Profiles In Cowardice

The Philadephia Inquirer’s
new “right stuff” program

By Edward S. Herman


The Philadelphia Inquirer, a subsidiary of Knight-Ridder, Inc., and under persistent bottom-line pressure from its parent, has long been sensitive to complaints from organized and vocal interest groups and to the right wing. In September 1995, then editor Jane Eisner brought in the far-right Joseph Sobran as a columnist, on the grounds that “We’ve heard often from readers who complain that this kind of unvarnished conservatism is not represented on our pages.” This particular selection backfired, as it was quickly revealed that even Midge Decter had called him “a crude and naked anti-Semite.” Linda Chavez soon quietly replaced Sobran.

The paper has trimmed its editorial sails even further since 1995, in accord with the political shift to the right, partly by depoliticization and trivialization of content, partly by confining the political content more narrowly between the center and right. Thus, it was no surprise that in January of this year, the editors introduced a new Commentary page column under the heading “Right Stuff,” subtitled “A forum for conservative opinion,” which now appears every Thursday. This column is of course far from alone in providing right-wing opinion to the editorial pages. On May 3, for example, Cato Institute Michael Tanner’s “Right Stuff” column on Bush’s social security “reform” commission was coupled with a column by Linda Chavez; and on the previous three days the Inquirer offered Heritage Foundation’s Alvin Felzenberg, lauding Bush who was “quietly getting things done” (April 29); an uncompromising apologetic for Vietnam war civilian killings by L. H. “Bucky” Burruss, along with an article “U.S. drug policy in Colombia seeks to aid human rights” by State Department official William Brownfield (both on April 30); and a venomous attack on Hillary Clinton by the Common Conservative’s Tom Adkins (May 1).

I wrote a letter to Inky ombudsperson Lillian Swanson suggesting that the “Right Stuff” program was perhaps bringing coals to Newcastle, asking whether the paper planned a day for “Left Stuff,” and inquiring into the justification for this innovation. As with Eisner’s explanation for bringing in Sobran in 1995, Swanson answered, the “Right Stuff” was “in response to repeated complaints from conservative readers that our editorials were so liberal that they found nothing on the editorial and commentary pages that reflected their world view.” Swanson did acknowledge that this might be “a case of the squeaky wheel getting the grease,” but said she had asked editorial page editor Chris Satullo to explain the rationale in more detail.

I wrote Satullo directly, urging him to reply, and asking him if he had any numbers on conservatives complaining and whether the paper had ever done an independent study of what its readers wanted. When he finally answered, grudgingly, he gave no numbers, mentioned no independent study, and argued that it wasn’t so much numbers of complaints as his own conclusion “that to any fair-minded person, they had a point.” Then came his defense: the paper’s editorials were “clearly left of center” and his responsibility was “to present opinions that differ from those expressed in editorials (be they from the left or right).”

To describe the Inquirer’s editorials as “left of center” requires word sophistry. Even more questionable is the paper’s alleged hospitality to opinions that differ from that of the editors “from the left.” The editorial board backed Clinton and Gore for president, but it also supported the reelection of right-wing Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, Republican Senator Arlen Specter, and the local Republican congressional spokesperson for the military-industrial complex, Curt Weldon. It enthusiastically supported the drive to balance the budget in the 1990s; accepts that Social Security is in “crisis” and urgently needs reform; and has backed every move labeled “free trade,” including the North American Free Trade Agreement. The editors found the Russian “reform” process good and they have supported the harsh policies toward Iraq and all U.S. military interventions abroad. On matters like affirmative action and welfare, they have agreed that these need “reform” while calling for a softer approach. They have joined each campaign against “political correctness,” as defined by conservatives.

Admittedly, words like center, right, and left have no fixed meaning, and as the political spectrum has moved to the right—because of “golden rule” and corporate control of the media—what was “right” a generation back might be in the center now. But “left” still connotes fundamental criticism, criticism at the level of basic policy and institutional structures; a willingness to contest corporate control, neoliberalism, and imperial aggrandizement. In this sense, Ralph Nader may be said to represent a moderate “left,” whereas Gore was “left” only if we allow anybody to Bush’s left to be “left.” On my definition of left, Gore and Bush are center and right. On this definition the editorial positions of the Inquirer oscillate between center and center-right, never departing from the two party consensus or the range of difference within and between these parties.

