Only the News That’s Fit to Print

By: Godfrey Harris

The effort to get the article that Dan Stiles and I wrote on the “Wrong Way to Protect Elephants” (New York Times, Op-Ed, March 27, 2014) into print felt like a career in itself. It all started in mid-January when I was told by a friend at the National Association of Music Merchants convention that a historic 1862 Steinway piano with ivory keys was trapped in Japan because of Fish and Wildlife Service obduracy. It was the kind of story the Political Action Network of the International Ivory Society had been looking for. It not only provided a human dimension to the hardships of the proposed new rules to ban the trade and movement of ivory, but it dealt with an instrument that gave the rural Midwest its cultural base and clearly illustrated why ivory has a practical as well as artistic importance in history.

I called the source of the news in Oakland, took down the pertinent facts, invited Dan Stiles, one of the most knowledgeable people involved in the ivory trade, to join me, and started searching for a lead for the story. Once I could tie the fifth upright ever made by Steinway to the introduction of Taps as a Civil War bugle call, I had the connection I wanted. I asked my editor to review the finished document before he sent it off on our behalf to The New York Times. I said if the Times were to pass on the article, then he was to submit it to the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the San Francisco Chronicle in that order. The final draft went out on February 4 and 10 days later, we got a Valentine bouquet: The New York Times said that they would publish the article.

But nothing happened. Other major news events seemed to erupt and preempt the space available for the Steinway story — the severe winter weather in the East and the drought in the West, the demonstrations and Russian activity in Ukraine, the Academy Awards, the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, and on and on. All understandable, yet it still looked like the Times had spiked our piece with no intention of publishing it as a way to keep the article out of rival papers. We asked again in early March about the chances of publication; the Times guy said that week for sure. But again nothing happened. The next week I had a flash: Why not suggest to the editor linking publication to the meeting of the Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking on March 20 in Washington. We got a “good idea” back from the editor, but still more nothing. Then Tom Mossberg’s article talking about the hardships the new rules would have appeared on page A-15 of the paper and Chris Conway, a Senior Editor of the Op-Ed page, said he and his people would work on the piece for publication the week of March 24. This time all hell broke loose.

I had always heard that there was a friendly rivalry between the staff of the Op-Ed page and the editorial writers. If the Times said one thing editorially, the Op-Ed folks would look for something that challenged that point of view. Since the Times had editorially endorsed the need for the new rules in late 2013, our article claiming that the new rules might actually kill more elephants than save them seemed right for publication. But that said, the Op-Ed editors wanted to get our 780 words absolutely right. They treated it as if it were a Ph.D. thesis. Their fact checker went to work. He called the guy who owned the piano in Scotland, he checked with my source in Oakland, he talked with a prominent guitar expert in Nashville who had given me the original tip. He asked for articles that would buttress our main arguments — and we found a half-dozen or so of them for him to review.

When we thought we were done, Conway came back to me and said that while we had explained what was wrong with the regulations, we hadn’t offered any new ideas to make the situation for elephants better. He wanted more and he wanted it fast. Luckily, Dan Stiles was visiting Los Angeles from his home base in Kenya. He and I crafted a few sentences that I would then dictate over the phone to Conway. He took them down on what sounded like an old manual typewriter. He was reverting to the role of a copy desk editor in an old black-and-white movie as if he were holding the bulldog edition for the latest news from the scene of a grisly murder.

In the end, however, our final sentence came too late to make the next day’s edition. Worse, Conway now had time to go back to fussing with elements of the piece to make it even better. With another writer on staff, he decided to insert the word “African” every time the word elephant appeared in the piece. I objected. I thought it sounded redundant. I was told Dan had okayed the change. So I shut up. Then in the final final draft I was Emailed, I saw this sentence: “The keys on all these (upright) instruments were all fashioned from the ivory of African elephants.” I pounced. I called the Times, but learned that Conway was in a meeting. I left a message noting that we have no proof that the ivory that Steinway used was from Africa; a lot of Asian elephant ivory was in use in the days when the piano was built. Conway called back late in the evening of March 26: He said he had the proof; his fact checker had called Steinway and their historian had confirmed they had used African ivory on the piano stuck in Japan.

Based on our experience of getting this one article into America’s newspaper of record, I can say that the paper does indeed offer “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

About the Author: Godfrey Harris directs the Political Action Network of the International Ivory Society. The above article was published in May 7, 2014 issue of the International Ivory Society newsletter.