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No Good Reason to Spike McCain's Op-Ed

No Good Reason to Spike McCain's Op-Ed

By Dennis Byrne - July 25, 2008

As an ink-strained wretch who has labored for decades for three of America's largest newspapers, I truly had hoped that liberal bias did not explain why the New York Times refused to publish an op-ed column from John McCain.

Sadly, though, the accusation is correct. By journalistic standards, the paper should have run the piece, just as Barack Obama's was run earlier. David Shipley, the Times' op-ed editor, his boss (in a later justification of the refusal) and by extension the newspaper blew this one, big, and now deserve the criticism heaped on them.

Although I have never worked for the Times, I hope that I'm still entitled to some thoughts about its conduct. My labors at three Chicago papers have included membership on an editorial board (Chicago Sun-Times), op-ed columnist (Sun-Times) and op-ed contributing columnist (Chicago Tribune), and sometimes included the selection of op-eds, letters-to-the-editor and forum pieces. At the iconic Chicago Daily News, I filled in on the editorial page under the wise tutelage of Pulitzer Prize-winning Lois Wille, who also later directed the editorial pages of the Sun-Times and Tribune.

So, let's take a look:

Shipley, the op-ed editor, in his response to McCain's submission said: "...I'm not going to be able to accept this piece as currently written. I'd be pleased, though, to look at another draft."

It's true that op-eds sometimes are turned down because they need to be rewritten for reasons such as improved clarity, organization or style. This, however, is rarely the case when they are ghostwritten by professional writers, as Obama's and McCain's certainly were. The fact is that the piece was asked to be rewritten because Shipley didn't like its content.

Wrote Shipley: "The Obama piece worked for me because it offered new information (it appeared before his speech); while Senator Obama discussed Senator McCain, he also went into detail about his own plans."

New information? Here's what Obama said in his piece:

"But the same factors that led me to oppose the surge still hold true." And this: "As I've said many times, we must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in." Even Obama says what he is offering isn't new. It is formerly articulated rhetoric--the very reason why McCain's piece was rejected. The only thing I can find that is remotely new in the piece is this snippet: "As president, I would pursue a new strategy, and begin by providing at least two additional combat brigades to support our effort in Afghanistan." I'm not sure what Shipley was referencing when he said he wanted new stuff from McCain, and he may have honestly thought that Obama's piece articulated a new, detailed plan.

It did not. Here's what Obama said last year in a campaign piece, "Turning the page in Iraq:" "...we need to begin to end the [Iraq] war in order to finish the fight in Afghanistan. [Obama] would redeploy at least two combat brigades (7,000 personnel) of rested, trained American troops to Afghanistan to reinforce our counter-terrorism operations and support NATO's efforts to fight the Taliban."

Further, while the New York Times' policy may be to demand "news" in its op-eds, it's not a standard that I've seen applied elsewhere, including at the papers where I've worked. Op-eds are opinion, commentary or analysis. "News" customarily goes in the "run of the paper," outside of the editorial page.

But now, Shipley goes off the deep end:

"It would be terrific to have an article from Senator McCain that mirrors Senator Obama's piece. To that end, the 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."

Incredible. McCain has repeatedly said he is opposed to timetables, and whether or not you agree with him, I fail to understand how Shipley can demand that, as a condition for publication, McCain provide a timetable. Does Shipley insist that McCain betray his own beliefs for the sake of appearing in the New York Times? It is nonsense, dare I say unheard of, to send an op-ed back to the author to alter his views.

Perhaps Shipley doesn't see the irony of his demands. Shipley might well have asked similar questions of Obama: What is your definition of victory in Afghanistan? (One might ask Obama what his definition of victory is in Iraq, but victory there apparently is part of his equation.) Where is your "clear plan" for achieving an Afghan victory, other than a troop surge? What is your plan for ending U.S. engagement in Afghanistan? What measures would you take to compel Afghan cooperation? How would you compel, encourage or even entice Pakistan to cooperate in the hunt of terrorists along the county's shared border?

(By the way, noticeably missing from Obama's op-ed was his statement from last year: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and [Pakistani] President Musharraf won't act, we will." Talk about vague; is he threatening unilateral U.S. military action?)

Would Shipley have refused to run Obama's op-ed if Shipley had not agreed with the substance of Obama's answers? Will never know because Obama never provided such answers in his op-ed.

Kate Phillips, on the New York Times politics blog, The Caucus, observed that having worked for Shipley in 2004 she could say it was the paper's policy then not to publish direct responses to op-eds. "Very rarely would a direct counterpoint to an Op-Ed be published; more often the response would be directed to Letters to the Editor," she wrote. "But dueling candidate Op-Eds sometimes rise to a different level, when they go beyond back-and-forth or standard talking points that everyone is familiar with." This is weak, in-house gruel. Yes, standard practice is to print responses to op-eds in the letters to the editor. But, one might think that even "dueling candidate" op-eds would automatically rise to a different level, when the candidates in question are running for president.

The sad part in this is that Phillips, Shipley or perhaps no one else at the Times sees the hypocrisy of rejecting McCain's op-ed for the very shortcomings that they let Obama get away with.

Perhaps the problem was that Shipley was a special assistant to the president and senior presidential speechwriter in the Clinton White House and, indeed, his political bias is showing. Or perhaps the problem is more innocent: simply flawed journalistic judgment.

In either case, the New York Times has publicly and seriously erred, further contributing to the trashing of what was once an admirable profession.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago-area writer. He blogs at chicagonow.com.

Dennis Byrne

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