Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media
Seth Mnookin
Random House. 352 Pages. $25.95.
In reconstructing a train wreck, it helps mightily to interview the fellow at the throttle of the locomotive as well as the guy who owns the railroad. Seth Mnookin got nothing but some gingerly generalizations about business strategy from The New York Times’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and a flat-out cold shoulder from Howell Raines, for 21 furious months the most influential newspaper editor in America.

The chief custodians of our “All the News That’s fit to Print” newspaper, Raines and the three editors who preceded him in that exalted throne all chose not to talk to the former Newsweek media writer, Seth Mnookin, though many Times people did. Mnookin logs 100-plus interviews and salts his book with sufficient quotes and notes to make life easier for all the journalism school students who’ll be assigned his text by finger-wagging professors.

Lesson One: Brown-nosing the boss is the second-best way to get promoted in American newspapering, if you can’t marry into the ownership. And the personal relationships, rivalries, romances and revenge-seeking laid out here suggest the Times is just like a lot of other newspapers, only more so. No bulletin in that department; picking people is still the diciest part of the game.

Lacking direct access to the leading actors in this saga, Mnookin backtracked along the career paths of the Times’s brash and inexperienced publisher and the older, savvier, cooler, journalistic gunslinger he picked to revitalize his tradition-encrusted newspaper enterprise. It all came undone for Raines and nearly for the chastened Sulzberger, as well, when a 27-year-old rookie reporter, Jayson Blair, promoted beyond his competence and protected by managers fearful of upbraiding a black up-and-comer, was caught hyping stories, fabricating, plagiarizing and lying about his whereabouts and expense accounts.

Blair was “a journalistic suicide bomb … [whose] story became an indictment of Howell Raines’s leadership, and Raines’s leadership became emblematic of every poor decision Arthur Sulzberger had ever made.” That’s Mnookin’s nut graf. Doubts about Blair’s reporting on the serial sniper shootings and more high-profile assignments from without and within the top-heavy Times bureaucracy led to an orgiastic exposé (four pages, one-sixth the length of Mnookin’s deconstruction) of the paper’s Byzantine innards in the Sunday, May 11, 2003 Times, prepared by a rump internal affairs squad of seven men.

Raines, initially defended and retained by Sulzberger, had to be tossed over the side, presumably with a substantial financial settlement, and Gerald Boyd, his number two, was turfed out as well. Raines resurfaced with a blast against his old boss and some colleagues in a May 2004 Atlantic Monthly piece, which seems to have only accelerated his penthouse-to-outhouse trajectory.

How Blair, one of the lowliest, least-experienced, and lowest paid of the Times’s 375 reporters and 1,200- odd news employees could rattle the temple’s pillars is really a case study in management gone soft. A fifth-generation Times heir is given the keys to the kingdom, falls for the whispered confidences of a southern swaggerer who’d parlayed his political smarts into a meteoric rise without ever having worked in the Times’s newsroom over 20 years employment, and he in turn picks as his chief enforcer a chap with blind spots quite similar to his. As the ship veered onto the rocks, those who voiced warnings were ignored, while the bosses told each other how smart they were.

For a while, it worked brilliantly. Raines took over from Joe Lelyveld the week before September 11, 2001. Having secretly bad-mouthed the paper’s staff to his publisher as lazy, dull, unimaginative and badly in need of the ass-kicking only he could deliver, Raines oversaw a remarkable post-9/11 run. When Pulitzer time rolled around, the crew Raines inherited from Lelyveld copped six 9/11 Pulitzers, a lopsided showing that should have embarrassed even the Pulitzer hander-outers. But no question, Raines was a big-story guy. And Sulzberger drank in the accolades, his choice of editors seemingly ratified by the tinkling of seven Pulitzers in Raines’s first four months. Naysayers seethed and bided their time. The big boss didn’t want to hear about any bitching and carping from below decks.

One button that was very easy to push with Sulzberger, Jr. was that minorities were not moving up fast enough at the paper. And Raines, a transplanted Alabaman whose own Pulitzer came for a magazine profile of his family’s black domestic servant, was always first to the barricades denouncing racism wherever his hyperactive southern sniffer detected it.

When I ran into Mnookin at the outset of his book research, I told him he couldn’t comprehensively do the Times’s saga without recapitulating The Boston Globe’s previous turmoil. Briefly, the Globe, owned by the Times, was embarrassed when a black columnist was found out to be hyping her stuff and making things up, just when the paper was pushing her for an American Society of Newspaper Editor’s prize and a Pulitzer. In the ensuing dustup Raines, as editorial chief, wrote a signed Times editorial column blasting the Globe hierarchy for picking on the black lady.

Raines got key details of the story wrong. But the Globe management, panicking, tossed white male columnist Mike Barnicle into the fire, resurrecting old allegations of shoddy reporting and incomplete attribution. This deflected media attention to the controversial white guy and off the black lady. The upshot was that Barnicle resigned under conditions his supporters (including me) regarded as patently unfair, the Globe management weaseled out of the situation, Sulzberger sacked the Globe publisher, and the Globe’s top editor resigned.

Mnookin doesn’t go into the Boston debacle, a pity, because it eerily presaged some of the Times’s troubles. Blair had been an intern reporter at the Globe, where minority-hiring edicts were stoutly enforced.

