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Nightmare on 43rd Street

Reviewed by Michael Getler
Sunday, November 14, 2004; Page BW03


The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media

By Seth Mnookin. Random House. 330 pp. $25.95

From left: New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd (Ap)

_____Online Extra: Chapter 1_____
This feature allows you to read the first chapter of a new book. This week's selection is "Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media" by Seth Mnookin.

If you remember Jayson Blair, that troubled, 27-year-old New York Times reporter who fabricated or plagiarized dozens of stories, you may think you know all about this well-publicized episode and don't need to read another word. That would be a mistake.

Seth Mnookin, a former media reporter for Newsweek, has done something that's hard to do: He has written a book about journalism that is hard to put down. Hard News reads like a thriller, a fast-paced novel unfolding inside a newspaper long viewed as the gold standard of American journalism. It has a whiff of what passes for tragedy these days: a great newspaper and a talented editor seemingly at the top of his game, a brash and expansive new heir to the Sulzberger family publishing dynasty, lots of big egos and personalities, all suddenly and almost unbelievably brought to heel by the actions of a bright, engaging but seriously flawed young reporter.

But this is not fiction. And it is much more than what we think we already know, thanks to other reporters at the Times who were true to their craft and dug out the facts of what happened as part of the internal investigation into Blair's misdeeds, as well as many other reporters and editors who spoke candidly and on the record to Mnookin in the scandal's aftermath.

Blair's resignation on May 1, 2003, Mnookin writes, was "a journalistic suicide bomb" detonated in the newsroom of the most important newspaper in America. Ten days later, the paper devoted four full pages to a staff-written report explaining what went wrong and correcting the errors in Blair's stories. It was, the authors of the report wrote, "a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper."

But Blair was just the detonator for a bigger explosion and a much bigger story. It began to unfold as the team of seven Times journalists, interviewing scores of their colleagues as they crashed to write their report for the Sunday paper, came to realize "the degree to which the increasingly dysfunctional culture of The New York Times had affected Blair's career." Under Executive Editor Howell Raines, Mnookin writes, "the frustration that normally simmered just below the surface seemed to explode. Desk editors weren't speaking to one another. Reporters were almost at the point of open revolt. There was such fear of Raines's temper and dismissive attitude that some editors said they kept to themselves concerns about shoddy stories or reporters." On June 4, in front of an extraordinary gathering in the Times's newsroom, Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd stepped down, after the Times's publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., had talked to them privately about doing so. Less than a year earlier, basking in the glow of the unprecedented seven Pulitzer Prizes the paper had received in his first year at the helm, Raines had told that same newsroom, "It's my place. It's my home. And these are my people." Now, Mnookin writes, Raines was grabbing his straw Panama hat "and walking out for the last time."

Reporters get the bylines. So if someone is to become famous (or infamous), it is usually the reporter, rather than an editor behind the scenes. This debacle will probably always be remembered as "the Jayson Blair scandal," just as the scandal at USA Today that unfolded soon after the Times's troubles surfaced will be remembered as the "Jack Kelley scandal." Kelley was that paper's star reporter who resigned after an internal investigation yielded "strong evidence" that he had also fabricated portions of major stories and lifted material from other people's work. Twenty-three years after the fact, an episode at The Washington Post is still remembered as the "Janet Cooke scandal," involving a reporter who invented an 8-year-old heroin addict as well as the Pulitzer-winning story surrounding him.

Yet this book is really less about Blair than Raines, and, to a lesser extent, his partnership with Sulzberger. That is where it goes most interestingly beyond what the Times itself has told us. The judgments about Raines are more or less relentlessly harsh, frequently expressed by Times reporters and editors, and by Mnookin as well. The judgments about Sulzberger are more hedged but nevertheless not exactly votes of confidence that the paper is in the same kind of steady hands as those of his father, Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger, the widely revered and trusted publisher from 1963 to 1992.

Here, for instance, are some quotes from two quintessential Timesmen. "The Times couldn't exist without the Sulzbergers," says James Goodale, a former Times executive vice president. "But at some point you have to wonder if the bloodline thins." And this from Jack Rosenthal, a former editorial page editor and now the president of the New York Times Company Foundation: "It's the question many people on the staff have been asking. Was [Raines] a bet that went wrong, or was it a reflection [of] Arthur's lack of skill in picking people or in recognizing faults in people he picked?"

Although this book strikes me as a must-read for anyone interested in this episode and what it says about the larger issues of journalism today, it has a few shortcomings. One flaw is that Raines, as well as his former deputy Boyd, chose not to talk to Mnookin. The book relies instead upon those who agreed to talk about Raines, on Ken Auletta's lengthy New Yorker profile of Raines in 2002, on a lengthy post-Blair article by Raines in the Atlantic defending his actions and views, and on a similar Raines outpouring on Charlie Rose's TV talk show. Sulzberger did agree to an interview, Mnookin reports, but only to discuss business plans and strategies. So those shortcomings are not Mnookin's fault.

Nevertheless, it seems to me, as a lifelong Times reader and watcher, that the Raines-Sulzberger relationship was worthy of a deeper look, especially the degree to which the chemistry between these two bright, expansive, authoritarian, at times abrasive and perhaps excessively self-confident men achieved almost exactly the opposite of what they started out to do.

Raines's ego and management style clearly wound up damaging him and the newspaper. Yet in that first year after he took over, beginning just a few days before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the Times had never been better. It was the paper and the staff that Raines inherited that rose to the occasion, not just the editor. Yet Raines had come into his new job arguing that the paper was becoming "duller, slower, and more uneven in quality," which also carried an implicit criticism of the staff. He discussed his concerns privately with Sulzberger during his quest for the job and publicly after he was pushed out of it. But despite the heavy critical focus on Raines in the book, not much is heard from his supporters or others able to judge the validity of his criticisms and approach.

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