Similarly, commentary debates are almost entirely confined to those between the center and right. On issues where the public disagrees with the elite or tends to be skeptical of elite positions, and where a “left” position would be especially important for meaningful consideration of the issues, as on “free trade,” civilian versus military expenditures, and military campaigns abroad, the editorial page keeps critical opinion to a minimum. On subjects such as Russian “reform,” the Kosovo war and its aftermath, the U.S. role in Indonesia’s murderous behavior in East Timor in 1998-2001, and U.S. policy toward Iraq, the paper’s foreign policy commentator Trudy Rubin, who has adhered closely to the State Department line, has been protected from serious criticism or competitive op-ed commentaries by simply refusing to print any “left stuff.”

In his reply to my inquiry, Satullo explains that he is “happy to print viewpoints from the left, as long as the prose style rises above the propagandistic sludge.” He also demands “carefulness with facts” and attention to “clarity or quality of the writing.” This alleged happiness to print left viewpoints contradicts his position that “Right Stuff” is needed because the editorials already provide a “left of center” perspective. It also flies in the face of numerous rejections of left material superior in prose style and carefulness with facts to the propagandistic sludge offered by Linda Chavez, Charles Krauthammer, and other editorial favorites. For example, the local Bryn Mawr economist Richard DuBoff has had five of six op-ed column offerings turned down in the last several years (this is in contrast with five out of 21 rejected 1981-1996); Alexander Cockburn has had no op-ed column in recent years; and Norman Solomon has had only two accepted, dozens rejected. All of these writers suffer from one defect only: they are on the left.

The bias against the left is shown clearly in the accompanying table, from which we can read that over the past several years Mona Charen has had more columns in the Inquirer than the aggregate of nine strong left-of-center writers, most of whom have directly offered commentary articles to the paper. None of them, and nobody representing a genuine left position, has had as many columns as the far right demagogue Tom Adkins. There has been a sizable centrist and mildly liberal op-ed presence by William Raspberry, E. J. Dionne, Marie Cocco, Matthew Miller, Robert Reno, and Cynthia Tucker, but in contrast with the massive offerings of the right on the Inquirer’s opinion page, the left is given only a token appearance. David Boldt, a former editor and insider, has now retired, but even excluding him, we are dealing with a huge imbalance and bias.

A notable feature of the Inquirer’s columnists is that the rightwingers invariably expound right-wing positions, often very aggressively, whereas the paper’s liberals are unaggressive and, like the Inquirer’s editors, often lean over backwards to agree with the conservatives and demonstrate that they are not “ideological” (i.e., maintain a consistently held value position). Only the rightwingers can remain consistently ideological without apparent discomfort. Thus, Linda Chavez’s 78 op-ed columns are almost without exception like press releases of the Republican Party, whereas an E.J. Dionne will laud the Promise Keepers and the new “gradualism” of the Republicans, and Matthew Miller will worry about the effect of the Social Security crisis on other budget priorities, and tell Inquirer readers that the “Left has to admit that Bush is on target with nuclear-arms reductions” (April 2, 2001). Both Dionne and Miller, along with the editors and other liberal columnists, were enthralled with Al Gore’s selection of the almost-Republican Joseph Lieberman as his running mate.

These op-ed selections are of course the choices of the op-ed editor, John Timpane, and just as he may ignore Norman Solomon’s or Alexander Cockburn’s offerings, he may select those of the liberals that also offset the supposed “left of center” bias of the editorials. In a list of liberals and leftists he has put up to answer critiques such as this one, Timpane includes Todd Gitlin, but of the two Gitlin op-ed columns he selected for the Inquirer, one was an attack on Ralph Nader.

