Skip to comments.Howell Raines, New York Times Turn the Masters Into a Civil-Rights Crusade (My Title)
Posted on 11/20/2002 12:02:42 PM PST by GeneD
For the past few months, while the top corners of The New York Times front page have been preoccupied with Iraqi invasion plans and Al Qaeda sleeper cells, below the papers foldand in other prominent spots insideThe Times has launched its own tactical assault against the Augusta National Golf Club, host to the Masters Tournament.
Usually forgotten for 51 weeks out of the year, the Georgia clubs refusal to admit women as members has made it a bulls-eye for equal-opportunity proponents and a symbol of the kind of mint-julep, stick-in-the mud thinking that critics say belongs in Binx Bollings South, not Andrew Youngs.
Lately, Augusta Nationalwhere Tiger Woods became the first African-American champion only seven years after the club itself admitted its first black memberhas had all sorts of bad press. USA Today, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times have all devoted considerable column inches to the matter.
But its been The New York Times that has prodded and pulled the story, refusing to let it slip from the table of conversation. From its front-page features examining Mr. Woods place in speaking out about the matter to its strongly worded editorials, the paper has made women and Augusta the biggest sports-and-society story of the year.
Whats more, the energy of The Times effort on the Masters story has illuminated certain new prioritiesand a swift aggressivenessthat have taken hold at the paper under executive editor Howell Raines, whos now in his second year.
"I think we saw very early what made it an important story," said Times sports reporter Bill Pennington, who first broke news of dissent among Augustas membership along with columnist Dave Anderson. "Through quite a few resources, weve been able to go at it. And our department, in particular, has the resources to really go at it from several angles.
"Weve advanced the story each time we touched it," Mr. Pennington said.
While the clubs ban on female members was occasionally an issue in the past, the current controversy began in earnest in July when Augusta chairman William (Hootie) Johnson responded to a June letter from Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Womens Organizations, petitioning him to admit a woman. While the club permits women to play a round of 18, it has specifically barred women from its most exclusive, 200-plus membership ranks.
Mr. Johnsona former civil-rights advocate who has helped increase the number of African-American men at the clubresponded to Dr. Burks letter with a stubborn and stinging public statement.
Claiming that Dr. Burk had threatened the club, Mr. Johnson lashed out: "We will not be bullied, threatened or intimidated. Obviously, Dr. Burk and her colleagues view themselves as agents of change, and feel any organization that has stood the test of time and has strong roots of tradition and does not fit their profile, needs to be changed. We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case."
Mr. Johnsons reaction was what triggered the flood tide, said Mr. Anderson, who has covered the Masters since 1970.
"It wasnt a story until he made it a story," Mr. Anderson said. "Until he reacted to the letter. If he had just acted calmly or called her up, it would have been different. Instead, he put out an 18-paragraph release attacking her. To me, he keeps compounding his mistakes by continually bringing it up."
Indeed, since then, Mr. Johnson has made every effort to cut Dr. Burk off at the pass. When she said that the NWOC would pressure the Masters sponsorsCoca-Cola, I.B.M. and CitigroupMr. Johnson canceled those sponsorship agreements and forfeited $5 million in fees. When Dr. Burk approached CBS, which has broadcast the tournament since 1956, and asked about its intentions, the network stood by Mr. Johnson, announcing that it would do so againwithout commercial interruption.
A spokesperson for Augusta National declined Off the Records request for comment. As for The Times, it has latched onto the issue tighter than, well, any Dan Rather euphemism involving a bulldog.
According to one Times source, in the days following Mr. Johnsons letter, writers and editors from the paper held a conference call to strategize what the coverage would be. The result has been a series of stories looking at the culture, the backroom dealing and the pressure within Augusta National.
The Times Augusta coverage symbolizes the faster, higher-octane metabolism of the outfit under Mr. Raines. Like the papers wall-to-wall coverage of the Enron meltdownwhich Mr. Raines reportedly deemed the business staffs 9/11The Times has claimed ownership of every nugget of the issue. And it has hardly been contained to the sports pages. The Times most recent take on the Augusta saga was a front-page piece on Nov. 17 by Atlanta-based national correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman, headlined "Augusta Fears That Its Golf Party May Be Spoiled."
Still, its been The Times sports staff thats picked up the lions share of the story. And in the sports department, theres agreement that Augusta is important to the papers top bosses. "Howell and [managing editor] Gerald [Boyd] are running our department right now, its pretty clear," said a Times source.
Of course, the story is a natural for The Times, the source acknowledged. "You have an old white guy at a country club who doesnt want women to come in. Every womens group in the country will eat it up, and were a liberal paper, so the feeling is: Lets jump on it."
Sportswriter Jere Longman, who co-wrote the Sunday, Oct. 20, front-page feature on Mr. Woods, said hed never spoken to Mr. Raines on this or any issue, but acknowledged that the Augusta story "has been important to Howell from the beginning.
