa award, high school graduation, Little League games,” being in prison. Even so, Chesa wanted to emulate them: “My parents were all dedicated to fighting U.S. imperialism around the world. I'm dedicated to the same thing.”
Also appearing in the radical célèbre gallery was Lynne Stewart, the lawyer who unlawfully passed notes from her client Omar Abdel Rahman to his followers in an Egyptian terrorist organization. When Stewart was convicted of providing support for terrorism, Sabrina Tavernise essentially wrote a valentine, praising her “legendary" compassion. Unmentioned was Stewart's "professed belief in armed revolutionary struggle" (a detail that did make it into the Washington Post). Outside the courthouse after her sentencing in October 2006, Stewart declared that she would do the same “all over again” and boasted that she could complete her 28-month sentence “standing on her head.” The Times closed its report with an image of Stewart greeting well-wishers “as if she were Gandhi-touching them in the crowd.”
This dewy-eyed view of radicalism is a result of countercultural values permeating the newsroom at the "Times," where reporters and editors enjoy taking shots across the bow of the bourgeoisie. But with Lynne Stewart, it may have backfired: in July 2010, a federal judge said her comments outside the courthouse showed “a lack of remorse” and extended her sentence to 120 months. It is possible, too, that the paper's aggressive advocacy for Lori Berenson and its insults to the Peruvians may have reinforced their determination to keep her behind bars.
What's really irritating and mystifying though is that The Times is supposed to be the gold standard of American journalism and yet, ten years after 9/11, it continues to glorify terrorists. They have no clue about what most Americans think about the Lori Berensons of the world. Nor do they seem to care. But by refusing to understand the dangers of the global terror threat the paper just continues on its march to marginalization.
William McGowan is the author of "Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means for America" (Encounter Books / grayladydown.net)