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A Bad Morning at The New York Times

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Andrew Savulich/NY Daily News via Getty Images
Jayson Blair at a Kinko’s in Greenwich Village after being fired from The New York Times for fraudulent reporting, May 22, 2003

People unaware of the Times ‘s passion for the integrity of its news columns might find Blair’s behavior amusing, the sort of fodder that makes an entertaining movie about mischievous adolescents having a little harmless fun at the establishment’s expense. The Times was unamused. The struggle for accuracy in its news columns was a nearly sacred mission with the Times. The discovery that Blair had been getting away with fraud and foolishness for weeks, months—who could say how long?—was infuriating. The vast network of editors, assistant editors, deputy editors, assistant managing editors—the whole glorious structure for protecting the sanctity of the news columns—had suffered a prolonged breakdown.

In the long-term view, there is indeed something amusing about the uproar that ensued. It brings to mind John Kenneth Galbraith’s definition of a newspaper columnist as a person obliged to find significance three times a week in events of absolutely no consequence. The Blair story was catnip for the Times ‘s media competitors in print, cable TV, and blogs. The media reaction, and not just by the Times, was the stuff usually reserved for an event of great consequence, yet it is hard to find the slightest evidence that Blair’s plagiarism or fictions affected anyone’s life but his own and his editors’.

The Times ‘s contribution to the uproar included a lengthy story in which Sulzberger stated that the paper and its employees had sustained “a huge black eye.” There was speculation that Blair had damaged the Times ‘s credibility beyond repair for years perhaps. With such ado, it was obvious that something— something—had to be done. In short, firings were inevitable. The atmosphere demanded it.

The Times proceeded as most well-run corporations proceed at such times: with an investigation to discover what went wrong, then to discover who was to blame, and finally to rid the company of the faulty party or parties. The investigation came at a moment when office politics, always major sport at the Times, were highly volatile. Discontents, both personal and professional, were running very high against the executive editor, Howell Raines; against the “diversity” program, and by extension against Sulzberger; and, perhaps to a lesser degree, against Gerald Boyd, who was not only Raines’s chief lieutenant but also the very embodiment of the campaign for “diversity.”

As this atmosphere changed the nature of the investigation, Blair himself became an irrelevant minor character, an obscure mischief maker who, by sheer happenstance, had become a weapon with which a rebellious newsroom could overpower its top editors. Now Howell Raines emerged as the chief target for the discontented, and the Times was confronted with an uprising of reporters and editors against its top management.

The plagiarism charges against Blair first surfaced in April 2003, and were reported in several newspapers almost immediately after Boyd learned of them. The media frenzy began almost instantly, as unstoppable as a barn fire on a summer afternoon. Everything burst out of control before the management people could act. Competing papers, news magazines, television channels, bloggers, gossip mongers—every media outlet jumped merrily into the show, all telling the story from the rebellious newsroom’s viewpoint. This was inevitable since management still hadn’t decided what the story really was or how to tell it.

The newsroom version was humiliating to the paper: a looney young reporter had been filling its columns with fake news, and the editors had let him get away with it. Jon Landman, the editor on the metro desk (covering news in the New York area), was said to have warned his superiors against Blair one year earlier by sending them an e-mail. Its message quickly became famous: “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.”

Landman said he sent the message to Boyd, among others. Boyd says, “He never did.” And why, Boyd asks, did Landman not stop Jayson from writing? As metro editor, Landman had the power to do so, he says.

Other papers, always pleased to see the Times embarrassed, provided aggressive coverage of the uprising, relying heavily on Landman’s story or his e-mail about Blair to support suggestions that Raines and Boyd were soft on Blair, and were letting him get away with breaking the journalistic code. Some stories suggested that they had favored him because of the “diversity” program. Some reported that Boyd was Blair’s “mentor.” Boyd says that all such stories were malicious distortions circulated by newsroom people—never identified—to garnish their case against him. These distortions, he says, were magnified by out-of-town reporters listening to the chatter among Times staffers.

Whatever the fact, Raines and Boyd lost the battle for the press, and readers were invited to suppose that they were either hopelessly incompetent or so bonded to Blair by the “diversity” program that they could not bear to fire him. The story in this form gained traction so rapidly that Raines and Boyd were quickly consumed by it. The team of reporters who wrote the story of Blair’s deceptions insisted that neither of them see it before it was published. When Boyd went to the room where they were working in order to offer some information, they quickly “closed windows on their computer screens.”

