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From AJR,   March 2003  issue

Howell Much is Too Much?   

The New York Times has heavily covered the refusal of the Augusta National Golf Club to admit women, playing four stories on the subject on page one. Other news organizations also have weighed in, although few have been as aggressive as the paper Howell Raines runs. Does a story affecting only an elite few deserve so much attention, or is this an equal rights struggle that belongs in the spotlight?


By Rachel Smolkin
     

From the opening salvo, Hootie vs. the Angry Women had all the makings of a juicy news story: power, money, sports and the battle of the sexes. An exclusive golf club that hosts a preeminent tournament and whose membership includes some of the nation's wealthiest corporate chieftains had refused, publicly and pugnaciously, to open its membership rolls to women.

On July 9, 2002, Augusta National Golf Club Chairman William "Hootie" Johnson issued a fierce public response to a private letter he had received in June. The letter, from Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, had urged Johnson to invite women to join the club before the next Masters Tournament.

"We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case," Johnson's statement said. "There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet. We do not intend to be further distracted by this matter."

If Johnson hoped to extinguish the issue, he failed spectacularly. His statement ignited the media's interest, and reporters pursued the Augusta National feud during the summer, throughout the fall and into the winter. By mid-February, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution each had published more than 50 news stories, columns and editorials on the debate; the Washington Post had run more than 40 and USA Today nearly 40, a Lexis-Nexis search shows.

Broadcast networks and cable outlets, especially ESPN, also have followed the dispute, airing interviews and panel discussions about Augusta National's men-only membership policy. But the story primarily has unfolded in the nation's newspapers.

Coverage has included daily developments, profiles of Burk and Johnson, and features on the battle's impact on Augusta residents. USA Today and the Journal-Constitution published Augusta National's secret membership rolls. "The names on that list tell the tale of an old boys club, emphasis on old: The average age is 72," USA Today's Michael McCarthy and Erik Brady wrote on September 27.

A front-page New York Times story on October 20 described Tiger Woods' surprise that he had become a "lightning rod" in the debate. A November 18 Times editorial suggested that Woods, "who has won the Masters three times, could simply choose to stay home in April...a tournament without Mr. Woods would send a powerful message that discrimination isn't good for the golfing business." On November 25, the Times published a front-page story about CBS, the principal broadcaster of the Masters, headlined, "CBS Staying Silent in Debate On Women Joining Augusta." The Times' four page-one stories about the contretemps also included a November 12 interview with Johnson and the August 31 news that Augusta National would forgo commercial sponsors. The paper offered front-page teases to several other articles, such as a December 3 story about Thomas H. Wyman, a former chief executive of CBS who resigned from the club to protest its refusal to admit women.

Prolific coverage of the dispute has prompted critics to declare that a story affecting only an elite few does not deserve so much attention or such prominent placement in the nation's newspapers, especially during a period of economic instability, terrorist threats and looming war against Iraq.

But supporters of Burk's cause, including some columnists and editorial writers, contend the dispute is fundamentally an equal rights struggle, another chapter in women's arduous fight for entré into the upper echelons of corporate power. Some editors argue they would commit a more serious error by neglecting the story than by covering it thoroughly.

The divergent viewpoints underscore a basic question about the media's role in social disputes: What is the media's responsibility, if any, in bringing a story involving discrimination and equal rights to the public's attention, and how much coverage is too much?

Some criticism of the Augusta National coverage emanates, unsurprisingly, from allies and agents of the club. Jim McCarthy, Augusta National's Washington-based media consultant, describes the breadth of media coverage as "astonishing," its tone "egregious and irresponsible."

"Why are these papers in such an absolute lather about this when the public doesn't care and thinks it's been overcovered, and when all the facts have been reported?" McCarthy asks. "To have an unreconstructed feminist going after a genteel golf club, that may be titillating, but it doesn't justify the obsessive nature of the attention. The story plays into the cherished conceit held in some newsrooms that they are both the arbiters and agents for social change in America."

