Fear and Favor at 'The New York Times'

Reviving the Good Gray Lady

Mountains of newsprint, airtime, and Internet screenage have been expended on the recent embarrassments at The New York Times—the coming to light of massive fabrication and plagiarism by a young reporter, Jayson Blair, as well as professional slippages elsewhere on the prestigious paper's staff. Last week, with the newsroom in incipient revolt over the ethical lapses, the paper's two top news generals—executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd—were compelled to resign, after a regnum of only 21 months—the shortest rise and fall in the paper's century-plus history.

It's a big story for journalists—since it reflects on all of us. But the public is not so gripped by the Times' troubles, having more immediate concerns, such as the unemployment lines or the substandard education their children may be receiving. I would argue, nonetheless, that the story is indeed a major one for America—and even the world.

The New York Times is the most important and influential newspaper in America, and thus essentially sets the social and political agenda for much of the country. All the elites—political, business, academic—read the Times religiously. Though the polls tell us that average Americans get their news mostly from television, the rarely spoken fact is that the television networks—and many other major media companies—go through the Times as their first act every day in order to plan their own news reports.

In effect, the Times explains the establishment to the establishment. Were the Times to lose its balance, it could cause tremors at other core institutions. A healthy and credible and competitive press is crucial to the functioning of a democracy—and to keeping it a democracy. Whether or not it's your favorite paper, whether or not it succumbs at times to hubris and arrogance (I think it does), the Times is the flagship of that independent American press.

To better explain the Times' present predicament, I'm going to provide some examples of how the paper works and how it could work better. Calling it the standard-bearer is not to suggest it's an abode of all-knowing gods. Rather, it's a collection of fallible mortals trying to put out the best possible newspaper every day. I was there for more than 25 years—from copyboy to reporter to foreign correspondent to metropolitan editor to Op-Ed columnist. I worked for a decade afterward at New York Newsday, and now I write for The Village Voice.

Why did I leave the Times, this special paper, after a great run? Let it suffice to say that one attribute of the Times I never fully appreciated was its insular, often closed culture, where dissent from a staff member was rarely welcome, even when it was entirely in-house and private. To criticize the paper in public was simply unthinkable, a capital crime. In my Op-Ed columns, I chose occasionally to disagree—by inference, not naming the Times—with some of the paper's editorial positions and also with the newsroom's failure to cover certain stories about sacred cows and other controversial subjects. In mid 1985, after four years, the column was abruptly "discontinued." I was asked to take another writing job, a good one, but I thought it best to leave.

Though unhappy at the time, I understood the paper's position. I was, in the publisher's eyes, a child of the Times family who had broken one of the family rules. I had criticized the paper in public. I argued that self-examina-tion was healthy for the paper. I didn't prevail.

I am one of a band of numerous alumni of the Times still thriving in journalism—and owing our skills to our years there. It was my work family for 25 years, at times my only family—a place where I was taught, nurtured, promoted, given great assignments here and overseas, and finally punished for errant family conduct. Like most of the other alumni, I still think of myself as part of the Times family. Like them, I care.

In that spirit, I would strongly urge the Times to do something it has always resisted doing—demystify itself and thereby the journalism profession. To accomplish this, it would have to truly open itself to its readers, who now notice that almost all the corrections the Times runs are about small, factual mistakes, like an erroneous date or spelling or the listing of an address as Elm "Street" instead of "Lane." Only rarely does the paper run an Editors' Note, the form it uses to admit error about the substance of a story itself—and even then the explanation is usually couched in guarded language.

In fairness, it must be noted that on two occasions in recent years, the reporting failures were considered so serious that the Times took the unusual, and laudable, step of running lengthy, prominent corrective stories. The first was the case of Wen Ho Lee, a nuclear scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, who was accused, indicted, and imprisoned in 1999 on charges of passing secrets to China. The evidence was flimsy and he was released in September 2000 after 278 days in solitary confinement—with an apology from the federal judge in the case. The Times had published an extensive series of stories through 1999 and 2000 that came very close to saying Wen Ho Lee was clearly guilty.

Next Page »