Manners & The New York Times

| February 2, 2013 | 0 Comments

When 325 U.S. and Canadian editors and publishers were asked by Time to name the world’s greatest newspaper, 79 percent named The New York Times. But that question was asked so long ago the next U.S. paper cited was the Chicago Tribune, which actually claimed the title of “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” but in the judgment of the editors and publishers finished 76.5 percentage points behind The Times.

Seventy years later The New York Times in promotional ads now claims the title as “The World’s Greatest Newspaper”, but few would dismiss that claim as many did the Tribune’s. Besides Colonel McCormick was a bit of a joke, the Sulzbergers anything but.

Since I have often said and written that The Times is indeed the world’s best newspaper, I would not use this space to argue otherwise, but I will raise a question about The Times and manners as it relates to the newspaper’s op-ed page.

I will preface it by saying The New York Times has been and remains, a significant part of my life. It started when I first began reading The Times national edition (which failed it’s first go around), dramatically changed when I was a press aide to Bobby Kennedy in the ’68 presidential campaign and later press secretary to Senator Charles Goodell of New York and Senator Harold Hughes of Iowa, and has continued through friendships with Richard Reeves, Steve Weisman, David Halberstam, Gay Talese, Frank Lynn, Warren Hoge, Max Fankel, Joyce Purnick, Michael Gordon, Bill Keller, Dave Anderson, Linda Charlton, and George Vecsey, among others. As president of two public forums, The City Club of San Diego and The Denver Forum, and as chairman of The Great Fenway Park Writers Series for the Boston Red Sox, I have had the privilege of inviting and presenting editors and journalists of The Times on more than 70 occasions, and always deeming it a pleasure and honor – knowing they represent journalism’s best.

My judgment and emotions about The Times run deep; in ways I think often exceed those who make their living working for this great newspaper. In the media world no institution is more critical to the health and well being of our democracy than The New York Times. You’re free to disagree with that assertion but in your disagreement you would be wrong.

That said, over the past 39-years I have written hundreds of op-eds for U.S. and Canadian newspapers, including the Toronto Globe and Mail, Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun, Newsday, Denver Post, Los Angeles Times, and many others, but only once was an op-ed submission of mine accepted by The New York Times for publication (an op-ed on the Democratic Party’s shameful exclusion of Mike Dukakis and George McGovern from any role or acknowledgment at their national conventions).

I have also written numerous opinion pieces published by the Huffington Post, one of which, “White America’s Shame,”an essay on the birthers and the silence of too many of our fellow citizens, received more than 1,500 comments, a huge number in the blogosphere (an essay also submitted to and rejected by The Times).

Having had so many submissions routinely rejected by The Times I ceased trying, as the frustration wasn’t worth it; a frustration eased only slightly by remembering the late Eugene McCarthy telling me how much he disliked Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post because she often turned down his op-ed submissions. But unlike my beloved friend I am not a former U.S. senator, haven’t run for president, or a published author of books. I am just a guy in San Diego.

But late last week I wrote an op-ed on “Politics & Principles” on the great political divide in Washington and media’s failure to understand that sometimes principles matter more than politics. I read it to a friend, who thought it was elegantly written and it belonged in The Times.

So, ever the optimist and out of respect for my friend’s judgment, I did what I have previously done, emailed my essay to and received in return, as one does, the following automatic response:

“Thank you for contacting The New York Times Op-Ed and Sunday Review desk. We appreciate your feedback and comments.

”If you have sent us a manuscript, please know that we have received your submission and are reviewing it.

”Articles should be original and exclusive to The Times; they cannot have appeared elsewhere, in print or online…

“You will hear from us within three business days if your article is accepted for publication.”

The “three business days” passed and nary a word was heard. In the op-ed world I may have scaled the equivalent of many Kilimanjaros but the Everest of op-ed pages remains beyond my reach, save for the one aberrational moment noted above.

While The Times’ insistence upon exclusivity is a common practice among many newspapers, that fact does not excuse what I deem the newspaper’s exceedingly bad manners in its handling of op-ed submissions. I allow my annoyance with The Times, if not anger, at so many rejections arises from considering myself as a person of some national standing, as one might who runs three major public forums in the USA – San Diego, Denver and Boston – and has done so collectively for 74 years, while presenting 2,100 programs; public forums that not only believe in but uphold the dialogue of democracy.