"Its been Howells interest in it thats driven the story," Mr. Longman continued. "I think it is an important story, but where his interest comes from, Im not exactly sure. I would guess that, equating the civil-rights movement and the womens movement, he feels the same kind of urgency."
Susan E. Tifft, a professor of public policy at Duke University, as well as a former Times reporter and the co-author of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times, said the story was a natural fit for the interests of Mr. Raines and his paper.
"Its no secret that Howell grew up in the civil-rights era, and for him this story would be very compelling," Ms. Tifft said. "But its a legitimate, national story. There are lots of things about it: You have issues of equal access, you have women threatening to dress up in burqas. You have Tiger Woods. For Gods sake, you have some man named Hootie. If I was the editor of The Times, this story would make perfect sense to pursue."
But Ms. Tifft added that Times-watchers shouldnt discount the interest of the papers chairman and publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
"For many years, Arthurs been interested in issues of womens rights, and gender, and sexual orientation," Ms. Tifft said. "This fits in with that. Its no accident that Arthur chose Howell, because in terms of these issues, they see eye-to-eye."
Sources at The Times said the Augusta coverage also reflects Mr. Raines determination to see the sports section become national in its scope, and a more important cog in the broader interests of The Times. In some ways, sources said, it reflects a shift away from the section that outgoing sports editor Neil Amdur built in the 1990s under thenexecutive editor Joe Lelyveld. Then fearing the emergence of the now-extinct New York Newsdaya colorful, highly literate tabloidMr. Amdur followed Mr. Lelyvelds decree to pump up local sports coverage, like the Yankees, the Mets and the Knicks.
Under Mr. Raines, that local focus has been downplayed in favor of a new directive to boost more nationally recognizable sports storylines, like college football and Augusta. The paper designated four former beat reportersMessrs. Pennington and Longman (who previously covered the Olympics), Mike Wise (who continues to write his weekly column on the N.B.A.) and Mike Freeman (who splits time as a columnist)to enterprise-reporting roles, and has prominently run national sports stories off the front page. None of them has been more prominent than Augusta.
Mr. Amdur did not return a phone call seeking comment, and a Times spokesperson said that Mr. Raines was unavailable for comment. However, one Times source characterized the Augusta issue this way: "It definitely plays into the idea of us being a national paper. Its the thinking that Lets be out front on this. Lets take the lead on this, beforeGod forbidUSA Today does."
Mr. Anderson felt that the kind of extensive coverage being devoted to Augusta wasnt especially new for The Times. He pointed to the papers attention to Shoal Creek, the Alabama-based golf club that admitted a black member in 1990.
"Thats the type of story The Times jumps on," Mr. Anderson said.
Selana Roberts, whos written two columns on the subjectincluding a Nov. 13 installment entitled "Augustas Chairman Lives in a Time Warp," following Mr. Johnsons public redeclaration of his no-women stanceagreed.
"We feel like its an important story", Ms. Roberts said. "In cases where theres been a social issue involved, weve been pretty thorough in our coverage of those issues."
On Tuesday, Nov. 19, The Times made its biggest mark on August yet, as Tiger Woods responded to a Nov. 18 Times editorial calling on him not to play in the Masters in order to send a "powerful message to the club." "I think there should be women members," Mr. Woods said in an Associated Press report. "But its not up to me. I dont have voting rights, Im just an honorary member."
Explaining why shes chosen to devote so much attention to Augusta, Times editorial-page editor Gail Collins told Off the Record that golf as a sport "takes on a disproportionate amount of importance, because its places like Augusta where you have all these massive power people and heads of corporations. Its the quality of membership that makes it something more than a place where people go and hit balls around. Its very irritating, the anti-women thing.
Ms. Collins said the editorial page will continue to deal with Augusta for as long as the club makes news.
"This is a story thats been running for a very long time," Ms. Collins said. "It seems to have endless legs, and Hootie himself has said that the legs are going to be even longer than we expected, because they wont do anything about it. Its something that will continue to be important as long as Augusta continues to behave this way, and as long as the Masters continues to happen at Augusta.
You may reach Sridhar Pappu via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column ran on page 6 in the 11/25/2002 edition of The New York Observer.
I'm sure it will not take long, once Augusta does welcome its first female memebr, for the Times to start trashing her as a rich white ruling class Republican woman.
With Nancy P. leading the feminist charge from the senate, they won't ever have a serious thought other than to bleat, whine, and try to break down traditions, be they biblical or private enclaves. Women can play there now they just can't be members...what is wrong with that?
This is not an important story, it is a story of sick and envious minds.
We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case." Go Hootie!!!
Good post. Plus, isn't it true that women have golfed there; they are just not allowed to join the country club? Only in the New York Times' twisted worldview does the right to join a country club become a civil rights crusade!