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.

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.

The staff said Raines was tyrannical, inaccessible, sometimes nasty. Well, the Times has lived through autocratic editors before—and still managed to flourish. Under Raines, however, things got so bad that a laundry list of gifted reporters and editors fled for other pastures. One of them, Kevin Sack, won a Pulitzer Prize for the Los Angeles Times this year.

Some of these mutant practices may simply have been peculiar to Raines's bruising management style, but some of them had been creeping in at the Times for years as journalism itself has mutated. The Times is far less awash in these sins than lots of other papers, but the Times is not supposed to be "other papers." It considers itself the paper of example.

The situation is hardly irreparable, but it will take heavy lifting by the publisher and his new leadership team to turn things around. Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has already swallowed hard and made one very tough decision—removing those at the top who missed or ignored the warning signs. His words and actions of late would also indicate he realizes that he too missed something, for he chose these men to lead the paper and didn't act himself—until now—on the warning signs. In his first corrective steps, he has done the right and necessary things. One such move was to bring Raines's respected predecessor, Joe Lelyveld, out of retirement to calm and run the newsroom as interim executive editor until a permanent new chief is named. The publisher's actions have been recognized and applauded by wise heads in the journalism community, which should encourage him through the rest of this stressful journey.

The press is now doing kremlinology and poking at tea leaves to unearth the inside details of how the paper came to the decision that the editors had to resign. I myself know little about these details, but I think it can be assumed that Arthur Sulzberger Jr. consulted his father, Arthur Sr. (the publisher emeritus), and others in the Sulzberger family. I make this assumption because this is a family that takes its stewardship of the Times seriously and cares about its future—and its legacy.

It is to be hoped that this augurs a push now to open up the paper and its culture, both inside by listening to the staff and their fresh ideas, and outside by connecting better with its national community of readers. This would be a good thing, not just for the Times but as an example for all news organizations who want to keep standards high—and who themselves have probably slipped from time to time and picked themselves up and even gotten better.


Research assistance: Zoë Alsop, Michael Anstendig, Naomi Lindt, and Brittany Schaeffer


Related Stories:

"The News No One Dares to Cover" by Sydney H. Schanberg

"Press Clips: Dictators Don't Belong in the Newsroom" by Cynthia Cotts

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