Imagine a bottom-line oriented New York Times executive pacing the sidelines at his son's soccer game last month. Walking with him was a Times editor whose son also played.
"She's on the war path," the executive muttered, referring to that day's diatribe by Times columnist Maureen Dowd.
"I don't know how you can say that," the editor responded sardonically. "All she wrote was, 'W.'s presidency rushes backward, stifling possibilities, stirring intolerance, confusing church with state, blowing off the world, replacing science with religion, and facts with faith. We're entering another dark age, more creationist than cutting edge, more premodern than postmodern. Instead of leading America to an exciting new reality, the Bushies cocoon in a scary, paranoid, regressive reality. Their new health care plan will probably be a return to leeches.'"
The executive grimaced: "She had to throw in the leeches." He watched his son's shot go wide of the net. "And what about Tom Friedman's hyperventilating?"
"You mean this?" asked the editor, as he read from that morning's Times: "We disagree on what America is. Is it a country that does not intrude into people's sexual preferences and the marriage unions they want to make? Is it a country that allows a woman to have control over her body? Is it a country where the line between church and state bequeathed to us by our Founding Fathers should be inviolate? Is it a country where religion doesn't trump science?"
The executive harrumphed: "You think that's accurate?"
"Isn't it?" They cheered as their sons' team scored.
"I wonder," the executive responded. "An old college friend last week sent me several copies of WORLD, which he says is the Christian alternative to Time or Newsweek. It presents a different picture. These evangelicals agree that it's a free country, so gays can do what they want privately. They're OK on gays having hospital visitation rights and rights on inheritance. They draw the line at marriage."
"I can't agree with that," the editor said, "but it doesn't sound completely unreasonable."
The executive went on: "Those WORLD writers say that a woman can control her own body, but once she's pregnant another body has rights. They separate church and state but contend that religious individuals should have freedom of speech in public places and programs. And it doesn't seem that the editors are anti-science, because they're pushing for experiments with adult umbilical cord and placental stem cells. Could we be mislabeling them?"
"No way," the editor insisted. "Everyone in our network thinks they're a menace. Gary Wills says that people like the readers of that magazine have 'fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for modernity.' Sean Wilentz attacks 'the religious fanaticism that has seized control of the federal government.' And how about . . ."
"Enough," the executive said. "I know the people we talk with think like us. I'm concerned about the readers at the margins. Almost every major newspaper is losing circulation: I don't want that at the Times. The country is trending conservative: If people in the middle start looking at us as leftist loonies, we're in trouble."
"But Maureen and Tom are columnists. They give their opinions. Look at our news pages . . ."
"Yes, look at them. I couldn't believe it in July when that 'public editor' we had to appoint after last year's scandals, Dan Okrent, decided to come clean on that question, 'Is The New York Times a liberal newspaper?' He had to say, right in our pages, 'Of course it is.' He had to say about gay rights, abortion, and those issues, that 'if you think the Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you've been reading the paper with your eyes closed.'"
"I don't like Okrent giving our critics ammunition," the editor agreed, "especially since we had no choice. We had to be more overt on the news pages than usual during the campaign, trying to put Kerry over the top. We'll try to be more subtle next year."
"Subtle?" the executive sniffed. "You're about as subtle as that"-and he gestured to his son tripping a forward for the other team who was heading toward the goal.
"You're right. But what else can we do?"