NEW YORK – The Gray Lady's slip is showing.
The New York Times, the venerable paper of record, has found some news that's not fit to print -- from its own columnists. The newspaper is under fire for cutting two "Sports of The Times" columns -- one by Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Anderson and another by Harvey Araton -- that contradicted the paper's editorials on the debate about whether to admit women to the Augusta National Golf Club.
Now The Times, considered by many to be the standard-bearer for journalistic ethics, is being criticized for censoring its own writers.
"There is no conceivable way to defend this," said Fox News Channel media expert Eric Burns. "The Times has lost its editorial mind."
The pulled columns were first reported by the New York Daily News.
The columns addressed the fight to allow women to join the Augusta club in Georgia, which is host to the annual Masters Tournament. The private golf club does not allow women to become members, and the head of the club, Hootie Johnson, has repeatedly said women will not be allowed membership in the foreseeable future.
Feminist groups have been leaning on Tiger Woods -- a three-time Masters champion -- to stand up for women and use his position as a bully pulpit for the cause.
The Times, which has run a series of stories lately about the club's membership policies, has been unabashedly in favor of adding women to the club's membership in its editorials.
Now it appears that the newspaper's editorial board wasn't too pleased with the slant two of its sports columnist put on the issue.
Anderson said his column argued that the membership rift was not Tiger Woods' fight; Araton wrote about the elimination of women's softball from the Olympics and said women faced bigger issues than admission to Augusta.
Both columns were killed.
Late Wednesday, the Times sent out a statement saying: "Part of our strict separation between the news and editorial pages entails not attacking each other," referring to Anderson's column. Of Araton's column, the statement read, "the logic did not meet our standards; that would have been true regardless of which 'side' the writer had taken on Augusta. The writer was invited to try again, but we did not think the logic improved materially."
The Times' actions this week and the frequency of its stories about the issue are raising questions as to whether the publication's editorial board has become consumed with the issue of women becoming members at the Augusta club.
An increasing number of staffers and observers are echoing the opinion that exclusionary membership was no longer the story, and that the Times and where it was heading was the real news.
"The Times has just gotten obsessed with this and the fact that it has killed two columns opposing its editorial page slant on it shows how deep the obsession is," Burns said. "The Times has really lost touch with reality … why not crusade against whether or not to send troops to Iraq."
On Nov. 25, the Times ran a front-page story headlined "CBS Staying Silent in Debate on Women Joining Augusta." The story slapped the TV network with criticisms over the fact that CBS didn't address the issue, even though it has a contract to air the popular golf tournament. That was the 32nd piece the newspaper had run within the past three months on the issue, Newsweek reported.
One Times staffer told Newsweek that the Masters coverage has been so prevalent that the Times' executive editor, Howell Raines, is "in danger of losing the building."
One reporter told the Daily News that, "everyone's so terrified of Howell they don't want to be heard even talking about this around the water cooler."
Anderson is one of only three sportswriters ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. He won the title in 1981 for his "Sports of The Times" column as an example of distinguished commentary.
"He's the dean of sportswriters, a guy of the highest integrity," New York Sun sports columnist Wallace Matthews told the Daily News.
Coincidentally, Raines won a Pulitzer in 1992 while he was the Times' Washington editor, for "Grady's Gift," an account in The New York Times Magazine of his childhood friendship with his family's housekeeper and the lasting lessons of their interracial relationship.