Scott McConnell writes: In the two and half years since I wrote this, there has grown a somewhat wider appreciation of the fact that Puerto Rican political culture isn't a great fit with the United States. Shortly after I was fired, a Puerto Rican Independista published a wonderful essay in the influential Foreign Affairs magazine giving the reasons why Puerto Rico should stay free of the United States. It provoked exactly the kind of dialogue I had wanted to generate around the issue in the Post's editorial pages, and several people pointed it out to me as a kind of vindication.
Shortly thereafter Congress approved unexpectedly and narrowly a Puerto Rican vote on statehood; the slim margin was seen as a defeat for the statehood proponents. Several months later, the Puerto Ricans themselves voted not to take the statehood route right now. A year later, Clinton pardoned some Puerto Ricans convicted of hatching terrorist plots against the United States, and the released men were given a heroes' welcome upon their return by most of the island's political class.
John Podhoretz succeeded me at the helm of the NY Post editorial page, telling an interviewer upon his arrival that I was a "very dangerous" sort of conservative. He was sacked two years later, after writing a column laying some of the responsibility for the Holocaust upon Joseph Kennedy (this by way of explaining the bad karma that led to the JFK Jr. plane crash.) Unlike my Puerto Rican edit, this Podhoretz column generated widespread and open hostility in the Post newsroom. Nonetheless, John was let down from his responsibilities more gently than I and still writes a column for the paper. After a painfully long interregnum, Bob McManus a veteran Postie who served ably as Eric Breindel's deputy, my deputy, and Podhoretz's deputy, was named editorial page editor. Bob has sound views on all questions—I hope I'm not endangering him by saying that—but is more circumspect than I in their expression. I wish him and Post the best.
How I Wrote About Puerto Rico and Lost My Job
But increasingly, I think the collision between me and my bosses (Post publisher Martin Singerman and editor Ken Chandler and—at a great distance—Rupert Murdoch) was due to deeper shifts within American society. If the traditional duty of the press is to inform and to provoke, the unspoken but ever more enforced imperative of multiculturalism, even for a "conservative" paper like the Post, is Do Not Give Offense. These aims clash, and as I found out, people like myself who commit an unwitting sin against "diversity" have to pay the price.
On July 14, the Post published "The Puerto Rico Question," a 1,000-word editorial criticizing the GOP majority for its lack of "hesitation and caution" before signing on to the bill introduced by Alaska Republican Don Young—a bipartisan measure setting up a series of referendums that will lead, almost certainly, to Puerto Rican statehood. While the editorial did not say explicitly say no to statehood, its skepticism was manifest: Puerto Rico is poor (half its residents receive food stamps), and American taxpayers would need to spend a great deal to raise its living standards to the level of Mississippi, the poorest mainland state. Moreover, most Puerto Ricans speak only Spanish—so its entry into the union would give a political boost to bilingualism and essentially render the United States an officially bilingual country. Finally, the editorial took note of Puerto Rico's small but deeply rooted national independence movement; the independistas had engaged in terrorism before and might grow if the island lost its autonomy through statehood.
The editorial also noted that the integration of Puerto Ricans into the American cultural mainstream hadn't particularly benefited them. Puerto Ricans who had emigrated to the U.S. mainland had developed a high rate of illegitimate births (59.4 percent), a figure roughly twice that of Puerto Ricans still living in the more socially conservative commonwealth. A reader could have concluded (though the editorial didn't say so) that the expansion of the federal welfare system to Puerto Rico could harm family stability on the island in much the same way it had wreaked havoc on some poor communities on the mainland.
There were, the editorial noted, other arguments on both sides of the question, but we were stressing the reasons to take a position of "hesitation." As editorial page editor I was steering the paper to a position not for or against statehood, but merely trying to suggest that a broader debate should take place before precipitous action.
I knew it would be a controversial piece, if for no other reason than that almost no one without blood ties to the island ever discussed the status question, and here was an Anglo newspaper wading right in with a strong argument. But I also felt that an editorial page should take controversial stands—and indeed if we put out (as my staff did) about fifteen editorials a week without saying anything bold or unexpected, we would hardly be earning our salaries.
Post editor Ken Chandler read the editorial after I put it to bed on Friday evening and excised a sentence saying that Puerto Rican statehood—because it fostered bilingualism—wouldn't strengthen national unity and might well dilute it. The next thing I heard about the matter was on Monday afternoon, when Post publisher Marty Singerman came to my office, as he regularly did; I told him I expected some fallout from the editorial, published that morning, but thus far hadn't heard a word. He then read the piece with care, told me it was very well argued, adding that his only concern was that someone might misconstrue the initial sentence: "Few mainland Americans think very much about Puerto Rico" to mean "Few Americans think very much of Puerto Rico."
Save from some supportive comments from non-Puerto Ricans, we heard very little for a day or two. One highly regarded Post columnist of moderate views called to tell me that the edit was, if anything, too even-handed; a Manhattan Institute staffer told me the editorial was an important revelation; a New York lawyer with close links to the state Democratic Party later told me that he had sent out thirty copies of the editorial to friends around the country. These were all good signs, but by comparison with the instantaneous reaction an editorial can generate, the response was subdued.