In his letter to me, editor Satullo says, concerning the Inquirer’s use of the right-wing extremist Tom Adkins, “we have developed [him] as a hard-right voice.” Adkins is a specialist in vituperation, who in one article labeled the feminist movement “radical political harlots,” referred to Hillary Clinton as a “nasty racist,” and described the Democratic leadership as “anxious to give sovereign Jewish land [presumably the occupied West Bank] to its violent enemies” (July 24, 2000). In another personal attack on Hillary Clinton, Adkins referred to her as a “political tyrant.” Satullo doesn’t seem to be bothered by the gross errors of fact or the venom and propagandistic sludge that Adkins pours forth, although on the Inquirer’s web site advisory on “Writing for us,” op-ed editor Timpane states that “we treat one another with respect. If I read any name-calling, out it goes.” While not applicable to the privileged “hard right voice” of Adkins, these high principles were used to veto an op-ed column offering by Hanan Ashwari that referred to Ariel Sharon as a war monger, which Timpane said was “strident” and “used strong language against an already highly controversial figure” (for a full account: www.pmwatch. org/pmw/reports/042401report).

The ultimate test of editorial left-right bias is in actual editorial performance. For example, for many weeks prior to the Republican Convention, the editorial page ran a “Republican To Republican” column in which Republicans were invited to tell their Republican leaders what they wanted of them. But no “Democrat to Democrat” column was offered to Democrats prior to the Democratic Convention. Another illustration of a kow-towing to the right, along with ignoring and attacking the left, may be found in the fact that the op-ed editor interviewed and gave valuable publicity to Republican right-wing candidates Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer, and Steve Forbes—with two columns devoted to Forbes—but he never afforded Ralph Nader an opportunity to expound his views, and Nader’s candidacy was assailed in both an editorial and the op-ed column by Todd Gitlin without rebuttal.

More important and telling was the editorial treatment of the awarding of the presidency to George Bush by the Supreme Court’s activist Republican majority. The Inquirer’s editorial greeting to this event was entitled “Hail to the chief,” with the subtitle “Accept Bush’s win, but lament the high court’s sad failure to rise to the moment” (December 14, 2000). There were a few quibbling and regretful op-ed pieces in the following few days, but there was not a single editorial or op-ed column that analyzed the court decision in detail or denounced it in strong language. The notion that the court had “abandoned any pretense at behaving like a court of law” (law professor Anthony Amsterdam in the Los Angeles Times, December 17, 2000), or that this was a coup d’etat that overrode the democratic process, a commonplace in the European media and among domestic liberal-left commentators (compellingly by Vincent Buglioso, “None Dare Call It Treason,” the Nation, February 5, 2001), was never suggested in the editorial columns. This historic event and huge abuse was simply swallowed without serious criticism or the slightest indignation. The Inquirer’s editorial political analyst Larry Eichel, in his longest reflections on the decision, even found that while “seemingly partisan,” given the problematics of a manual recount, the court’s action “makes a fair amount of sense” (December 17). The Bush campaign and right wing couldn’t have asked for more.

The same was true of the editorial (and news) treatment of the follow-up disclosures and analyses of the “scrub vote” and recounts. Any news report that suggested that Bush would have won anyway, the Inquirer featured in the news and used to legitimate his presidency; any news that called his election win into question was marginalized or even attacked editorially. The initial November, 2000 disclosures that 12,000 citizens had been removed from the Florida voters’ registers, supposedly as ex-felons, but with only a fraction ex-cons and most “simply guilty of being African-American” was big news in Britain (the quote is from the Observer, November 26, 2000), but only made a back page news entry in the Inquirer (December 7). Washington Post and Palm Beach Post surveys in January 2001, which found that, as featured in the Guardian of London, “Forida ‘Recounts’ Confirm Gore Winner” (January 29, 2001), were never mentioned in the Inquirer. A Civil Rights Commission report of March 7, 2001 on the Florida disenfranchisement was also neither news- nor editorial-worthy. But when USA Today and the Miami Herald did a recount in April that found that Bush prevailed, the Inquirer gave it news attention plus a major article by Larry Eichel: “This just in from Fla: Bush still wins” (April 8, 2001). An examination of this study by FAIR, however, noted that, among its other difficulties, it “included only the ‘official’ results from the seven counties, even though its own investigation found that the official results had potentially missed enough Gore votes to change the outcome of the election.” (“USA Today Conceals Key Information in Recount Story,” April 11, 2001).

