Joe Conason's Journal

The New York Times picks a poison pen to write about the Democrats -- including a veiled attack on Sen. Kerry's outspoken wife. Is this the Gray Lady's idea of "fair and balanced"?

Published May 14, 2003 5:51PM (EDT)

Tierney's Teresa treatment
Perhaps hoping to overcome the paper's perennial "liberal media" problem, the New York Times is unleashing journalist John Tierney on the Democratic candidates for president. In January, Tierney revisited the Monkey Business with Gary Hart. And yesterday, as seen on the front page, he sank his teeth into a candidate's wife.

Tierney elicited nothing terribly amusing or awful in his interview with Teresa Heinz Kerry, spouse of Sen. John Kerry. (He seems to have been inspired by a profile in Elle magazine.) Still, those blast-faxing gnomes over at the Republican National Committee must have high-fived after they read the following topic sentence on Page 1 of the paper of record:

"But then, ever since Mr. Kerry was discussed as a possible presidential candidate, he has often been overshadowed by his wife's frank comments about everything from her marriages past and present, her prenuptial agreement with Mr. Kerry, her botox treatments and the Bush adviser who accused her husband of looking French."

With those freighted, exaggerated phrases -- and despite the decorous Timesian fairness and balance in the remainder of the story -- Tierney set forth a "wealthy wife overshadows senator" theme that surely pleased Karl Rove. And indeed, Rove and the GOP gnomes will be looking forward to more of the same from the Timesman, as the Democrats grind through their primaries.

Assigning Tierney to write news stories about the Democratic contenders is an interesting journalistic conceit -- kind of like asking Frank Perdue to report on vegetarians, or Bill Bennett to cover compulsive gambling. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, and Tierney certainly displayed literary talent in his Times columns. But readers ought to be informed about who he is and what baggage he brings to his new job.

Tierney is a strongly ideological advocate, adored by the libertarian right and despised by environmentalists, with whom he has long feuded over recycling and other issues. Among the genial libertarian's cute ideas is that Central Park should be privatized. (Mrs. Heinz Kerry, by the way, is a philanthropist who has spent millions promoting environmental causes -- including Tierney's toughest antagonists at the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund.)

A couple of years ago, the American Prospect published an excellent profile of Tierney, which noted his close friendship with Christopher Buckley, the celebrated humorist (and former speechwriter for Bush 41). Much as I hesitate to join the pack hunting Howell Raines this week, his choice of Tierney to write color on the Democrats displays bad judgment getting worse. For "balance," perhaps he should reassign Bob Herbert to file features on the Bush-Cheney campaign.

[12:25 p.m. PDT, May 14, 2003]

By Salon Staff

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