The New Public Editor's Bizarre Priorities

New Times public editor Clark Hoyt is working harder than his predecessor Barney Calame, who took every other week off - but that's about the only positive thing that can be said about his performance so far.


In his latest Sunday Week in Review column, "The Danger of the One-Sided Debate," Hoyt weighed two op-eds that appeared in the Times recently, one from a leader of the anti-Israeli terrorist group Hamas, the other a piece critical of...vegans - a radical form of vegetarianism that prohibits use or consumption of animal products of any kind, including milk and eggs. While Hoyt had no problem with the Times running a piece from Hamas, he strongly disapproved of the Times' anti-vegan piece, which "hit much closer to home" (among liberal Times' readers, anyway).


"Two very different columns by guest contributors, one last week and one last month, caused enormous reader outcries and raised important questions. Are there groups or causes so odious they should be ruled off the page? If The Times publishes a controversial opinion, does it owe readers another point of view immediately? And what is the obligation of editors to make sure that op-ed writers are not playing fast and loose with the facts?


"The most recent column was by Ahmed Yousef, a spokesman for Hamas, the party elected to lead the Palestinian government and a group dedicated to the destruction of Israel. He wrote Wednesday about 'What Hamas Wants.'


"Many readers were outraged, complaining that The Times had provided a platform for a terrorist. One, Jon Pensak of Sherborn, Mass., said that allowing Yousef space in The Times 'isn't balanced journalism, it is more the dissemination of propaganda in the spirit of advocacy journalism.'


"Well, yes. The point of the op-ed page is advocacy. And, Rosenthal said, 'we do not feel the obligation to provide the kind of balance you find in news coverage, because it is opinion.'


"David Shipley, one of Rosenthal's deputies and the man in charge of the op-ed page, said: 'The news of the Hamas takeover of Gaza was one of the most important stories of the week....This was our opportunity to hear what Hamas had to say.'....Op-ed pages should be open especially to controversial ideas, because that's the way a free society decides what's right and what's wrong for itself. Good ideas prosper in the sunshine of healthy debate, and the bad ones wither. Left hidden out of sight and unchallenged, the bad ones can grow like poisonous mushrooms."


So hearing from the terrorists of Hamas was hunky-dory for Hoyt, but there are some opinions that demand rebuttal - like those who dare to cross vegans.


"This wasn't the case, however, with a May 21 op-ed by Nina Planck, an author who writes about food and nutrition. Sensationally headlined 'Death by Veganism,' Planck's piece hit much closer to home than Yousef's. It said in no uncertain terms that vegans - vegetarians who shun even eggs and dairy products - were endangering the health and even the lives of their children....Her Exhibit A was a trial in Atlanta in which a vegan couple were convicted of murder, involuntary manslaughter and cruelty in the death of their 6-week-old son, who was fed mainly soy milk and apple juice and weighed only 3.5 pounds. The column set off a torrent of reader e-mail that is still coming in - much of it from vegans who send photos of their healthy children or complain bitterly of being harassed by friends and relatives using Planck's column as proof that their diet is dangerous.


"If there was another side, a legitimate argument that veganism isn't harmful, Planck didn't tell you - not her obligation, Rosenthal and Shipley say. But unlike the Middle East, The Times has not presented another view, or anything, on veganism on its op-ed pages for 16 years. There has been scant news coverage in the past five years.


Hoyt concluded: "Op-ed pages are for debate, but if you get only one side, that's not debate. And that's not healthy."


TigerHawk writes that judging by this latest column, Hoyt "will carefully defend the Times from the grave risk that it tilts too far to the right."