PHILADELPHIA -- There's nothing intrinsically surprising about a veteran war correspondent, in mid-fulmination about Iraq, to say that the United States is deservedly hated by the rest of the world.
It's what one would expect from Robert Fisk or dozens of other European journalists. Or, for that matter, from writers for liberal U.S. magazines such as the Nation or Harper's, which have long seen our claims to have a noble, moral foreign policy as a ruse to cover up brutal Realpolitik.
But it's not the sort of public declaration one would expect from a high-profile reporter for the most powerful American newspaper -- especially at a time when that paper, which insists it's a champion of thoughtful, nonpartisan journalism, faces more criticism than ever that it's often an echo chamber for strident liberalism.
That's why even now -- after Howell Raines, after years of bile from Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd, even after the attempt to turn an old missing-explosives story into an election-eve bombshell -- it was astounding to hear Chris Hedges of the New York Times go off Saturday morning at a forum held here as part of the annual conference of the Association of Opinion Page Editors.
Hedges was invited to talk about his book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Many editors on hand were probably aware of Hedges' notoriety for a commencement address he gave in May 2003 at a small Illinois college in which he was booed off the stage for criticizing the war on Iraq. But no one expected Hedges to offer up an indictment of American foreign policy as sweeping and angry as our strongest Arab critics or nastiest MIT linguistics professor.
"We're absolutely reviled around the world, as we should be," Hedges said. "Our only friends are war criminals" -- a reference, he explained, to Ariel Sharon and Vladimir Putin.
America's amoral, bloodthirsty ways and the hate they generate would be much plainer to the American people, Hedges said, if only so many journalists weren't "trapped" by the government's war clichés and oriented to a Washington-centric view of the world. This group, he said, included his bosses at the Times.
"There was absolutely no interest in my newspaper in presenting the views of the French" as the U.S. moved toward war in Iraq, Hedges said. Instead, there was lots of guffawing over anti-French jokes, which he termed "racist."
Who knew? The New York Times' newsroom is a place where mockery of France is so severe that a heroic, hardy, death-defying war correspondent would consider it tantamount to workplace harassment.
To be fair to Hedges, his critique of U.S. foreign policy under Bill Clinton was quite sharp as well. Also, some of his arguments about the overreach and hypocrisy of our foreign policy were basically more heated versions of criticisms put forward by Cato Institute scholars, Pat Buchanan, and other administration skeptics without a partisan ax to grind. And to Hedges' credit, he cited specific examples and first-person reporting in making his case against Bush and the Pentagon, unlike the glib barbs favored by Krugman and Dowd.
Still, what's most relevant here isn't so much Hedges' views but that the New York Times is so accommodating to a reporter who encourages the Bush-is-our-Hitler school of thought. Yes, Hedges acknowledged that his strongly held views made him "a giant headache for my editors." But while he's no longer based in the Middle East, he continues to write regularly about national politics and war-related topics -- and not for the op-ed page. Whatever one's views, it seems reasonable for the Bush administration to assume that Hedges' reporting hasn't been and won't ever be fair -- convinced as he is that America is run by a messianic idiot.
But then it seems reasonable for abortion opponents or gun owners to assume that newsrooms full of pro-choice Second Amendment-haters haven't been and won't ever be fair. Yet newsrooms, from the New York Times down, reject that argument, too.
At least one speaker at the editors' conference thought this argument was reasonable.
The Times' ombudsman.
At a Friday panel discussion, I asked Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent whether he thought it was a problem that polls showed reporters and editors are overwhelmingly Democrats and liberals. Sure, he said -- "We have to have intellectual diversity."
Unfortunately, Okrent wasn't around when Hedges vented. But Okrent may have had Hedges (and Hedges' bosses) in mind at another point in his remarks.
"Arrogance has gone off the charts at the Times more than any other place," he said.