A chorus of voices within the media also has objected to the heavy press coverage, particularly in the news and editorial pages of the New York Times. Derision of the Times' "crusade," audible in November after the Woods editorial and CBS story, exploded in early December when reporter Paul D. Colford of New York's Daily News disclosed that Times editors had killed two sports columns at odds with the paper's editorial stance. Times Managing Editor Gerald Boyd initially defended his paper for avoiding "intramural quarreling." After media critics universally assailed the decision and the Times replaced Augusta National as the focus of newspaper and television accounts, the paper reversed course and ran revised versions of the columns by Dave Anderson and Harvey Araton on December 8.

Jack Shafer, editor at large and media critic for the online magazine Slate, argued in a November 25 column that "at some point, saturation coverage of a story begins to raise more questions about the newspaper's motives than about the story being covered. The Times reached--and passed--that point this morning." On December 4, the day of the Daily News disclosure, Shafer wrote, "By almost any measure, the paper's coverage of Augusta has shifted from overdrive to overkill."

The New York Observer's Sridhar Pappu wrote in November that USA Today, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times have devoted considerable coverage to Augusta National. But "it's been The New York Times that has prodded and pulled the story, refusing to let it slip from the table of conversation."

And Newsweek's Seth Mnookin asserted in a December 9 story that "increasingly, the Times is being criticized for ginning up controversies as much as reporting them out." Mnookin quoted an unnamed Times staffer who contended the Masters coverage was so overheated that Executive Editor Howell Raines was "in danger of losing the building."

Raines, Boyd and Editorial Page Editor Gail Collins declined repeated requests for comment for this story. An e-mail from the corporate public relations office stated, "Howell sends his regrets--he and his team do not have time right now for this interview."

Times reporter Felicity Barringer quoted Raines in a December 7 account of the controversy as defending his newspaper's work. "It's an important story, and one in which we have led the way in many cases in terms of breaking news," Raines said. "That's what we do. The idea that we are raising questions that others are not bothering to ask seems to me one of the things a newspaper does."

Susan E. Tifft, coauthor of "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times," says there's no question that the Augusta National feud is a story. "All these ingredients in the mix, and my God, you've got a guy named Hootie who's head of the club and women threatening to dress up in burkas to protest their exclusion," says Tifft, a public policy professor at Duke University and former Time magazine associate editor.

But Tifft says she was surprised by the amount of coverage and its prominent placement. "Every newspaper, but especially the New York Times, has a finite amount of capital," she says. "I'm not sure I would use my capital trying to admit wealthy women, probably mostly white, to a golf club. I might save my fire for something more important. That's more the issue for me: What are they not bringing to the attention of the American people and the world that they otherwise could?"

Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports, says media attention to the Augusta National dispute has been far more extensive than is warranted. "All we're talking about here, when all is said and done, is a single woman joining a small golf club in Augusta, Georgia," says Pilson, a sports television consultant. "Here we are dealing with terrorism, the threat of nuclear proliferation, the faltering economy, the threat of losing unemployment benefits to hundreds of thousands of women, and so much attention is being paid to [admitting] a single woman to a golf club in Augusta."

Shafer particularly faults the New York Times for its front-page CBS story. "It was clear at that point that it was some kind of bizarre crusade that the New York Times was on in its news pages," he says, noting other publications could just as easily write a story every week headlined, "Howell Raines remains silent." (Raines rarely responds to requests for interviews about Times stories.) "They went into overkill when they started saying the people who weren't talking to us last week still aren't talking to us this week."

A January 10 Times obituary of Wyman mentioned in its lead that he had resigned his Augusta National membership in December, prompting Shafer to declare that the paper's "obsession and overkill" on the story even extended to its obit pages. In Shafer's view, the Los Angeles Times has been nearly as aggressive in pursuing the Augusta National story, but "it's not wrapped up in a crusade, and it's not [publishing] a trumped-up story like the New York Times ran" about CBS.

