The Gray Lady's gospel crusade

Dr. Warren Hern had "just finished performing an abortion for the last patient of the morning" when he heard that James Kopp had been arrested in France for the 1998 murder of a Buffalo, N.Y., abortionist.

Readers of the New York Times learned this symbolic detail in an op-ed piece entitled "Free Speech that Threatens My Life" in which Hern attacked the fiercest critics of his late-term abortion practice in Boulder, Colo. His column followed an editorial restating the paper's unwavering support for abortion rights, which underscored a page-one story about the arrest.

This three-punch combination several weeks ago indicated that the Times wanted newsmakers and opinion shapers to realize that this was more than an abortion story. This was a parable about the meaning of life and truth. An earlier profile of the anti-abortion extremist in the newspaper's Sunday magazine made that absolutely clear.

"The question of Kopp's innocence or guilt is finally less absorbing than the consequences of his search for a higher good, sure and unchanging, to sustain him in a fallen world," concluded David Samuels. "It is a shared if unspoken premise of the world that most of us inhabit that absolutes do not exist and that people who claim to have found them are crazy."

So take that, Pope John Paul II. And you too, Billy Graham.

This remarkable credo was more than a statement of one journalist's convictions, said William Proctor, a Harvard Law School graduate and former legal affairs reporter for the New York Daily News. Surely, the "world that most of us inhabit" cited by Samuels is, in fact, the culture of the New York Times and the faithful who draw inspiration from its sacred pages.

"It is rare to see a journalist openly state what so many people at the Times seem to think," said Proctor, whose book "The Gospel According to the New York Times" analyzes themes in more than 6,000 articles from the past 25 years. "But it's true. They really are convinced that the millions of people out in Middle America who believe that some things are absolutely true and some things are absolutely false are crazy and probably dangerous, to boot."

Proctor, meanwhile, is absolutely convinced that this affects the newspaper's work on moral and theological issues, ranging from abortion to education, from the rights of unpopular religious minorities to efforts to redefine controversial terms such as "marriage" and "family."

But critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward "fundamentalists." Thus, when listing the "deadly sins" that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world's most influential newspaper condemns "the sin of religious certainty."

"Yet here's the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths," said Proctor. Its leaders are "absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right."

Naturally, believers in the flocks that are ignored or attacked tend to get mad and many try to ignore the Times. This is understandable, said Proctor, but precisely the opposite of what they should do. He urges the newspaper's critics to pay even closer attention to what it reports, while contrasting its coverage with a variety of other wire services and publications -- across the political and cultural spectrum.

Trying to avoid the New York Times is like fighting gravity, said Proctor. It is the high church, the magisterium, for the artists, journalists and thinkers that shape popular culture.

"If people tune all that out," he said, " how are they going to know how to defend their own beliefs? People need information and they need discernment. The first part of that statement is just as important as the second part. ... What are you going to do, try to pretend that news and information don't matter?"