Do I conclude thereby I am entitled to “special consideration” when submitting op-eds to The Times? No, but I do believe the manner in which The Times deals with such submissions is unworthy of “the world’s greatest newspaper” and fails the standard of treating others with dignity and respect; which is a value everyone I’ve ever known at The Times has exemplified – and then some. Not least the late Punch Sulzberger, who was a gentleman in every conceivable way, and was unfailingly kind to me.

There is also the matter of writing letters to The Times, which, in my case is another mountain too high.

Recently I sent such a letter because I was offended by a line in a Paul Krugman column; a line wherein Dr. Krugman used the word “menial.” I am a Krugmanian and seldom disagree with the Noble Prize Laureate and three times guest of our public forums, but I thought “menial” had no place in a column written by someone who also writes a blog for The Times entitled, “The Conscience of a Liberal.”

I thought surely whoever reads such letters at The Times would be duly impressed that a fan of Dr. Krugman’s would challenge him for mindlessly using “menial” to describe men and women who perform honorable work, but also hoping the invocation of “menial” did not betray Dr. Krugman as one who views men and women engaged in manual labor as beneath his exalted status. But, again, nothing.

However, there was a moment recently when George McGovern died that a letter of mine almost made The Times. In the newspaper’s obit of the great man, who I was privileged to know 43-years, there was a reference to him as having been a “Methodist.” But, as I pointed out, he was not a Methodist but a Wesleyan Methodist, a distinction of no small significance.

Surprisingly, given the otherwise total silence from The Times on op-eds and letters, I received a call from the letters editor, who asked if I would revise my letter to indicate that while Mr. McGovern had been described as a “Methodist” there was a later reference to him as having been raised a Wesleyan Methodist. It seemed a small point but wanting the letter published I did as requested and, nothing. The letter did not appear, nor was there any follow up explaining why, although I sought an explanation.

On other occasions the public editor of The Times and I were in communication, both written and verbal, over issues I had raised, but while conceding the legitimacy of my concerns over whatever that particular issue was, he never made mention of it in his Sunday columns. So there’s that.

One of my more frustrating experiences with The Times involved Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor.

It concerned President Obama’s nomination of Alan Bersin as commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Mr. Bersin, a friend of mine since his days as U.S. Attorney in San Diego, who doubled as U.S. border czar under President Clinton and later served as San Diego school superintendent, was a superb choice, as he is an extraordinary public servant, befitting a Harvard, Yale, Rhodes Scholar. But his nomination got caught in Senate politics, especially Max Baucus politics (the worst kind), and the nomination languished. Finally, the president, not wanting to lose Mr. Bersin, made an interim appointment so he could continue with his leadership at Customs/Border Protection. But, as with all such appointments, Mr. Bersin’s time ran out.

Angry at the small-mindedness of Senator Baucus and his chief of staff, I thought Mr. Bersin might benefit from a meeting with The Times editorial board; that through such a meeting public notice of Senator Baucus‘ outrageous behavior might become known and he would back away from opposing the president’s nominee. In that regard, I had several conversations with Mr. Roenthals’ secretary and was asked to send information as to the circumstances surrounding Alan Bersin’s appointment and why the matter was worthy of the newspaper’s editorial board’s attention.

This I dutifully did, outlining in a 698word letter to Mr. Rosenthal in November of 2011, the details of Mr. Bersin’s pending nomination and warning if Senate hearings were not held by year’s end the nomination would die and Mr. Bersin would be out as commission of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the nation and agency would lose the most capable person to ever hold that position.

Despite repeated requests to ascertain Mr. Rosenthal’s state on mind on whether an editorial board meeting would be held, there was nothing. Neither Mr. Rosenthal nor his secretary was ever heard from again.

In the world most of us live in etiquette and manners matter. Treating others with respect and dignity are values we honor. I do not know Andrew Rosenthal, the editor of The Times editorial page, or those who work with him, but I’m confident they hold to similar values, but in their administration of the editorial department of The World’s Greatest Newspaper, those values are either ignored or forgotten.

I’m working on a collection of op-eds and essays, of speeches and sermons, of memos and letters, I’ve written since 1973. It’s not that there’s no corpus before but most of what I wrote before was done in the employ of members of Congress – Bobby Kennedy, Charles Goodell, Harold Hughes, etc. – and, appropriately, bears their names not mine (ironically, a few of those writings did appear in The New York Times, which suggest it isn’t my writing but name that fails The Times test as to who gets in and who doesn’t).

In my collected works, Vanity Press being the likely publisher, there will be a section on op-eds and letters rejected by The New York Times. It will be a rather long section.

George Mitrovich, a San Diego civic leader. He can be reached at,

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