OLEAN -- So, by now we all know the refuse-to-die newspaper scandal covered in this space two weeks ago has caused the resignations of the two top editors at The New York Times, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd.
Raines, 60, the executive editor, and Boyd, 52, the managing editor, could not withstand the firestorm of peer pressure, media commentary, external speculation and internal staff blabbing on the Internet in the wake of professional and public outrage over the printed multiple lies of the oily prevaricator, Jayson Blair.
He was the young "star" reporter at the Times who plagiarized and fabricated an astonishing percentage of the stories he wrote, the scenes he described and the overly-dramatic quotes peppering his overly-dramatic copy.
In the days before last Thursday's resignations, the leaks of posted internal memos, staff opinions and gossipy blogging approached monsoon proportions. It's a wonder anybody at the Times had time or energy to produce a newspaper, what with all the picking of journalistic lint from the journalistic navels.
The atmosphere in the newsroom was routinely described as "poisonous." Commentators acknowledged the Times was still the gold standard of American journalism, but the national ridicule was deafening. (David Letterman -- in a Top Ten Signs Something is Wrong at The New York Times list -- said one reason was "Their new policy: We'll print your name in any story for $49.95.")
Now, there is much smug rejoicing and it-had-to-happen reflection within the Manhattan walls of that great newspaper, and many journalists -- this writer included -- have pointed out the departure of Raines was hastened by his autocratic ways, commanding demeanor and forceful take-charge style.
But mark my words. Within weeks, the NYT theme will be Howell, We Hardly Knew Ye. We will all be reading We-Miss-You-Howell stories quoting anonymous newsroom sources at the Times who offer pithy but unattributed quotes describing how Raines may have been crusty and blunt, but how he made a great newspaper even better, and how he at least had vision and drive.
And he did. Seven Pulitzer Prizes in your first year on the job ain't bad. Newspapers brag for decades about just one.
"He revved up the room," Newsday's Ellis Henican accurately writes. "He shot some energy through the joint. He gave the Times a sharper competitive edge, especially on the really big stories, which is how all papers eventually get judged."
Indeed, on his way out the door, Raines -- a masterful reporter himself before getting sucked into management -- exhibited his deepest instinct in one last piece of advice for his former staff: "Remember, when a great story breaks out, go like hell."
Almost all successful newspaper editors used to be dictatorial in style. Journalism is a craft in which people with huge egos (willing to work for peanuts just to see their names in print) strive to explain to readers how the world works while rarely understanding how their own jobs work. It takes a strong and confident newsroom leader to make sense of that peculiar conflict and to weave a mesh of common interest through a noisy workforce of independent thinkers, creative individualists, super-sensitive strivers, ambitious networkers, reflective introverts and talented loons -- all pulling in different directions.
The trouble with being a dictator -- even a good one with benevolent goals and justifiable behavior -- is that the necessary portion of confidence and self-reliance leads one to ignore advice and warnings from underlings. Raines's downfall was probably ensured the day he ignored, misplaced, forgot, or didn't believe a white-hot memo from his metro editor stating loose cannon Blair had to be stopped from writing further stories for the Times -- "right now."
In our politically correct, collegial age of sensitivity, the dictatorial editor -- and I've worked for some great ones -- is a throwback, bound to get in trouble with a staff willing to trumpet every setback in order to poison the well.
Another unanticipated weight on the negative publicity scale that tipped the balance against Raines was a blitz of criticism aimed at one of his favorite star reporters, fellow Alabaman Rick Bragg, a gifted Pulitzer Prize-winner whose prose virtually sings its way off the page and into a reader's mind and heart. Raines was forced to suspend Bragg for submitting articles that contained substantial input from stringers and freelance journalists who remained uncredited. This, also, used to be common practice -- universally understood and agreed upon.
As a hungry, cash-strapped writer in my younger days, I was once a stringer for The New York Times, and also for "Time" magazine. Peers will back me up on this. You'd get a call in the wee hours from some faceless desk person in Manhattan, asking you to cobble up a "file" on this or that breaking story being written by a full-time news staffer.
You phoned some people, went to the scene, interviewed more people, did some file research, checked stuff you yourself had written, pulled together your notes, and dictated them on the phone to a bored clerk in New York City. The next edition, you'd check to see how much of your effort made it into print, but you weren't looking for your name. It wasn't expected to appear. You were just happy for the paycheck (rather fat for those days). You rarely got a byline or printed credit unless you had suggested and pitched the story idea yourself -- and were assigned it.
Gathering the research for rewriting by some veteran considered more skillful in putting a story together on deadline was common practice. The grunt work was done by a "leg man," and the article was molded and polished by a faceless "rewrite" guy on a desk somewhere.
In a me-me-me era of "self-actualization" and "growth" as a "self-aware" human, and demand for acknowledgment of individual (as opposed to team) contribution, this practice has apparently gone the way of the dodo bird. And that's OK, too. It's just that a dispute over stringer contribution has little to do with the outright falsehoods and devastating fabrications of Jayson Blair.
Blair, who after leaving the Times played the race card and complained angrily about his treatment as a young black reporter, and who bragged copiously about putting his hoaxes over on some of the smartest people in journalism, now suddenly finds remorse. He stated on the resignation day of those who had groomed and protected him that he was "sorry to hear that more people have fallen in this sequence of events I have unleashed. I wish the rolling heads had stopped with mine."
Well, which is it? Is Blair proud of his lies? Or is he contrite about concocting a mess that has thrown an entire profession into such a sorry state that only 36 percent of Americans -- according to a USA Today poll -- now believe news organizations get their facts straight? Like Blair couldn't see all this coming. Like Blair, who was mollycoddled by Boyd and Raines, who was promoted to national staff after all the line editor warnings and after egregious and totally inadequate performance, couldn't figure out that actions have consequences.
Rochelle Riley of the Detroit Free Press nailed it. "It isn't that black reporters aren't as good," she wrote. "It is that they are not expected to be. ... Times executive editor Howell Raines said his white Southern guilt might have made him look the other way because he wanted a black kid to succeed. That is the worst kind of racism, to think that a black kid can succeed only with lower standards."
I suspect there's something else in this fiasco that went on inside the Times newsroom.
Howell Raines is from Alabama. And all the righteous spouters of praise for meritocracy and all the loud shouters of kudos for cultural equality -- legion within the Times -- cannot make up for the Eastern-establishment, hypocritical snobs within those walls who traditionally have looked down their noses upon upstart boys from the South, no matter how enlightened or accomplished or talented they may be.
Ed Mullins, chair of the University of Alabama journalism department, bravely approached this topic over the weekend. Quoted by writer Gilbert Cruz in the Tuscaloosa News -- itself a paper owned by The New York Times Co., and one where Raines once worked -- Mullins said: "It's a hard day to be an Alabamian on The New York Times. ... Some of the muckity-mucks at the Times have a culture war going, essentially saying that you have to have an Ivy League education to be successful there. And that's nonsense."
Nonsense, maybe, but possibly still true ...
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||June 10 2003|