But not everyone feels the coverage has been excessive. Some media critics say the substantial, high-profile reporting in the Times and other newspapers is eminently justified.

"If the criticism of the Times is that it has focused on an issue of genuine import and has kept focusing on it, then I say, 'What's the problem?' " says Poynter Institute President James M. Naughton, a former Times reporter. "It's not at all clear to me that their focus has been in any way to the detriment of the audience. I don't see them so much taking a position on the story as continuing to focus on its various facets."

Alex S. Jones, a former Times media writer and director of Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, says the Times began covering civil rights struggles aggressively during the 1950s, continued throughout the 1960s and has vigorously pursued equal rights stories ever since. "As far as the New York Times is concerned, my guess is that this is perceived as a civil rights story or equality story, not a sports story," says Jones, who cowrote "The Trust" with Tifft, his wife. Jones says the right level of coverage is a matter of news judgment. "It's very common for a big newspaper to find a story and get all over it. Look at the Boston Globe and the Catholic Church controversy."

Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Times sports columnist, compares the Augusta National dispute to the Shoal Creek fight in 1990. At that time, the whites-only policy of the Shoal Creek Country Club in Birmingham, Alabama, provoked civil-rights protests before the Professional Golfers Association Championship there. Shoal Creek relented under pressure and recruited an honorary black member that year; Augusta National admitted its first black member soon after.

"What's aggressive?" asks Anderson, who has covered the Masters since 1970. "If you think there's a story there, you write it." Anderson describes the Augusta feud as "one of the great sports sociological stories in America. You've got a famous male bastion that is home not just of the golf club but of the Masters Tournament. On the other side, all the women's organizations, headed by Martha Burk and her group. It's the men of Augusta National versus the women of the world."

Editors at major newspapers also defend the coverage, although they disagree about the media's responsibility to take on social causes. "There are those who say we've overcovered it, and maybe we have, but the real mortal sin would be to ignore it," says Bill Dwyre, sports editor of the Los Angeles Times. "The role of a newspaper is first to report the news, and then to be an activist. To be a little bit of an advocate for the social well-being for all, that's a good thing. To take a look at situations that seem to exclude a segment of our society, whether it's gender or race or religion, sure, we should do that."

The line that guides such coverage, Dwyre says, is "fairness and balance." He acknowledges that it often "moves subjectively."

Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. calls the fight over women's admittance into a club that hosts such an important tournament an "obvious" news story. "Our coverage has been the right amount, and it's been balanced and accompanied by lively commentary by our columnists," he says.

The Post's story and commentary count, while extensive, has not equaled that of the New York Times. Nor, as of AJR's deadline, had the Post published any front-page accounts about Augusta National. It has cited the feud in a few page-one stories, including a September article about the first woman to qualify for a PGA Tour event and a December story about President Bush's treasury secretary nominee, who resigned his membership at Augusta National.

The Post's commentary has included some sympathy for Augusta's position. On October 19, Post columnist Sally Jenkins wrote, "I'm not as bothered by Augusta National's male-only policy as perhaps I should be, and what's worse, I suffer from the sneaking suspicion that there ought to be an anachronism or two left in the world, because we too often mistake equity for some lame idea of sameness."

Downie says he does not feel a special obligation to cover the story in order to right a wrong. "I never believe in that sort of thing, period. We cover news here, and we don't try to decide what the outcomes of our coverage should be," he says. "Our social responsibility is to provide our readers with all the information they need to cope with all aspects of their lives."

Hank Klibanoff, managing editor for news at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says the Augusta scuffle involves a significant local institution and major national figures. His paper's news coverage, commentary and front-page placement exceeded even that in the New York Times. As of mid-February, it had published eight page-one stories about the dispute, including one on the results of a statewide Journal-Constitution poll examining how Georgians feel about the issue. "It's just a really good story," Klibanoff says.

