On Friday, April 8, two days after its editors went public with an admission of yet another journalistic dereliction – the paper acknowledged that, as a result of a secret deal with Columbia University, student reaction was deliberately excluded from a front-page “exclusive” on the release of a report dealing with allegations of bias on the part of pro-Palestinian faculty – there appeared in the Times a profile of Joseph Massad, one of the professors at the heart of the Columbia controversy. (The paper, as it happens, had seen fit to solicit and run Massad’s thoughts the week before in the very article in which his critics were ignored.)
The Massad profile appeared in the Metro section’s “Public Lives” section, which for all intents and purposes has served as an exercise in cheerleading for obscure, ignored, or over-the-hill leftist academics and activists, particularly when reporter Chris Hedges held a near-exclusive byline on its contents.
In this case, Massad was written up by Robin Finn in a fashion reminiscent of the way a problematic client is washed, blow-dried and exfoliated for public view by a dedicated and enterprising public relations imagemeister – a buff-and-shine service the Times would never in a million years accord, say, a conservative professor under fire from liberal students.
“The perfect host,” Finn sang of Massad, “perfectly attired, right down to the opalescent links binding his French cuffs. The reading material on his coffee table is decorative propaganda, apolitical: ‘The World Atlas of Wine’; a pictorial of a favored destination, Amberley Castle in Sussex, England; and a catalog in which he excitedly points out the brass chandelier … he recently purchased in Cairo.”
Indeed. Finn, becoming more besotted with every sentence, went on to describe Massad’s eyes as “telegraphing hurt and anger behind black-framed glasses” and then, mere infatuation apparently overtaken by full-blown puppy love, rhapsodized about the professor like so: “His demibeard is neatly sculptured. His Continental accent is more soothing than strident. His elaborate freestanding Egyptian water pipe is stoked with apple-flavored tobacco as a weekend indulgence, accompanied by Cognac, after dinner parties. Only legal substances are imbibed.”
(There’s something about Arab academics that sets the hearts of liberal writers aflutter. Jennifer Senior, in an article earlier this year in New York magazine, evoked the ambience of one of those cheesy, early 1960’s Photoplay-style puff pieces on a swarthy and debonaire Omar Sharif when she described Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute, as “bearded, compact, powerfully charismatic,” and informed her readers that he looked at her “with intense blue eyes.”)
The Sunday after the Times disclosed its unethical little arrangement with Columbia and Finn sent that charming Valentine to Massad, the paper’s public editor/ombudsman, Dan Okrent, weighed in with his take on the matter. Let’s put it this way: if, despite everything you know about the Times, you still were inclined to view that paper as the gold standard of honest and trustworthy journalism, you now have no reason to persist in that delusion, as per Okrent’s own words.
“I wish I could say the Columbia story was an aberration,” he wrote. “I wish as well I could prove it was not. Reporters who make secret quid pro quo agreements with sources don’t pick up the phone to tell me they’ve just concluded a deal. I’ve stumbled across several pieces in the last few months that emit a slightly fishy aroma, but it would be unfair to cite specifics when reporters deny they’ve made deals and I can’t prove otherwise.”
Okrent did share a few of what he termed “telltale signs” that readers could interpret as grounds for suspicion – nothing, really, that anyone of moderate intelligence didn’t already know – but the underlying if somewhat understated message of his article could not have been more clear: Times readers, you’re on your own. Caveat emptor. Buyer beware.