Saturday, March 02, 2002

Let's say you're a Middle Eastern theocracy with a terrible human rights record, a long history of support for terrorism abroad, and a mounting internal dissension problem at home. The US president has just declared your state part of an "axis of evil", and is busy mopping up the remnants of the faction that used to rule a weaker neighbor of yours. You'd like to get the Americans off your back and re-establish your sphere of influence in that neighboring country, but as things stand, America doesn't seem too enthusiastic about permitting you to survive, let alone permitting you to launch a regional power-grab disguised as a "rebuilding effort". It would take a truly well-connected ally even to get a reasonable American hearing for your rather far-fetched plan in the current climate.

How about the New York Times?

This past Thursday, the Times published an op-ed column by a pro-Iranian academic and a former director-general of the Iranian foreign ministry, advocating just such a plan. Now, I have no idea how the Times selects its op-ed pieces from among the thousands of proposals that no doubt flood its mailbox. And I have no reason to believe that there was anything the slightest bit questionable about their decision-making process in this case. But the fact remains that the Times happily served as a conduit for the open promotion of the transparently self-interested schemes of a brutal dictatorship that has sworn eternal enmity to the US. (The Times' provision of Op-Ed space to Yasser Arafat can at least be chalked up to the popularity--especially among journalists--of certain wild illusions regarding Arafat's statesmanship, peaceable intentions, and lack of hostility to the US. It's hard to believe that the Gray Lady's editors suffer from any similar naivete with regard to the Iranian mullahs.)

It's a free country, of course, and the Times can publish whatever it pleases. But two recent events make the editorial contents of a prominent soapbox like the Times op-ed page more of an issue of public concern than it might have been in the past. First, as I have pointed out previously, the Enron "punditgate" flap, in which it was revealed that a number of well-known commentators had quietly been paid what looked suspiciously like a retainer by a large corporation, raises the question of whether the power that elite pundits wield (by their own admission, and obviously in Enron's estimation as well) is safe in their hands. Secondly, the campaign finance reform legislation which is making its way through congress contains provisions (thought by many to be unconstitutional) that restrict certain kinds of campaign fundraising and advertising. If these provisions pass and are upheld, then the value of "free media" channels such as New York Times op-eds increases substantially. And where there is a valuable property and a host of willing buyers, the possibility that commerce might break out cannot be dismissed.

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