Fear and Favor at 'The New York Times'

Reviving the Good Gray Lady

The second apology—four pages long, starting on the front page—came just a month ago, on Sunday, May 11, about the serial ethical violations, spanning many months and dozens of stories, of reporter Jayson Blair. He was a protégé of the editors who eventually had to step down last week.

Changing the newsroom culture, however, will require more than responding dramatically only when problems reach crisis proportions. It would take the creation of new systems that are permanent and visible to the reader in regular articles. The Times would have to explain to readers its processes and "secrets"—for example, the methods by which reporters gather news, step-by-step, including the missteps and the boilerplate story ingredients, such as government press releases. Readers would trust a newspaper that reveals itself, warts and all, because readers are imperfect too and will identify with the candor.

This could be accomplished in various ways. The Times leadership could start by assigning one or two of its most seasoned reporters to be the paper's ombudspersons—to field readers' questions and complaints, assess them, and write stories about what these examinations reveal.

They could also decide to set up a press beat with teeth, a team of reporters commissioned to cover the media's performance, including that of their own paper, with the same level of resources and energy that the paper devotes to covering big business or the federal government or, say, the health services community. The media are a major center of power and influence in America and the world. They deserve the same spotlight that the press puts on other establishments. How can the newspaper community justify its claimed position as the watchdog of every profession and constituency—when it doesn't act as the same kind of watchdog over itself?

The Times has always rejected these ideas. A few years ago, Bill Keller, then the managing editor and now an Op-Ed columnist (and possible candidate for executive editor), spoke for the paper when he said of the ombudsman concept: "We think it makes more sense to have problems and complaints reviewed by people with the responsibility and authority to do something about them, namely the editors of the paper, rather than by a designated kibitzer."

Beyond its aversion to self-examination, the paper's coverage of the press's performance as a profession has always been—by design—bland and mushy. The paper's leadership seems to have harbored fears that telling the public how newspeople make sausages will give ammunition to its critics and make the Times seem, well, not as august or authoritative. For myself, I reach the opposite conclusion. I can't think of any better way than incisive coverage of your own industry to raise a paper's credibility immediately.

And what of the effect on the newsroom? The Times executives may think that cover-ing the media, and especially covering their own shop, will anger reporters and damage morale. Yes, reporters will grumble about having colleagues examine complaints from the outside. I'd probably grumble, too. But with such oversight in place, is it not reasonable to believe that those staffers who had been doing lazy reporting or cutting corners or embellishing quotes would think long and hard before engaging in those habits again? How long would Jayson Blair have lasted? Certainly not four years, as he did.

And, fellow journalists, let's be honest about ourselves. Every large or medium-sized newsroom I've ever known has always contained one or more bad eggs who cheat in one manner or another in their reporting. Most of the time they were weeded out quickly through ad hoc peer pressure and the office grapevine.

But journalism has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades, and the old ways of cleansing newsrooms of bad habits may not be working. We now have the Internet and a 24-hour news cycle. The editor-gatekeepers say they're overwhelmed, there's not enough time to check stories as carefully as before. So junk gets in the paper more often now—unconfirmed reports, anonymous quotes, gossip posing as news—all shoveled in so as not to get beaten by the competition.

Also, newsrooms haven't escaped the celebrity syndrome that has spread like kudzu through our culture. Journalists now compete among themselves for national fame and notice. They serve regularly as blowhards on television talk shows. They get paid for these gigs, they have agents, people recognize them on the street; their lecture fees go up. And they keep blowing harder.

In Howell Raines's newsroom, the unchosen members of the staff, meaning the vast majority, called it the star system. A select group of favorites, they said, got the plum assignments and special treatment. Obviously, in that newsroom, the peer pressure and grapevine mechanism for weeding out the spoiled fruit was no longer working.

Raines wanted the Times to be a livelier, younger paper, not the "good gray lady" it had often been called. The publisher seemed to want that too. Raines began making changes at a speed the Times had never countenanced before. Some of the changes improved the paper—such as a much bolder use of photography and expanded coverage of popular culture. Others—like front-page features short on facts and long on facile, show-off writing—merely added flash and buzz and an edgy tone.

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