The June 5 resignation of New York Times executive editor Howell Raines will go down in history as a victory for the principle of majority rule. After a closed “town hall” meeting a few weeks ago where Times staffers began openly voicing complaints about Raines’s autocratic management style, Raines and his boss, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., remained in denial. Defenders maintained that Raines had performed well and that every top editor must be a bit of a dictator. That turned out to be a minority opinion. When the Internet afforded Times staffers a full public hearing, the truth was revealed. A majority of the newsroom had deemed him unsuitable for the job.
Let this be a lesson for editors everywhere: It doesn’t pay to brutalize your workforce.
Many factors played a role in Raines’s downfall, but in the end, it was not Jayson Blair, not Rick Bragg, not the late-night jokes, but the editor’s own actions that determined his fate. His top-down management style (detailed in this column first and everywhere last week) poisoned the newsroom and hampered many reporters and editors from doing their best work. All executives tend to downplay the importance of staff morale, and Sulzberger was no exception, until he met with open rebellion. In the Times‘ June 6 report on Raines’s departure, Sulzberger said that morale is “critical” and that reporters’ and editors’ ability to “perform depends on their feeling that they are being treated in a collaborative and collegial fashion.”
You can say that again. But Raines had only been gone a few days when the company line began to change. In the weekly news roundup that appeared in the Times‘ Week in Review section on June 8, an unsigned item cited the Internet’s role in bringing down Raines, but intimated darkly that the Web is an enemy of management, rather than a tool that allows whistle-blowers to expose abuse. For weeks after the Blair scandal erupted, the item noted, “internal memos and critical e-mail exchanges, placing or denying blame, popped up almost daily on professional Web sites frequented by journalists, a stunning display of the Internet’s ability to undermine a top executive’s authority.” End of item.
The Web site in question is poynter.org/medianews, a/k/a Romenesko, which is fun to read and popular in the media industry. It’s indisputable that Jim Romenesko’s coverage (which included nonstop news stories and signed e-mails from Times employees) accelerated Raines’s departure, but to suggest that the Internet was the underlying cause of his resignation seems like bad rhetoric of the blame-the-messenger type. All Romenesko did was to provide a public forum for uncensored comment. Raines undermined his own authority by alienating so many colleagues.
To further deconstruct the Times‘ item of June 8: the “top executive” who probably feels most burned these days is the publisher. It was Sulzberger who installed Raines as editor in September 2001, believing the man’s claims that he would keep the newsroom collegial and collaborative. It was Sulzberger who protected Raines as he consolidated power in the hands of a few favorites, dictated ideas to the rest, and shunned or punished his critics. And it was Sulzberger who turned a deaf ear when Times staffers, including veterans, warned him that Raines was not working out. (Arguably, the publisher’s failure to listen to reason left his underlings no choice but to go to the press.)
The message came through loud and clear when Sulzberger met with the Times‘ D.C. bureau on June 3. Staffers were unanimous in their opposition to Raines. And even though, according to one source, the publisher asked them not to leak any news of the meeting, details showed up in online press accounts over the next 24 hours. According to one theory, that was the gotcha moment when Sulzberger realized that his own authority had been undermined, and that the only way to get it back was to jettison Raines.
The Internet may have helped drive home the message that the jig was up. But while Romenesko and the media reporters and the stampede of leakers publicized the crisis in the Times newsroom, they did not create it. The underlying causes were Sulzberger’s decision to appoint Raines, and Raines’s capricious editorial decisions. Abuse of power comes as no surprise. But when it crops up at a prestigious company, in a vital industry that too often makes judgments based on self-interest, employees need tools like the Internet to restore justice.
Reverse the FCC
Just as Times publisher Sulzberger put newsroom opinion on hold, FCC chair Michael Powell has ignored U.S. citizens, refusing to hold any significant public hearings before he released last week’s decision to loosen media ownership rules. And yet the vast majority of 750,000 letters and e-mails to the FCC came from people who opposed the changes. Just as most rank-and-file editorial staffers understand that a newsroom cannot be run as a dictatorship, most average Americans understand that monopolies pose a threat to journalism’s basic goal of serving the public interest.
But since FCC power is consolidated in the hands of five commissioners, it was the reigning Republicans (and the lobbyists) who dictated the changes. And while Powell promised the new policy will increase media diversity and produce better news, many Americans, including the Democratic FCC commissioners, think this is a crock. If you oppose media consolidation, tell your representatives in Congress to reverse or amend the FCC decision. Click here, or visit this Web site, to register your vote: capwiz.com/afr/afr_alert.html.
In the June 1 New York Times Magazine, an editorial feature promoting the German car maker Audi ran directly opposite . . . a full page for Audi. Was the Times mixing business and editorial, or was someone asleep at the wheel?
The slip-up involved the What They Were Thinking page, which pairs an unusual photo with debriefings of the subjects involved. The image in question, by German photographer Burkhard Schittny, showed two women on Audi’s “nose team” smelling the interiors of a new car at company headquarters. Schittny’s photo is brilliant. But the juxtaposition of the editorial page and the ad seemed to send a subliminal message to consumers to “think Audi,” with the Audi logo appearing quietly on each page.
“Our systems failed,” explained Times Magazine editor Adam Moss. “We didn’t know what ad would be facing [the feature], and when we opened the magazine after it was printed, we were horrified.” Moss said that typically, What They Were Thinking ideas are pitched by photographers. But Schittny said that the Audi idea “came from the magazine.” Countered Moss, “That decision was made independent of any knowledge of where ads would appear.”
“Fear and Favor at ‘The New York Times’: Reviving the Good Gray Lady” by Sydney H. Schanberg