Ill timing of terrorist interview leaves 'Times' trying to explain

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What do you do if your ad or magazine article takes on a whole new meaning after disaster strikes?

If your commercial is running on TV, you can yank it immediately. But if your ad appears in a publication that closed before the calamity happened there's usually not much damage-control available.

The New York Times took the unusual step of trying to explain the circumstances of why some of its ads and articles were suddenly rendered out of step the Sunday after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

In a front page box, the Sept. 16 Times explained that several of its sections, including The New York Times Magazine and The Sophisticated Traveler, went to press before the hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And, the newspaper added: "The Times regrets that some references to events are outdated, and that the tone of some articles and advertising is inconsistent with the gravity of the news."

Advertisers in the Times' travel magazine naturally showed people having a great time at their resorts. One ad pictured a man in his bathrobe hitting a golf ball into the sea. "Life can be divine," the headline said. And you immediately thought of all those people caught in the explosion for whom life was definitely not divine.

But I really don't think the Times ran that front-page box because of inappropriate ads. In an example of unfortunate timing, the Times Magazine ran an interview with a terrorist from an earlier time, former Weathermen-leader turned book-writer Bill Ayers. Mr. Ayers doesn't seem to like America much more now than he did in the `60s. He said he doesn't trust our society. "You can't live in a society like this in equilibrium and not sell your soul. This society is not a just and fair and decent place."

On the other hand, Mr. Ayers is not quite ready to say that the experiences he writes about in his book, "Fugitive Days," really happened. The interviewer said Mr. Ayers was quoted as urging followers to "kill all the rich people, break up their cars and apartments, bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that's where it's at." Did you really mean for people to do that, the interviewer asked?

He dismisses his statement as a joke. "Many things were said in a kind of humor. They were excessive and extreme and a joke. They were taken literally mainly by the for-profit media to show how crazy we were."

His whole book, he said, is a "memoir, it's not a history. It's a story of one person and should be read as a story. Reading it as anything else is a distorted reading. Memoirs are not records of events; they are memories."

So here's a guy who still dislikes America as much as he ever did, but he doesn't have the courage to admit that he ever did bad things. He said what he writes about is "one version of events, not authoritative, not authorized, but one boy's story."

What a gigantic cop-out, made even more obvious by the events of Sept. 11. But just in case he didn't make himself clear, and in the aftermath of the destruction caused by the present-day terrorists, the Times in the same issue published a letter from Mr. Ayers further backpedaling from his violent past. He complains that his book "is now receiving attention in a radically changed context."

"Fugitive Days," he now says, "is a condemnation of terrorism in all its forms. We are witnessing crimes against humanity. The intent of my book was and is to understand, to tell the truth and to heal."

Of course, his letter was written to conform to the "gravity of the news," as the Times put it in its front-page box. It's funny how the events of the day can take a book from being a justification for revolution to one of truth and healing. And how the pursuit of quick profits from the capitalistic system Mr. Ayers so despises can turn from a fuzzy recollection of the nefarious activities of yesteryear to new-found horror for the events of today.

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