01/02/2008 07:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Kristol, the NYT and Missing the Point

It's not like I'm a fan of the guy.

My personal opinion of William Kristol, the latest addition to the New York Times' op-ed roster, is along the lines of what the leftie media-watch blogosphere has been saying about his hiring.

Kristol has a lot to answer for, in his neo-con bravado and his casual calls to war -- not just in Iraq, but also Iran.

And it pains me when the Kristols and Friedmans of the world, who were so wrong on Iraq, keep drawing pay checks (big ones), while other columnists -- who got that story right and were brave enough to say so -- have been sidelined by the mainstream media.

However, attacking the NYT for putting Bill Kristol on its op-ed page, as though this appointment typifies all that is wrong with the US mainstream news media -- that's just a bit wide of the mark.

First of all, there's nothing new in the NYT having conservative voices on the editorial pages. Before David Brooks, there was William Safire.

That's what editorial pages are for; to offer competing views, so that open-minded readers can benefit from more than one side of an argument.

And it's hard to simultaneously believe in that principle and call for someone's views to be banned, regardless of how abysmal his track record is.

But here's the larger point: people who care about the New York Times and the role it continues to play in America's ideological drama should focus not on the editorial pages, but on the reporting.

Because Judith Miller was not a columnist. She played her part in helping drag the country to war by pretending to be a reporter.

Readers had reason to believe they were getting critical reporting from Miller, on Iraq intelligence and the White House. But that's not what she was offering.

Michael R. Gordon is not a columnist either. He co-wrote pieces with Judith Miller, including one on September 8th, 2002, a fictional little item on Iraq and aluminum tubes.

On May 26, 2004, when the NYT offered its readers a mea culpa for its failings on the Iraq/WMD story, the paper was not talking about its columnists. It was talking about the news side of the operation, reporters like Miller and Gordon, and stories like the one from September 8th, 2002.

Unlike Judith Miller, Michael R. Gordon is still with the Times. He reported last February on that US military briefing in Baghdad, which offered flimsy, not-for-attribution evidence on Iran and IEDs.

Having learned nothing from the Iraq debacle, Gordon bought the IED story and tied the bombings all the way to the office of Iran's Supreme Leader, all through unnamed US government and military sources. One stop shopping.

Media-watch groups quite rightly went after Gordon for that piece, forcing the Times' public editor to address the issue.

But that got a lot less attention than the Kristol hiring, even though such an article, on page one of the NYT, carries more of an impact. It was the same kind of story that was used to sell the Iraq war.

Editorials offer opinions. Most readers know that. But it's the stuff on the front pages that shapes perceptions.

So here's my advice for all you media-watchdogs: let the Times put whoever it wants on the op-ed page, as long as their positions and affiliations are made clear (unlike Mssrs. O'Hanlon and Pollack, the Brookings Brothers war hawks who turn strangely dovish when describing their resumes).

Then take all the energy you're pouring into your blogs, comments and letters to the editor on the Kristol hiring, and channel it in a slightly different direction: keeping papers like the New York Times honest in their reporting of the really big stories.

The ones that go on the front page.

Judith's gone, but with people like Michael R. Gordon around, you'll have lots of material to work with.