On Tuesday things heated up. A columnist for El Diário (a Spanish language New York daily) railed against the editorial, asserting that it "insulted" all Puerto Ricans residing in the United States. He rehashed some of the stats and quotes from the piece, concluding that the editorial failed to note that most Puerto Rico's social problems were the "result of the invasion of 1898." Then members of Congress Jose Serrano, Nydia Velasquez, and Luis Gutierrez faxed in letters to the editor—Serrano saying Puerto Rico was a "colony" deprived of basic civil rights, and Velasquez and Gutierrez charging that the editorial had "stereotyped" the people of Puerto Rico. Spanish-language TV sent a camera crew to interview me. We made plans for a series of op-ed pieces, from different perspectives: one from a statehood advocate, one from someone who believed in Puerto Rican independence, one from a commonwealth supporter, and began seeking leading specialists who could analyze the issue from intra-American and intra-Caribbean perspectives. What better way to fill the summer news doldrums than opening a debate on a consequential subject that no other newspaper was covering?
Carlos Romero-Barcelo, Puerto Rico's non-voting representative to the U.S. Congress and a prominent statehood supporter came in for an editorial board meeting. We had cited his book Statehood Is for the Poor in the editorial and now there was a spirited session of give and take. A white-haired graduate of Exeter and Yale, Romero-Barcelo argued that Puerto Ricans were being denied their fundamental civil rights by not being residents of a state. Though unpersuaded, most of my staff thought his argument would be effective in a political environment where an appeal to "rights" usually wins.
My first indication that something other than an intense political debate was at hand came a few days later, when Romero-Barcelo wrote a letter to me stating, "You certainly gave us a clear idea of the existing prejudice against Puerto Ricans." This statement, which was an egregious mischaracterization of what seemed to me and my staff (I had been at the Post editorial page for more than eight years, though at its helm for only six months) had been the polite and fairly typical discussion with the editorial board. Meanwhile, through another channel, Romero-Barcelo informed Marty Singerman about our alleged "prejudice" and his public relations flack wrote a similar letter, with a copy to Singerman.
But within weeks, the uproar, limited as it was to the Puerto Rican political activists in the city, seemed to have subsided. (The only comment I heard about—from a non-political Puerto Rican—was from a waitress who had seen me on Spanish TV; she told me to write more about Puerto Ricans' scandalous abuse of the welfare system.) Then came the lunch.
As publisher, Martin Singerman periodically arranged lunches with the Post editors and various black and Latino leaders, designed in part to diffuse the charge that the Post's generally conservative stands are anti-minority. These lunches are sometimes fun, often informative, but occasionally simply business. But the one on August 15 was something else altogether. Singerman apparently gave Fernando Ferrer, Bronx Borough president and a failed mayoral aspirant, a free hand to put together the guest list. Ferrer then set about organizing a lunch that was not a discussion of city affairs or of general "Hispanic" issues, but a kind of trial of the Post's Puerto Rico editorial.
Initially about a dozen people—all prominent—were scheduled to come. Upon seeing the guest list, I initially hoped for a nuanced discussion touching on whether Puerto Ricans had a distinct national consciousness. The day before the meeting, the list was revised: another half a dozen people were coming, and more were still being added! Came the appointed time, and some three dozen Puerto Ricans descended on the Post's executive offices, with their own camera crew in tow, no less.
The scene—a crowd milling about the hallways, visibly nervous secretaries, and some talk about whether we needed to call building security—was more like the prelude to a sit-in than an editorial lunch. Singerman did in fact call security, then told them they weren't needed after the camera crew withdrew voluntarily. One Post editor informed us that his wife—a prominent TV correspondent—had been told by Ferrer days earlier, "We're going to crucify the New York Post." Plainly, a searching and honest exchange of ideas was not in the cards.
In the end, about thirty Puerto Ricans squeezed into the Post's largest lunchroom with Singerman, Chandler, myself, and two other Post editors. The guests included most of city's Puerto Rican elected officials—state senators, city councilmen, state assembly members—an impressive show of strength by Ferrer, as well as several men prominent in the city university system and private foundations. All the politicians, of course, had to talk, and none could afford to be less vehement in denouncing the editorial than his predecessor. So they went around the table, lambasting the editorial as a throwback to "stereotypes" of the past, and as an incitement to racism.
When they had finished, I said, as calmly as I could, that I took full responsibility for the editorial, that its purpose was to expand the debate about Puerto Rican statehood which I felt consequential for the country as a whole, and that it was certainly not written to insult Puerto Ricans. I rejected the charge of fomenting a stereotype, which I described as a process of exaggerating a trait to give a maliciously false impression. Accurate statistics from the U.S. Census were not and could not lead to stereotyping. I said—provocatively perhaps—that perhaps some of the anger was due not so much to what was written in the editorial as in the fact that the edit broke the monopoly held by Puerto Ricans on discussion of the status of the island's future.
