Appearing last night on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher," Randy Cohen -- who writes "The Ethicist" for the NYT Magzine and a weekly NYT Blog, "Moral Of The Story" -- offered a ringing endorsement of Barack Obama that carried with it an unmistakeable attack on his predecessor.
“I'm a huge Obama fan," Cohen told Maher. "I think it's such an unbelievably great thing to have a President who's competent and not insane.”
Well, we're the first to agree that it's great to have Obama in the White House, and Bush gone. But we also try to avoid using words like "insane" on national television to describe people we've never met.
And we don't even work for the NYT, where "The New York Times Company Policy on Ethics (!!!) In Journalism" (exclamation points added) makes clear that such statements aren't acceptable:
Journalists do not take part in politics. While staff members are entitled to vote and to register in party primaries, they must do nothing that might raise questions about their professional neutrality or that of our news operations. In particular, they may not campaign for, demonstrate for, or endorse candidates, ballot causes or efforts to enact legislation. They may not wear campaign buttons or themselves display any other insignia of partisan politics.
Staff members may appear from time to time on local or national radio and television programs devoted to public affairs, but they should avoid expressing views that go beyond the news and analysis that could properly appear under their regular bylines. Op-Ed columnists and editorial writers enjoy more leeway than others in speaking publicly, because their business is expressing opinions. They should nevertheless choose carefully the forums in which they appear and protect the impartiality of our journalism.
We're not trying to be sticklers here. It's possible that Cohen is not a "staff member" of the NYT. He writes a column and a blog, but for all we know he gets paid as a freelancer. Still, that is what's sometimes referred to as a distinction without a difference. When Cohen appears in public, he's there as a representative of the NYT. And when he expresses his political views so plainly, he's reinforcing the notion of the NYT as a part of the liberal media establishment that holds preconceived notions of our new president.
We like Randy Cohen's freewheeling opinions, and often agree with then. But we also wonder whether it's really such a good idea for Cohen to be implicitly diagnosing former presidents with mental conditions, especially when his day job involves representing himself as above reproach. To millions of readers, Cohen has come to represent an idealized version of themselves, an ordinary man whose daily choices guide theirs.
Does Cohen really want to risk alienating the portion of his audience that sees Bush simply as flawed or misguided, as opposed to incompetent or crazy? Or perhaps even those who actually either like Bush, or dislike Obama? Rumor has it such people actually exist.