Times' Public Editor (or ombudsman) Arthur Brisbane weighed in on columnist Joe Nocera, who apologized in print last week for having compared Tea Party members to terrorists in a column August 2.
Just four months into his new job as a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, Joe Nocera banged out a blistering screed against Tea Party Republicans who 'have waged jihad on the American people.'
These 'terrorists' were willing to sacrifice the nation's creditworthiness to achieve deep spending cuts - a goal they believed was 'worth blowing up the country for,' he wrote in his Aug. 2 column. He concluded the piece by saying that, for now, 'the Tea Party Republicans can put aside their suicide vests. But rest assured: They'll have them on again soon enough.'
There was a backlash in "a wave of angry reader e-mails."
And then something really unusual happened: He apologized.
'I was a hypocrite, the critics said, for using such language when on other occasions I've called for a more civil politics,' he wrote in his column four days later. 'In the cool light of day, I agree with them. I apologize.'
Brisbane posed the question: Did Nocera really go too far? He found a Times opinion editor and a former L.A. Times editor-in-chief to say no.
Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, didn't think so. Neither did quite a few others with whom I spoke.
John Carroll, former editor of The Los Angeles Times, said he enjoyed the first column because 'I frankly think the Tea Party people have much to answer for in this case. I wasn't offended by the rhetoric. I rather liked the concluding line about the suicide vest.'
This part was revealing:
He decided 'you can't call for civility and then call people terrorists,' and so he drew the line there. Perhaps not surprisingly, 90 percent of the response to his apology column, he said, was: 'Why did you apologize? They are terrorists.'
Brisbane found the whole experience 'elevating' for the newspaper;
By drawing the line where he did, and by taking the extraordinary step of apologizing, Mr. Nocera made a defining decision to elevate his writing in the future. In so doing, he elevates The Times as well.
Brisbane did not mention that Nocera is far from the only Times columnist to liken Tea Party supporters or conservative congressmen to terrorists. On July 24, columnist Nicholas Kristof, speaking of the Tea Party, declared, "Well, wake up to the national security threat. Only it's not coming from abroad, but from our own domestic extremists." Kristof insisted the biggest threat to America "comes from budget machinations, and budget maniacs, at home." On July 4th, columnist David Brooks, proclaimed the Tea Party has "no sense of moral decency." On July 27, columnist Thomas Friedman referred to the group of conservatives as the "Hezbollah faction" of the GOP.
Brisbane also avoided pondering what it said about his paper that so many of its loyal readers think Tea Party members are terrorists, saying only "The appetite for red meat is strong among some Times readers."