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Why Wasn’t This on the NYT’s Front Page?

There’s a fascinating article by Nicholas Wade in today’s New York Times about a new understanding of human evolution — i.e., that “the split between the human and chimpanzee lineages … may have occurred millions of years later than fossil bones suggest.” Furthermore, “A new comparison of the human and chimp genomes suggests that after the two lineages separated, they may have begun interbreeding.” Wade’s article, which appears on p. A23 of the Times‘s print edition (at least the edition delivered to my home in New York) is based on a report in today’s edition of Nature, summarizing research conducted by David Reich, Nick Patterson and others at the M.I.T./Harvard collaborative known as the Broad Institute.

When I read the article, my first thought was: Wow. As in: a) Wow, that’s fascinating; and b) Wow, why wasn’t that on p. A1 instead of p. A23?

I used to work at the Times, as an editor and writer at the Sunday Magazine. When you are first hired, you get to sit in on a Page One meeting, where the paper’s various desk heads pitch their top stories to the paper’s most senior editors, who collectively decide what will make the front page of the next day’s papers. The meeting I saw was so fascinating that I said so to Joe Lelyveld, who was then the paper’s top editor. He said, “Well, you can come back if you’d like.” And I did, again and again, until it was finally made clear (however politely) that I should just go upstairs and do my job instead of hanging around the Page One meeting like a starstruck kid (which I was).

Anyway: I would have loved to have sat in on yesterday’s Page One meeting to see if a) the chimp story was pitched at all and b) why on earth it wasn’t put on A1. I’m all for putting interesting soft stuff on the front page, and standard political stuff, but this article strikes me as a must-read. I got to wondering if perhaps the Times, having been attacked so regularly on so many ideological fronts over these past few years, has gotten a bit gun-shy — not wanting to be seen as inflaming the Intelligent Design debate all over again.

If nothing else, it’s interesting to see how far the chimp news has spread in such a short time: here’s what you get if you type in “nature reich chimp” in Google News.