What I did not do—and this was probably my big mistake—was apologize for the editorial, or say that it was ill-conceived or unfortunate. When Luis Miranda, a former Giuliani commissioner, said that there were other statistics about Puerto Rico as well as the ones cited in the editorial, pointing to the island's recent economic growth, I readily concurred and said that subsequent editorial would discuss the island's economic advances.
Ferrer was annoyed by my response, asking, "Is that all?" Singerman said something more conciliatory. It was at that moment that I realized that our society had developed an expected script of white Anglo contrition and apology (President Clinton's apology for slavery was exemplary) and that I had failed to follow it.
The lunch then took a bizarre turn. One guest started discussing how I looked, thin lips, somewhat disheveled hair—but all in all not totally ugly despite those traits. Olga Mendez, a state senator and one of the few women present, said all in all I wasn't bad-looking. At this point, I began to feel more detached than either flattered or insulted, as if watching a surrealist movie with myself in the lead role. But the comments on my physiognomy seemed to ease the tension. As we broke up, Richard Fernandez (a city college president) gave me a folder of essays about Puerto Rico, commenting on several of them. Sen. Mendez sauntered over to ask me about my ethnic background. Half Irish, I told her, and she launched into a disquisition, in the faintly flirtatious way that good politicians have when talking to members of the opposite sex, on Celtic obstinacy. In short, I thought things ended on a relatively upbeat note of insults about my whiteness, and I was happy to have stood my ground.
An hour later Singerman called me to his office. I told him that while the whole thing indicated the difficulties in addressing seriously controversial issues in a multi-ethnic environment, that in my opinion it had gone okay. He replied that was, in essence, a crock and was openly rancorous for the first time in the four years I had known him. He told me that I had no right to speak for the paper on the Puerto Rican statehood issue; and that the Post was "pro-immigration." This, of course, was a non sequitur, immigration having nothing to do with the issue at hand, but he was well aware (and irritated) that I favored reduced immigration and had published several op-ed pieces and an occasional editorial reflecting my view. Chandler sat by enigmatically, saying nothing. It was not pleasant arguing with Singerman—but I felt compelled to remind him that he had not objected to the editorial when he first read it, and that these sorts of questions were the issues of our time. The days when a conservative paper could simply bash the Russians or push a standard Congressional GOP agenda about shrinking the federal government and mean anything to readers were finished. Shaken by Singerman's obvious anger, I offered to resign: he and Chandler were quiet for long moment. Then, as I was scheduled to leave the next day for two weeks vacation, Chandler suggested I just take my vacation and think things over.
Later that evening, I asked Chandler if he could get in touch with Rupert Murdoch about the issues of contention—I said I didn't want to continue if Singerman had no confidence in me, but thought Rupert might well back me up. He told me that Rupert was on a boat somewhere and not reachable, and that if asked, he would just tell Singerman and himself to work things out with me. He suggested I use the next two weeks to think about whether I could operate in a more "corporate" mode.
As it happened, the matter was decided for me, probably during my vacation. Midway through it, I came back to the paper to chair two editorial board meetings for Democratic mayoral hopefuls, and I sensed a distinct chilliness from the generally affable Chandler. When I returned after Labor Day the paper was in the midst of its Princess Di frenzy, but as soon as it subsided, I was summoned to Chandler's office and dismissed.
There are gaps in this account. I know nothing of the communications between Singerman and Ferrer and Romero-Barcelo—only that they took place. It was clear from press accounts of the event that Ferrer's office was informed quickly of my dismissal. I have no idea whether Rupert Murdoch knows that Post management dealt with the uproar caused by a controversial editorial by arranging a kind of mass meeting for the denunciation of the piece in question. To me this seems an unusual and unnecessary thing for a paper to do, particularly a conservative one. There are many who tacitly accommodate the rule followed by the liberal press and adhered to in most universities: never say or write anything that might conceivably be deemed "offensive" by any minority group, especially blacks and Latinos. But some of these same people are disturbed that this sensibility would take root in the conservative press as well.
This hypersensitivity is a response to market pressures real and imagined: while the Post has few Puerto Rican readers, it would of course like to have more, and if the price is not writing anything controversial about Puerto Rico, or getting rid of someone who has, that's not too steep to pay. But there is more to it than that—a fear, even at an institution often critical of "progressives," of not seeming progressive on diversity issues. In any case, the moral is clear. Something important is lost when serious issues cannot be discussed in the popular press, or can only be addressed equivocally, with kid gloves. Perhaps a diverse society doesn't really need an energetic or candid airing of all political questions by mass circulation newspapers. Between the narrowly targeted political journals and a mass media filled with happy talk about multiculturalism, America might muddle through alright. Still, many signs point to the troubling conclusion that greater diversity will actually mean less freedom. The generally conservative New York Post's reluctance to mix it up in a modest way on the question of Puerto Rican statehood is, I think, one of them.
June 14, 2000