Culminating its apologetics for the Republican coup d’etat, when the Civil Rights Commission issued a report in early June, 2001 on the serious black disenfranchisement in Florida, calling the officials there “grossly derelict,” the Inquirer’s editors rushed to the defense of the election officials in “Scars from Florida,” subtitled “A partisan report on the 2000 election distorts facts and ignores fixes” (June 14, 2001). The editorial features that “to its credit” Florida has reformed its voting procedures, and it harshly criticizes the Civil Rights Commission for suggesting that Florida officials intended the result that actually occurred which so well served Jeb Bush and his brother. No counter opinion appeared on this issue in the paper: only Mona Charen added her voice, agreeing wholeheartedly with the “left of center” editors.

The paper’s downplaying of the disenfranchisement of black voters also provides a study in hypocrisy, as the editors have had recent series on “race” and “reparations,” claiming an interest in dealing with the historic mistreatment of black people. But when push came to shove, and the rights of black people were in conflict with the legitimating of George W. Bush, the editorial board and Mona Charen quickly lined up together in a solid phalanx.

The Inquirer editorialists’ gentle treatment of the Supreme Court decision (and black disenfranchisement) contrasts markedly with their treatment of Clinton and his last minute pardons of Marc Rich and others. The editors and the paper had given immense coverage to the Lewinsky scandal, and the editors eventually called for Clinton to resign, not for killing half a million Iraqi children or ignoring the UN Charter in his bombing of the Sudan, Afghanistan, and Yugoslavia, but because of his “immorality” and bad example. In short, they followed the Republican Party line that Clinton’s personal behavior should be the basis of judging his right to continue in the presidency, not his acts as president.

With the Clinton pardons of Marc Rich and others in January 2001, the editorialists became very angry indeed. The editors ran three editorials, starting with “One Last Outrage” (January 23), regular columnist Jane Eisner, the editorial specialist in moral posturing, offered “Moral conflicts abound in Clinton pardon of Rich” (February 15), Larry Eichel had three columns devoted to Clinton’s misbehavior on pardons (e.g., “Clinton scandals keep going and going,” February 23), and right-wingers Alvin Felzenberg and Mona Charen were allowed to add their denunciations of the bad man. None of the permissible comments discussed the earlier and at least equally questionable pardons by George Bush I or Reagan. So for the editors, Clinton’s pardons were far more important and questionable than the Supreme Court majority’s performance in giving their preferred candidate George W. Bush the presidency. On these matters the editors allowed only right-wing opinion to be heard, much of it from the editorial staff itself.

The Inquirer editorialists are very moral folk, and as with their ready indignation at the Clinton escapades, they find it easy to join anti-PC bandwagons. In the past, each small controversy at Penn involving language codes and therefore “free speech,” enthralled the editors, who have never expressed the slightest interest in the free speech aspect of corporate funding of institutes, research projects, “free enterprise” chairs, or discrimination against leftist or women academics. It was therefore completely predictable that David Horowitz’s “anti-reparations” gambit would produce a flurry of editorials (“Campus censorship,” March 24, Larry Eichel on “Anti-reparations are a good test for First Amendment freedoms,” March 21), a Krauthammer op-ed along the same lines, a Tony Auth cartoon attacking those book-burners, and more (including a long article on Horowitz in the features section). Once again completely missing was a serious critical rebuttal from the “left” that would have put Horowitz’s campaign in context and shown it to be a fraudulent free speech issue (see Adolph Reed, Jr., “Horowitz’s Provocation,” The Progressive, May 1, 2001; Edward Herman, “The Media-Rightwing Political Correctness Gambit Renewed: Horowitz and Reparations,” ZNet Commentary, March 24, 2001).

The Inquirer editorialists have been even more biased against the left in dealing with foreign affairs. Foreign affairs editor Trudy Rubin’s apologias for whatever the U.S. government chooses to do have been regularly protected against critical letters and op-ed competition by the editors, despite their claimed devotion to “free speech.” For example, Rubin gave unstinting support to Russian “reform” and Yeltsin throughout the 1990s, apologizing for his gross violations of civil and political rights and ignoring or downplaying the massive theft, capital flight, and collapse of output and the medical and social welfare net. But when the financial crisis hit in 1998, Rubin blamed it all on “communism” and called for more “reform” (“Who lost Russia? It was communism, not markets, that led to total collapse,” September 9, 1998). The op-ed editor rejected an article I submitted entitled “Russian Reform is the Problem, Not the Solution” because the issue had been exhausted. Not only was no “left” voice permissible, no alternative view or debate on this important topic was allowed.