With his editorial column, Raines had, in effect, rolled a grenade under the tent of a Times’s duchy, at a time he was auditioning for the top editing job in New York. He made his bones in the Boston dust-up, proving to Young Arthur [Sulzberger] that he was willing to knock heads with gusto. And Sulzberger thought he had found himself a gutsy white knight out of Alabama who had credentials as a defender of young black journalists. Race was and is a tender topic at the paper; like National Football League ranks of head coaches, the Times had few black editors. Raines’s choice of Gerald Boyd, a black with a similar hard-edged management style, as his chief enforcer caused even more friction within the empire.

It’s clear that all three—Sulzberger, Raines and Boyd—as well as their retainers and footmen, badly misunderstood their own journalists and system. Mnookin’s account does not reinforce the claims by Times-baiters that Blair, hired under an affirmative action edict from on high, was a classic example of race compensation gone amok: “… the vagaries of his career under Howell Raines’s tenure had more to do with the favoritism and factionalism that had gripped the paper.”

As to the suspendered big boss, who reveled in Raines’s cocky attitude at industry conclaves and seemed to envy Raines’s dash and decisiveness, relatively little is mentioned by Mnookin of the Times’s business fortunes on Young Arthur’s watch. The stock price declined 20 percent in 2004, much of that having to do with the facts of economic life in a no-growth industry. Pushing dead pine trees bearing the hieroglyphic imprint of soybean-based ink, delivered by truck in an era of two-dollar-a-gallon fuel, is a tough enough sell against the Internet, 24-hour cable TV, talk radio and iPods, cell phones and Palm Pilots.

Sulzberger’s missteps at the Times seem more foppish than roguish. On the totem pole of media mogul scandals, his ranks well down toward the lower end. No Citizen Kane he. Nor did he defraud thousands of employees (Robert Maxwell), loot his holding company of many millions while cheating investors (Conrad Black), or ape the machinations of the Dirty Digger from Down Under, Rupert Murdoch.

Even now, the microscopic examination by the Times’s ombudsman (okay, “The Public Editor,” as it calls Daniel Okrent) seems, oh, so very Times-ian, in the way that Okrent, the inventor of rotisserie baseball, burrows into the tiniest detail and statistic of the paper’s batting order. For all its fussiness and occasional falls from grace, day-in, dayout, year-in, year-out, the Times is still our most important newspaper (“… not to say it’s always the best,” as Mnookin writes). And pound for pound it remains our best overall, despite its admitted or obvious deficiencies in business, sports or culture coverage, this last a perennial occasion of Times self-doubt.

Inside the Times

Mnookin’s book, concentrating as it does on the sins of the managers on West 43rd Street, does not have the sweep of British journalist Andrew Marr’s “My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism,” which examines the failings and frustrations of British broadcasting as well as newspapering. But Mnookin drills deep into the culture of the Times, exhuming a culture of management- by-exhaustion and methods of promotion just as quixotic, perplexing and occasionally mean-spirited as would be found in many other newsrooms. A lot of Times people gave him on-therecord quotes, which is more than can be said for their leaders, who preferred to keep private the details of their own artful paths upwards.

The bottom line to the book is Mnookin’s take that Raines wreaked 21 months of hell-week upon his staff. His “narcissistic personality” got in the way, with his Tom Wolfe-ish “eye-catching white Panama hat” and tough-guy talk about “flooding the zone” and invoking earthy Bear Bryant-isms from his Alabama adolescence. Sulzberger fell for Raines’s gnomic asides about what the paper needed, and for a time the pair were a brash Butch-and-Sundance duo on the newspaper circuit, lecturing the lesser nobility of journalism about the-this-and-the-that of the biz.

The Times tried to ape the glossy magazines for lifestyle relevance, and Raines flogged the horses for more drama, more pizzazz, more splash and dash and buzz, all the words that pretenders whisper into the ears of publishers confused by all the competition for readers’ time and easily gulled by bold and confident outriders promising to stride into the bunkhouse and get the ranch hands to work harder for less money.

In modern journalism, the rewards are skewed to flash, glitter and sycophancy. In 40 years in the business, I learned that sometimes loyalty to the paper requires that you try to save the bosses from themselves. Raines was wrong about Blair, natch, but Blair was never really on his radar screen. He was too hard on some top talent and too soft on some over-ripe talent, but every editor makes some dicey lineup decisions. He went bonkers over the overblown issue of women barred from Augusta National Golf Club, and his oversight of the coverage of the run-up into the Iraq War was sketchy and occasionally faulty, as we now can see.

Former publisher Adolph Ochs’s famous dictum to his ruling clan was to inform the paper’s readers “without fear or favor.” Raines whipped up fear and practiced favoritism, but he was a ballsy editor. He didn’t try to drive too slowly, once he’d seized the reins. He took his shot. He misfired, but he wasn’t afraid to pull the trigger.

In the end, newspapering is all about judgment. An editor’s power is judging what goes on Page One, what stories to assign, which to suppress, who can handle a beat, who gets to do what, from the bottom to the person just beneath you. “Hard News” is about hard times at the Times when a bunch of people made a bunch of bad judgments.

David Nyhan was a columnist for the Eagle Tribune newspapers of Massachusetts and New Hampshire and a broadcast analyst who was a reporter, editor and columnist at The Boston Globe for 32 years.

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