That Times management yielded readily—if not abjectly—to its rebellious newsroom testified to the respect that working journalists had accumulated during the half-century following World War II. And also to the high-flying state of the economy in 2003 when the uprising occurred. Nowadays, with newspapers shriveling and dying, and many of their best journalists taking “buyouts” to vanish and stay forgotten, newsroom rebels might not be so cheeky, or get such agreeable results when they are. At the Times they succeeded in putting an abrupt end to the hitherto triumphant career of Howell Raines and may even have briefly endangered Arthur Sulzberger’s position as publisher. “Suddenly the publisher was everywhere,” according to Gerald Boyd. “I had never seen him so engaged, so blunt, so determined…. He acted as if his job depended on it, and perhaps it did.” Here Boyd seems to echo newsroom rumors heard during the struggle that the Times board had become impatient with Sulzberger’s handling of the uprising.

Raines’s account of the affair, written for The Atlantic Monthly a year later, says that Arthur Gelb, a retired editor and usually credible source of in-house Times gossip, told him that a group of Sulzberger family stockholders were becoming “restive.”

Whatever the fact, as Blair became a club with which the newsroom could attack Raines, so Raines became a club for attacking Sulzberger. Raines had been Sulzberger’s personal choice for the editor’s job in spite of—or perhaps because of—a reputation for being hard on those who failed to measure up to his standard of excellence. His predecessor in the job, Joseph Lelyveld, was rumored to have argued for a less flamboyant figure—the veteran foreign correspondent Bill Keller.

The job of executive editor of the Times is always the publisher’s to bestow. It is the point at which the paper’s ownership exerts its influence over the news coverage. The Times ownership has traditionally exerted that influence with a very light touch, in conformity with its founding pledge that neither “fear or favor” would affect its coverage. This is quite different from the original role of the American press, which began as a candidly political arm of this party or that; in more modern times the style has been like that of the early Hearst and Pulitzer and more recent Murdoch newspapers, in which the owner is a not-so-candid political operator but still has the last word about what is news and what isn’t.

With Sulzberger’s choice of Raines, the publisher was making a stronger statement of ownership prerogative than the newsroom was in a mood to accept. The newsroom feeling about Raines was chilly before he stepped on the scene and turned surly as he began taking charge. A dynamic executive trying to impose his will on a reluctant bureaucracy is usually in for a formidable and often losing struggle. Raines’s Washington experience watching presidents might have taught him that, but if so he did not apply the lesson to newspaper management.

Boyd depicts Raines as a man passionately dedicated to ridding the news staff of lethargic old habits that had allowed competitive papers to embarrass it on important stories like Watergate and the Iran-contra affair. In Boyd’s portrait, Raines came to the newsroom with a “bare-knuckled” management style that made him easy to dislike. Stories about Raines told by those who had worked with him often began by acknowledging his “brilliance” before expounding on his “arrogance.” Boyd, who worked with him in Washington, writes that there he set out to rid the bureau of people he considered “dead wood” and “systematically pressured” several veteran reporters to leave.

His tactics were ugly: he bounced reporters’ stories back repeatedly, needled them to produce more, and challenged their basic understanding of their areas of coverage.

Years later, I would come to understand how he saw the bureau staff as made up of an A team and a B team. The former received his encouragement and attention; the latter, he ignored or tried to force off the paper.

Jill Abramson, who ran the Washington bureau, was one of his particular dislikes. Boyd, who thought she was fine in the job, argued for keeping her, and Raines, though wanting her out, “was unwilling to pull the trigger,” Boyd says. “Instead, he kept her in place and made her life miserable.”

Raines’s approach to the editorship reminded Boyd of “the uncompromising General George Patton” fighting World War II “aggressively and ardently.” For a model, Raines himself seemed to prefer Attila the Hun.

I want to hunt big game, not rabbits,” was his way of describing the kind of stories he wanted the Times to pursue. Boyd recalls a meeting with Sulzberger and a few other executives in which “an animated Raines described not only how he wanted to lead the competition but to descend from the mountains like Attila the Hun and pillage the rival papers, raping their women and daughters.” This was an example of “the verve that helped Raines beat out Keller” for the top job, Boyd writes, though “Sulzberger admonished him to use less offensive imagery.”

Boyd made Raines’s A team in Washington, and it was Raines who secured him the job as managing editor in New York. Boyd liked and admired him until their losing fight for survival soured the relationship. Boyd’s portrait of Raines in the final phase of the newsroom uprising is singularly unkind. To some extent this may reflect Boyd’s suspicion that Raines had never seen him simply as a man, but always as a black man.

In a confrontation with the newsroom staff, staged in a Broadway movie theater, Raines, who came from Alabama, was accused of ignoring warnings that Jayson Blair was committing intolerable offenses against the paper. Raines’s response included a suggestion that he might have treated Blair gently because, “as a Southerner, he believed that African Americans deserved opportunities.”

