Jewish World Review August 8, 2000 / 7 Menachem-Av, 5760
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- INDEPENDENCE DAY celebrates the liberation of the American colonies from Great Britain. But the day is not so happy for Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby. He is now serving what looks to be a politically inspired suspension over a column that he wrote commemorating July 4th.
I've known Jeff for more than a decade, before he became a columnist. In 1994, Globe Editorial Page Editor David Greenway recruited him to add a little diversity to a page dominated by liberals. For six years Jeff has offered conservative views with grace and wit. We haven't always agreed --- he is much more a traditionalist. But he has always forced me to think.
On July 3rd, Jeff wrote a column about the fate of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Several versions have circulated, but Jeff actually checked the facts and corrected the errors. Jeff acknowledged the previously published accounts in a pre-publication e-mail to friends, but neglected to add the disclaimer to his column. His editors suspended him without pay for four months, essentially a prison term for jay-walking.
Editorial Page Editor Renee Loth told Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's media critic that "this had absolutely nothing to do with ideology." Jeff says he believes her, but the timing is highly suspicious. A few weeks before Jeff's suspension, David Greenway retired. He was liberal, but Ms. Loth is, in Jeff's words, "very sharply left." Journalists who know the Globe have long been pessimistic about Jeff's future once Greenway departed. True, the Globe had reason to be vigilant: In 1998, the paper had to fire columnists Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith for plagiarism and fabrication, respectively. Yet Jeff's offense is not in the same league.
As the Globe put it, he "should have alerted readers that the concept and structure for his column were not entirely original." That's very different from copying, however. It would have been almost impossible to write the account without following the others' general approach. Moreover, he hid nothing. He highlighted the other versions in the note to his e-mail correspondents (a minor issue which, Renee Loth indicated, also played a role in his punishment).
Yes, he made a mistake, but one that warranted a private trip to the woodshed with the injunction to sin no more. And an apology in his own column. At most, the Globe should have imposed a week or two suspension. It isn't just Jeff's conservative admirers who think he got a raw deal. Several Globe editors and reporters came to his defense. Howard Kurtz termed the offense "minor" and Boston Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy also took the paper to task. In short, the affair smells like a journalistic purge.
As Dan Kennedy argued to the Washington Post, "Jacoby is so far out of the mainstream (at the Globe) that it makes this easier to do."
Indeed, Loth apparently told Jeff that, if he returned, his column needed a "serious rethink." Presumably Loth doesn't believe his political opinion column should be turned into, say, a personal advice column. She also invited him to resign. Although she told Kurtz that Jeff was welcome to return, she opined: "Four months is a long enough time that he may feel he wants to find another job. That's certainly his right."
Even more blunt was Jack Thomas, the paper's leftish ombudsman. Thomas first blasted Jeff, an observant Jew, in 1997, criticizing three columns for being "homophobic." Jeff's articles were tough and polemical, but his words were no harsher than those of Thomas. Thomas' ideological agenda was also evident in his column on Jeff's suspension. Thomas railed against the "radical right."
Of course, in Boston, moderates appear conservative and conservatives are off the scale. Thomas goes on to argue that on his return, Jeff should be temporarily assigned as a reporter to meet welfare mothers, the homeless, alcoholics, gay teens and "assorted scalawags." Doing so would make him a better columnist, argued Thomas, and it might --- diverse experiences probably make anyone a better columnist. But Thomas goes on to argue that such a beat would teach Jeff "something about life."
Thomas seems to exhibit the worst liberal hubris: Any person who knows anything about life ends up a liberal. Yet meeting "assorted scalawags" -- as in fact Jeff probably has -- might teach compassion, but not liberalism. Through my church, I became involved with a family bedeviled by alcoholism, criminality, disability and irresponsibility. I ended up loving them dearly, but I also learned that welfare often exacerbated their problems.
Admittedly, I am biased: I both like and respect Jeff. He possesses in abundance perhaps the most important criteria for a columnist: independent thinking and critical reasoning. But Jeff appears to have been walking around the Globe with a target painted on his chest. One minor misstep, and he became a victim of journalistic cleansing. The Globe is under no obligation to include a conservative voice on its editorial page. But it does have an obligation to treat fairly anyone who it does include.
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