HARD NEWS *
The Scandals at The New York Times and
Their Meaning for American Media
By Seth Mnookin. Random House. 330 pp. $25.95
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.
Another odd aspect of the Times that doesn't get examination is the tendency to appoint editorial page editors and writers as news editors. The modern-day Times leaped over that line in 1986 by appointing Max Frankel as executive editor. It happened again in 2001 with Raines, who wrote sometimes brilliant and bristling editorials from 1993 until he took the top job in the New York newsroom -- where, by the way, he had never before worked. Even the current executive editor, Bill Keller, an outstanding reporter and foreign correspondent, had briefly become an op-ed page and Sunday magazine writer before moving back into news as Raines's successor. Keller then appointed Philip Taubman, deputy editor of the editorial page, as chief of the Times's Washington news bureau. All are talented journalists. But they also have or are associated with a string of opinions in print -- something that can be used as ammunition by critics looking for bias, and also something that inherently involves a sense of advocacy. One wonders why a newspaper with perhaps the largest collection of reporting and editing talent in the country doesn't choose people to run the news operation who come from the news sections.
Mnookin's book also probes beyond Blair, especially into what appeared to be Raines's 2002 obsession with whether the Augusta National Golf Club would admit women as members -- another episode that wound up embarrassing the newspaper. On the other hand, Hard News offers relatively little coverage and introspection about other subjects of intense, controversial focus in the Times's news pages. One is the saga of Wen Ho Lee, the scientist fired from his job at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory in 1999 when he was linked to stolen American secrets that investigators believed had helped China accelerate its nuclear weapons program. All but one of the charges against Lee were eventually dropped. The Times was out in front on this coverage, but in looking back it said, in a "From the Editors" column in Sept., 2000, that "we wish we had done some things differently . . . to give Dr. Lee the full benefit of the doubt . . . and pushed harder to uncover weaknesses in the FBI case against Dr. Lee." Another is the more recent and even more controversial record of the paper concerning the existence of and search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A handful of Times stories in the Raines era played important roles in backing the case that Saddam Hussein had or was developing such weapons, and the paper acknowledged in a "From the Editors" column last May that some of this information was "questionable" and "insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged."
Both the WMD and Wen Ho Lee stories were more important and more damaging, substantively, than what Blair was involved with. His stories were phony, but they didn't really change anything.
Two things are interesting here. First, the Wen Ho Lee saga unfolded in 2000 under the previous editor, Joseph Lelyveld, a widely respected reporter and editor. Still, the episode broadens the question to whether the Times has institutional tendencies beyond Raines. Second, some of the Times's coverage of both the Wen Ho Lee and WMD stories, like that of the Augusta National stories, gave the appearance of following a perceived and accepted story line rather than being more open to other perspectives. This is a grave danger for journalism. A revealing line in the editors' column last May about a particular headline said it "gave no inkling that we were revising our earlier view." At the time, Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, asked rhetorically: "The New York Times has a view in its news stories?"
An aggressive and authoritative New York Times -- and Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and scores of other serious news-gatherers -- is crucial to an informed citizenry. Carrying out that responsibility, without getting carried away, is also crucial.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I know many of the characters in this book. Some are friends. I am quoted in it, but only in an observation made in my role as The Post's ombudsman. Ironically, I thought that if the Times had an ombudsman at the time, Jayson Blair would have been outed as a fraud by staffers who could have used, without fear, the ombudsman's channel to the top, perhaps avoiding the public explosion that so damaged the paper.
I have spent most of my professional life as a reporter and editor competing with the Times, and from 1996 to 2000, I was the editor of the International Herald Tribune, then jointly owned by the Times and The Post. Through it all -- and despite my regrets that the Times deprived readers of a unique blend of American journalism when they forced The Post out of the IHT partnership two years ago -- I have been, and remain, a strong admirer of the Times and its content. I'm optimistic about its future but worried, because it is so important, lest it falter or make itself needlessly vulnerable.
So in a personal way, I was struck by a brief segment in this book in which the Times's media reporter, Jacques Steinberg, remembers how, as a youngster in Massachusetts, his Brooklyn-born father would take his son along everyday as he drove to town to get a copy of the New York Times, "going out of his way to pick up this newspaper with this incredibly small print. I learned by example that it was very important." Growing up in New York City during World War II, we used to get the Times delivered to our fifth-grade civics class. For a penny or two, you could buy one and take it home. I can still feel the weight of that paper in my hand as I walked home, holding lots of little print that I really didn't understand, except for a vague feeling that it was important. *
Michael Getler is The Washington Post's ombudsman.