He believes newspapers shoulder a greater responsibility to cover stories that involve exclusion, although not every story in that category warrants substantial coverage. "Particularly for a major newspaper in the South, the issue of exclusion is a very important and sensitive matter," he says.

Klibanoff adds that his newspaper illuminated nuances in the dispute, for example in a September profile that portrayed Johnson as a leader in the struggle for racial integration in South Carolina during the 1970s and 1980s. "In some ways, he seems an unlikely person to be caught up in this firestorm," Klibanoff says. "On the other hand, he is deeply involved in this firestorm and probably as much the cause of it as anyone."

Indeed, Johnson's own actions have precipitated news coverage throughout the dispute.

Monte Lorell, managing editor for sports at USA Today, says there's no way to know how the saga would have unfolded if Johnson had responded differently. "A private club, which is allowed to have private rules of membership, inserted themselves into a very public debate," Lorell says. "The rest is history, as they say."

Undeterred by media reaction to his initial statement, Johnson issued a second one on August 30, astonishing observers by dropping commercial television sponsors for next month's Masters to insulate them from pressure from Burk's group. His pronouncement made the front pages of the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

"Hootie's the guy that created the issue," Anderson says. "He created this bonfire, the flames of the bonfire, and he keeps throwing gasoline on it every so often. He's created a situation, and unless he surrenders, there's going to be a scene outside the gates that tarnishes the whole tournament that they're trying to preserve."

Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, credited Johnson in a September column with delivering "the most spectacularly ruinous public relations performance since George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door or Richard Nixon declared 'I am not a crook.' Watching him has been a little like rubber-necking at a bad car crash: You are ashamed of looking but nevertheless transfixed by the spectacle."

Johnson's reluctance to grant interviews has not enhanced his or his club's media image. McCarthy, Augusta National's media consultant, wrote to the Washington Post in mid-December, objecting to what he called "some serious flaws and questionable journalism" in a lengthy story by Leonard Shapiro. "The total omission of any view contrary to Ms. Burk's or in support of the Club is a running problem throughout the story," McCarthy wrote.

George Solomon, the Post's assistant managing editor for sports, responded: "We feel the story was fairly reported and presented." But he also expressed frustration with the club's inaccessibility, noting that Shapiro unsuccessfully tried to contact Johnson and other members for comment.

"Augusta National needs to be more forthcoming if it wishes to get its position to the public," Solomon wrote McCarthy on December 30. "We sought that balance during the reporting of this story--and continue to do so. Augusta National's Hootie Johnson is an important figure and his views are vital to us and our readers. We are anxious to have such dialogue--either in a future story or letter from him for publication."

Johnson declined comment for this article. The club referred questions to McCarthy. The seclusion of Johnson and other Augusta National members also complicated broadcast coverage. "We are a visual medium," says ESPN Executive Editor John A. Walsh. "It's challenging for TV compared with print because print has a lot of stories that have anonymous sources, and it's pretty hard to put those on TV."

ESPN, like the Post, aroused McCarthy's ire for presenting what he felt was an unbalanced portrayal of the debate. A December 23 "Outside the Lines" roundtable segment included Burk; Anderson; former CBS executive Pilson; Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon; Laura Baugh, a tour member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association; and Ben Wright, a former CBS golf commentator fired for making derogatory remarks about women. The roundtable explored CBS' decision to broadcast the Masters, Augusta National's handling of the issue and the roles of the New York Times and Tiger Woods. "We tried to book everybody," Walsh says, adding that many invited panelists declined to appear or had scheduling difficulties. "We went to CBS and asked them for a representative. We went to Augusta and asked them to participate."

Burk, by contrast, has been accessible to local, national and international reporters. She has been interviewed on television networks, including CBS, as well as ESPN and HBO. She has responded to interview requests from the United Kingdom--where ripples from the Augusta dispute have stirred criticism of Muirfield, an all-male private club in Scotland--and from Canadian, French and Japanese TV.

