By 1994, editors at the Boston Globe were tired of hearing readers complain that the paper's editorials and op-ed columns were all saying the same thing, so they took a daring step: They hired Jeff Jacoby, a young lawyer, "to provide a conservative balance to the Globe's notoriously left-leaning stable of columnists," as the newspaper's ombudsman wrote last week.
Alas, the ombudsman, Jack Thomas, had some other things to say about Jacoby, some of them startling, most of them expressing the simmering newsroom resentments against the token outsider. He wrote that two of Jacoby's 1994 columns had been "homophobic" and one recent one on gays was so toxic that publishing it was "a high price to pay for freedom of the press."
This is the story in brief of the recent column. Last month, Harvard gays held a "National Coming Out Day." In response, a group called Harvard Law School's Society for Law, Life & Religion scheduled a "National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day." The second group's posters were torn down, and some were replaced with parody versions comparing the sponsors to anti-Semites and racists.
Jacoby wrote: "Dare to suggest that homosexuality may not be something to celebrate and you instantly are a Nazi. . . . Offer to share your teachings of Christianity or Judaism with students 'struggling with homosexuality' and you become as vile as a Ku Kluxer." Jacoby quoted one of the self-described ex-gays who spoke at the "Coming Out of Homosexuality" panel discussion, noting that the man hadn't attacked or demeaned gays. He wrote that the man "knows that many gays are content with their lives. He also knows that many are not." Jacoby said it is "poisonously intolerant" to depict someone like this as a hate peddler.
Get a grip. This was a column so awful that printing it was a high price to pay for freedom of the press? Please, Mr. Ombuds, try to get a grip. A conclusion like this about a mainstream and essentially harmless column says less about Jacoby than it does about the hothouse orthodoxy of the Globe newsroom.
Yes, Jacoby's style is blunt and polemical. In a 1994 column, he wrote that gay-pride marchers are unified by "carnal desire" and the demands of their bodies. When I pointed out to the ombudsman that this questionable paragraph was followed by further explanations of gay unity (building pressure for gay-rights laws, sharing the grief of friends lost to AIDS), the ombudsman called this a rhetorical trick: First you insult, then you take the curse off the insult with a display of sympathy. Maybe. But it makes you wonder how many writers could survive close motivational analysis of allegedly feigned sympathy in three-year-old columns. I think Jacoby was trying to say that building your whole social and psychological identity around what you do in bed is not really a good idea. This should be OK to say, even in the Globe.
In going through Jacoby's columns, I found two other harsh phrases--"their peculiar behavior" and "the swerve of their sex drive." But none have appeared since June 1994, when some gays in the newsroom complained to management about his "inflammatory, hateful words." Why go for his throat now? Jacoby told the ombudsman: "A lot of gay activists think that any point of view different from theirs is not only wrong but so illegitimate and beneath contempt that it doesn't even deserve to be considered." Yes, and maybe those different opinions are so out of step with newsroom opinion they ought to be suppressed. The banner headline on the ombudsman's article was revealing: "Should a column that targeted homosexuals have been published?" So the real issue being raised isn't accuracy or fairness. It's censorship.
As it happens, Jacoby's two copy editors at the Globe, Robert Hardman and Peter Accardi, are both gay activists and members of the informal gay caucus. Hardman is also the chairman of, and principal investor in, the gay magazine Out. Hardman told me he has a "truly friendly" relationship with Jacoby. "I am not working as a PC cop," he said. "I think Jeff absolutely belongs here at the Globe."
Still, he says that he was one of the people who urged the ombudsman to examine Jacoby's October column. He also admits that he tried to get the column killed in the first place. What remains of the Globe's honor in this case is wholly traceable to Editorial Page Editor David Greenway, who refused to suppress the column. If there were a journalism review willing to look hard at the race/gender/orientation lobbies in the newsroom (there isn't), a fascinating analysis could be done here. What do we think about an activist gay editor who tries to kill the column, fails, and ends up pushing to get an ombudsman to intervene and make the column an issue?
The ombudsman wrote the standard chilling-effect conclusion: "For now, Jacoby's columns about homosexuality will be judged case by case." Translation: Watch yourself, Jeff, and consider yourself intimidated. This just shows how much trouble these token columnists can be. Maybe the Globe should just go back to the old system of having everybody write the same thing.