The New York Times vs. Michael Moore

Michael Moore is a genius at self-promotion, and so one has to be skeptical reading about Moore running into roadblocks while trying to speak truth to power. Before the release of "Fahrenheit 9/11," for example, Moore complained that he was never asked to appear on television. I doubt he still makes that complaint. Still, the latest such fracas, involving Moore and the New York Times, shows that sometimes his complaining is warranted. Michael Moore makes the mainstream media deeply uncomfortable, and in its defensive response, that media shows its conservative and corporate soul.

The incident occurred because Moore is putting together a book of documents, newspaper clippings and cartoons called The Official 'Fahrenheit 9/11' Reader. So the filmmaker asked the Times for permission to reprint "The Times and Iraq," the paper's critique of its reportage in the months before the start of the Iraq war. In that article, the Times admitted that its reporting was, well, not very good, particularly as it buttressed White House claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Other news organizations, such as the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, had given Moore permission to reprint items. But Times' managing editor Bill Keller turned Moore down. "Our note, 'The Times and Iraq,' was not intended to become part of a political battle," a Times spokeswoman said.

To which one can only say, heaven forbid that a newspaper's reporting should become part of a political battle.

The Times' ombudsman, Dan Okrent, got even more explicit in an interview with Editor & Publisher magazine. "The paper has the right not to be used for purposes other than what is intended, to write for their readers," Okrent said. He added that he "was insulted" that Moore didn't ask to reprint anything he'd written. "I would want to be able to say no to him," Okrent said. "I don't like to be used for people's political purposes."

Before examining that rather mean-spirited logic, it's worth admitting that news organizations can be persnickety about letting for-profit organizations reprint their articles or use their footage. Their reasons aren't so much journalistic as commercial. The Times, for example, has its own book publishing division, which probably wouldn't appreciate letting a rival include a Times article. But more than that, the Times wants to control its reputation, its status as the paper of record; letting Michael Moore reprint a Times piece, especially one that the papers' editors would just as soon forget, doesn't help the brand.

But the Times' flacks didn't say that. They argued that they didn't want to get dragged into a political fight, and that argument isn't enough to justify withholding material from a work of history. A newspaper which wouldn't hesitate to reprint news-making documents in its own for-profit pages should know better. Moreover, basing your decision on the politics of the solicitor is a slippery slope. Will the Times now start examining the politics of college professors who want to use its material? Will it tell MIT's Noam Chomsky or Princeton's Peter Singer, both foes of President Bush, that they can't include New York Times' articles in their course packets?

Probably not. The truth is, it's just Michael Moore and his particular brand of agit-prop that the Times doesn't trust. As Dan Okrent said, he'd love the chance to diss Moore. That kind of thinking isn't the mark of a great newspaper, but an elitist one.

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