"I'm willing to talk to the press, and Augusta is not," Burk says. "If the coverage is more favorable to us or at least balanced, it's no accident. When you make yourself accessible, it is more likely that your words will be printed."

In early November, Johnson agreed to meet with selected news outlets under carefully crafted conditions. The club embargoed reporters' stories to coincide with Johnson's Wall Street Journal op-ed piece on Tuesday, November 12, and requested that most of the coverage appear in a question-and-answer format.

The Los Angeles Times, one of the chosen outlets, disclosed to readers that it had consented to certain rules. "Last week, Johnson met individually with representatives of the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, Augusta Chronicle and Associated Press," golf reporter Thomas Bonk wrote. "The news organizations agreed not to release their interviews until 9 p.m. PST Monday. Johnson, who previously had refused to comment publicly, said he felt it was important to get the word out about the club's position."

But the story's path to publication was bumpy. Bonk had dogged Augusta National for weeks requesting an interview, and when the club finally offered to make Johnson available, Bonk accepted its conditions. The day before the story was to run, Sports Editor Dwyre informed other editors of the Q&A agreement during the morning news meeting. Managing Editor Dean Baquet said he was uncomfortable allowing a news source to dictate the paper's format.

"I did what anybody in my position would do: I backtracked and whined," Dwyre says. The story inched forward. Around 6 p.m., after Dwyre had spent the day pitching Bonk's piece to other Tribune Co. papers, Baquet decided he didn't want to run the story unless Johnson ceded control of the format.

At that point, Dwyre asked Bonk to talk to Johnson and phoned the Tribune papers again to explain why the L.A. Times would not run its own story. "About the time I made the last call, Tommy says, 'I talked to Hootie, and we can use any format we want.'... We cut a new deal in the 11th hour and did our story, and I crawled home on my hands and knees."

McCarthy says the club offered interviews with conditions because "we wanted the coverage to be fair, and we wanted our views to get out in an unvarnished way." He says several factors influenced the choice of media outlets, including the audiences the club hoped to reach and its relationship with the writers.

Asked about Johnson's reluctance to grant interviews more frequently and spontaneously, McCarthy responds: "What question has not been answered by the club? The club stands firmly behind their right to decide its own membership, and it's not going to give in to Ms. Burk's threats. Single-gender organizations are both a valid and a beneficial part of American life. At some point, the club has a right to say, 'We've made our position known, and that's that.' "

A scant three decades ago, some elite media clubs also insisted their membership rolls remain exclusively male. Two esteemed Washington press institutions refused to admit women until the 1970s: the Gridiron Club, known for its annual dinner in which journalists perform musical parodies for politicians, and the National Press Club, which hosts national and international newsmakers.

In 1955, after prolonged pressure by the Women's National Press Club, the National Press Club permitted women reporters in the ballroom balcony during speeches but offered neither food nor chairs. Struggling to see and hear, the women jammed against each other and bulky television equipment under hot television lights.

"No woman who was a reporter in Washington during the 1950s and 1960s could forget the balcony at the National Press Club," former New York Times reporter Nan Robertson recounted in her book "The Girls in the Balcony." "The balcony was one of the ugliest symbols of discrimination against women to be found in the world of journalism. It was a metaphor for what working women everywhere faced."

The Press Club finally allowed women members in 1971; the Gridiron Club held out until 1975. Now the media are writing about a club that shares the same views many reporters and editors espoused not so long ago.

But times have changed, and the media, led by the New York Times, have devoted considerable resources to covering a fight over women's exclusion from a private golf club that hosts a public tournament broadcast to millions of Americans.

"Media outlets make their choices," says ESPN's Walsh. "They have an available amount of space and time, and the people who run those news organizations make judgments that they think are appropriate for their news organization. Some of these decisions help define who you are. Augusta is a story of social and symbolic importance," Walsh says. "Let's cover it the most aggressive and the best way possible."