This expressed a patronizing idea that Boyd had always detested: that guilt for a racist history obliged white people to do special kindnesses for the undeserving black. “As I watched the faces of my colleagues,” Boyd writes, “I realized that if he had that view of Blair, he probably felt the same way about me. Could his decision to name me managing editor be rooted in nothing more than white guilt over four centuries of oppression?”

One is tempted to think of Boyd in this affair as the innocent bystander run down at an intersection in a smashup between two powerful egos—the ambitious Raines and the insolent newsroom of The New York Times. Yet the impulse is misleading about Boyd. He is not an innocent and his fall was not accidental. He is close to the classically tragic figure—in the Blair matter, at least, the one person who seems to have a touch of nobility. The self-made man may sometimes flirt with nobility if only because he usually begins with a faith in the urgency of leading a principled life. Tragedy lies in nobility’s fall, brought about by a fatal character flaw, and Boyd had the fatal flaw—his ambition to become a great prince of journalism.

Howell Raines offered the opportunity to fulfill his ambition (“I was on track for the top job of executive editor—if I played my cards right”). And it was his association with Raines that ended his career, for when Sulzberger was forced to fire Raines, it was certain that Boyd must also go. The newsroom was now dictating how the cards would be played, and to the newsroom Boyd and Raines were a team. Boyd, moreover, was the physical symbol of the “diversity” program so unpopular to the newsroom. A fired black representative of “diversity” might mollify the newsroom with assurances that would have been awkward to define explicitly.

Saddest of all from Boyd’s viewpoint as he went to the chopping block, there seemed to be nobody left who did not approve of his departure. In the final days, he writes:

I was trying to cope with the reality of watching colleagues I worked with for years, whom I had recruited and helped hire and worked to promote, turn against me. I had been there for them, and now they were my fiercest critics. Their e-mails, sent to Sulzberger and forwarded to me, were devastating. A particularly absurd one suggested that I supported Blair because he reminded me of myself. Hearing me deny the obvious, the critic wrote, was “distasteful.”

Throughout Boyd’s version of events, one cannot help wondering whether the Blair story would have amounted to more than a light entertainment if Jayson Blair had been white. In that case might his journalistic derelictions and drug-and-whiskey-inspired antics have passed through the media as a circus sideshow, amusing because he got away with it at such a notorious institution, a delicious little New York tale of no consequence whatever, in a class with the French tightrope walker dancing between the twin towers of the World Trade Center?

Blair’s being black made such a happy outcome impossible. The “diversity” issue was always the ugly subtext to the dull narrative about a management failure at the Times. “Diversity” is not a subject for light amusement in America. It is a subject that Americans take to the Supreme Court.

After he and Raines were both gone, Raines wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly in which appeared, among other material offensive to Boyd, “inaccurate descriptions of me as Jayson Blair’s mentor.” The article “blasted my former colleagues, Sulzberger, and me,” and “portrayed the staff as largely mediocre, the publisher as lacking backbone.”

As for Boyd, Raines wrote that he “wanted to see, as Arthur himself needed to, what Gerald Boyd could do in a high-demand situation,” thus reducing him, as Boyd puts it, to “a managing editor trainee.”

Boyd’s book identifies only one newsroom enemy by name. He is Jon Landman, author of the damaging “stop Jayson from writing’” e-mail. The two, from Boyd’s account, appear to have disliked each other from first meeting, and dislike obviously deepened with the passage of time. Its origin is not clear from reading Boyd. He leaves the impression that Landman might have been angry about Boyd’s getting the managing editor job and suggests that Landman had expected to get the job himself if Keller had become executive editor.

At one point during the final crisis, Boyd writes that Raines attributed his problem “to a group of newsroom malcontents led by Landman” who were working, he said, to undermine him. “Landman had a single concern, Raines said: opposition to my appointment as managing editor.” Regrettably, Boyd was not writing a balanced news report, so we do not know Landman’s side of the story.

Raines and Boyd were fired on June 4, 2003, or, as Arthur Sulzberger phrased it to Boyd, “Tomorrow morning, at ten-thirty, we will announce that you and Howell are resigning.” The Times knew how to do things right. Years before, Boyd had attended a seminar for company executives on how to fire people, and the publisher seemed to be doing it correctly. No mention of “firing.” Raines would leave the building next morning immediately after the announcement and did not plan to talk to the media. Sulzberger suggested that Boyd do the same. Only five weeks had passed since Boyd first learned of Blair’s transgressions.

It must have been a bad morning for Sulzberger, too. Raines had been his personal choice for the job, and a daring choice as well, a choice expressing his own readiness to use power. Now he was forced to yield to a newsroom rebellion and to fire the most important appointment he had yet made—and because of a frenzy of malcontents, as Raines had called them. A bad morning indeed.

The next executive editor he appointed, after a suitable lapse of time, was Bill Keller, who now has two managing editors: John M. Geddes and Jill Abramson.

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