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Correction to This Article
A Nov. 7 Style article failed to provide a time element for staff reductions in the Baltimore Sun's Washington bureau. The staff, which once was as large as 15, has been reduced from 10 to seven within the past year. Also, columnist Jules Witcover's departure was mischaracterized as a layoff. His freelance contract was not renewed.

Morale, and Profits, Down At the Times

A freed Judith Miller and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., left, had reason to smile five weeks ago, or so they thought.
A freed Judith Miller and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., left, had reason to smile five weeks ago, or so they thought. (By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 7, 2005

New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. says his paper should have corrected its flawed reporting on whether Iraq had illegal weapons far sooner than it did, calling this an "institutional failure."

Judith Miller, accused by Editor Bill Keller of misleading the newspaper about her dealings with Dick Cheney's now-indicted former aide, charges Keller with distributing an "ugly, inaccurate memo" about her.

But for all the anguish among the staff, people at the Times are equally upset that the paper is cutting 45 newsroom jobs, with profits at the parent company dropping by more than half this quarter.

The journalism business is suffering from a double-barreled depression that stretches far beyond the travails of a single paper. If the industry were a person, a shrink would prescribe Prozac.

The methods and ethics of reporters, and their coziness with unnamed sources, are under attack as never before, just as mounting financial woes are prompting top news organizations to agonize over why their audience continues to shrink. Anyone who thinks these trends are unconnected hasn't spent time in a newsroom lately.

The indictment of Lewis "Scooter" Libby over his you-didn't-get-this-from-me discussions with Tim Russert, Matt Cooper and Miller has dramatized the sagging reputation of reporters. Rather than digging out vital information, they are seen as conduits for political sniping and worse. The poster children for the press right now are Miller and Robert Novak, who has refused to discuss why he helped two senior administration officials in the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

As Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times writes: "The Libby indictment shows that this administration has made monkeys of the Washington press corps by playing on its desire for access, for party chatter, for being on the inside looking out instead of the outside looking in."

The Libby case has also unfolded against the backdrop of the administration's erroneous WMD claims, which led to the biggest collective media failure in recent years. And although the New York Times didn't publish a lengthy editor's note about its inaccurate WMD stories -- a number of them by Miller -- until more than a year after the U.S. invasion, many other news organizations never got around to it.

That may be starting to change. O. Ricardo Pimentel, editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wrote last week: "Yes, regrettably on the matter of WMD, count us as among the many who were duped."

Liberal columnist Paul Krugman broadens the indictment in the New York Times: "The failures that made the long nightmare possible began much earlier, during the weeks after 9/11, when the media eagerly helped our political leaders build up a completely false picture of who they were."

Some on the left believe that if only the press had done its job -- not that it was easy to challenge murky intelligence about a dictator's arsenal -- there wouldn't have been a war. That view seems to envision an almost all-powerful press corps, given President Bush's determination to topple Saddam Hussein. But the sentiment is fueling the liberal anger at the media, even as some conservatives contend that journalists delight in trumpeting negative news from Iraq, to the point of over-dramatizing the 2,000th American death there. Talk about feeling unloved by both sides.

While this debate rages, the industry's own news has been relentlessly downbeat. The Philadelphia Inquirer just lost 15 percent of its editorial staff to buyouts and isn't guaranteeing that others can keep their beats, prompting veteran reporter Daniel Rubin to write: "We're having so many meetings, it's a wonder we can get the paper out." The Boston Globe is dismantling its national staff. Nearly 12 percent of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's editorial staff just accepted buyouts. The Baltimore Sun has closed two of its five foreign bureaus, shrunk its Washington bureau from 15 to seven and laid off columnist Jules Witcover. Knight Ridder's largest shareholder called last week for the sale of the company. Goldman Sachs says this "is shaping up as the industry's worst year" since the 2001 recession.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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