The op-ed editors do not always discriminate against left offerings, however. For example, local “leftist” Mark Sacharoff, who had only rarely been given op-ed space in the past, found a welcome when he submitted a column supporting the NATO war against Yugoslavia (April 1, 1999). On the other hand, in opinion columns reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the ending of the Vietnam War, the prime resource for the editors was L.H. “Bucky” Burruss, a hard-line ex-Green Beret who lives in South Carolina, who supplied two articles defending Kerrey and the war (plus an earlier piece attacking Clinton as a draft dodger). There was one other pro-war column (“Even the enemy knew America could have won,” April 30, 2000), and only one that raised critical questions about the war (Suzanne Cloud, “Kerrey’s case points to need for discussion on Vietnam,” May 1, 2000). The editors did not pick up first-rate offerings that dug more deeply by Alexander Cockburn, Mark Weisbrot, and Norman Solomon. Also ignored was W.H. Ehrhart, a Philadelphia veteran of the Vietnam War, described by H. Bruce Franklin in his Vietnam & Other American Fantasies as “one of the finest poets to emerge from the war, the leading anthologist of Vietnam war poetry, and the author of three powerful memoirs” on the war. Ehrhart tells me he stopped submitting anything to the Inquirer back in 1992 when they ceased to be interested in what he had to say. They certainly didn’t invite him to contribute in 2000. The editors preferred Bucky Burruss.

One of the most notable features of the Inquirer editorial pages has been its gradual enlargement of filler—items that amuse, entertain, and distract, with personal stories and reflections and gossip about celebrities. Reactions to snow storms (“Gearing up for the onslaught was more exciting than the storm,” March 6, 2001); reflections on whose picture should be on the ten dollar bill (“Enough with the heroes: put a dim bulb on $10 bill,” April 12, 2001); thoughts on changes in the $20 bill (“How many things wrong with this $20,” November 14, 1998); and the master stroke, a program of op-ed columns on “Couples,” that in two years produced 103 commentaries on pairs like Laurel and Hardy, Luci and Desi, Bill Scott and Jay Ward (creators of the “Bullwinkle Show”), Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and even the op-ed editor’s own parents. The editor Satullo now has a regular six or seven part “Christmas Story” series at Christmas time that fills white space with an openly fictional diversion.

I would estimate that half of the opinion columns now fall into the category of trivialization. This helps justify the exclusion of the left, it does not upset conservative readers, and it has the incidental but acceptable side effect of minimizing the paper’s contribution to public understanding and the democratic process. (While the paper’s think tank web site includes the Ayn Rand Institute, Rockford Institute, Traditional Values Coalition, and American Nuclear Society, it fails to mention the Economic Policy Institute, the Center for Budget Priorities and Policy, the Center for Defense Information, Citizens for Tax Justice, the Institute for Policy Studies, CorpWatch, or FAIR.)

Why do the editors feel obliged to accommodate the right and marginalize the left? One reason is surely that the right is organized and aggressive in pressing the paper, and there are important people supporting right-wing causes who could do the paper and its editors damage. The commercial forces are strong, and loss of advertising or sales from disgruntled rightists pose a threat that the editors internalize. They may also believe their rhetoric about their own “left of center” proclivities, drummed into them by the right.

Also very important is the supineness of liberals and the left. I have spoken to several liberals and leftists in Philadelphia who get the Inquirer and weren’t even aware that a new “Right Stuff” program had been installed. And when I told them about it, it didn’t occur to them that perhaps they should take any responsive action. Back in the 1970s, when Philadelphia Sane was a fairly large and active organization, its members organized a letter-writing protest against a reactionary editor of the Inquirer that was so strong that the editor was replaced within months. The paper’s ongoing shift to the right and trivialization process is only going to be halted when liberals and leftists wake from their apathy and doldrums and enter the struggle with the energy that only the right is displaying in dealing with the Inquirer. Z

Edward Herman is an economist and media analyst. His most recent book, co-edited with Philip Hammond, is Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis (Pluto, 2000).

Published in Z Magazine

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