The Magazine

The New York Times's Meltdown

From the May 26, 2003 issue: What explains it?

May 26, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 36 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

BLOGGER Mickey Kaus of Kausfiles.com has been the leading exponent of the theory that the Blair mess is a "fairly direct consequence of the Times's misguided race preference policy." Columnist Richard Cohen agrees, as do several Times journalists. Less politely, conservative author Ann Coulter jokes, "Raines jettisoned the Times' famous slogan, 'All the News That's Fit to Print,' preferring the slogan: 'The New York Times: Now With Even More Black People!'" In this view, you can link Blair's survival to any epiphenomenon you like--but the essential phenomenon is race.

Blair was brought into the organization through an internship program that, according to the Times, "was then being used in large part to help the paper diversify its newsroom." Editor Howell Raines, a southern liberal, specifically cited Blair before the National Association of Black Journalists in 2001 as the first fruits of a hiring campaign that "has made our staff better and, more importantly, more diverse." (No need to italicize that "more importantly.") The best evidence for the centrality of race is that Raines insists on taking credit for it: "You have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave him one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the sniper team. When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes." This is an extraordinary inversion of politically correct logic: Raines is begging for forgiveness on the grounds of membership in the oppressor class. The Times's controversial crusade to open to women the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia--which led the paper's brass to suppress two sports columns--smacks of a similar inverted southern ethnocentrism.

Even backers of affirmative action see something fishy about the way diversity has been administered at the Times. Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times, who suggests--lamely--that the Blair affair might show the need for more affirmative action in the newsroom ("It may be that the paucity of black reporters at the Times led editors there to make extraordinary . . . accommodations for a clearly troubled young reporter"), finds the discussion of race the "least credible and complete portion of the Times' account" published Sunday. Rutten admired the paper's honesty about Blair's misdeeds, but faulted it for being "less forthcoming about the close mentor-protégé relationship" between Blair and managing editor Gerald Boyd.

2.The Corporate Explanation

A misguided racial policy is, of course, to be blamed on those who make it. The standard-bearer for the thesis that the Times is suffering from rotten leadership is Andrew Sullivan, who opened his blog to a running criticism of the Times shortly after Raines took over in September 2001. Formerly a frequent contributor, Sullivan found himself frozen out of the Times. Sullivan's point has a certain logic. As one of his correspondents put it: "You cannot have 1,000 journalists in a building--people trained to sniff out problems--and MISS this problem unless there were some kind of cultural blinkering going on."

Outside the Times, the heart of the attack on Raines is that he has driven the paper hard to the left, and that he has watered down the news coverage with sub rosa editorializing and tendentious trend pieces. Inside the paper, the top gripe is that Raines runs the newsroom with an iron fist. One Times man told the New York Post, "Howell didn't listen . . . to anyone about anything." Media critic Ken Auletta spoke of a "culture of fear," and Raines himself acknowledged a "climate of fear" at the meeting. As the brave deputy metropolitan editor Joe Sexton put it at the closed meeting, "I believe that at a deep level you guys have lost the confidence of many parts of the newsroom. ...I do not feel a sense of trust and reassurance that judgments are properly made. . . . People feel less led than bullied."

If the problem were just diversity, then small adjustments of policy would remedy it. If the problem is indeed management, then only a root-and-branch reordering will suffice. One of the purposes of Wednesday's meeting was to convey that no such reordering will take place. Raines was asked point-blank if he was considering resigning. Raines said he'd leave only if Sulzberger fired him; Sulzberger then said he would refuse Raines's resignation if it were offered. Sulzberger casts the problem as a simple failure of communication. "The person who did this is Jayson Blair," Sulzberger told his own reporters in the long Sunday piece. "Let's not begin to demonize our executives." This may have been the most widely ridiculed utterance of the whole scandal. For especially in the Raines era, the New York Times's modus operandi in any corporate scandal or abuse of the public trust has been to follow a misdeed up to the very top of the corporate ladder, asking: What did he know and when did he know it?