New York Times: Troubled Times
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TERENCE SMITH: Today’s resignations of the top two editors came a little more than a month after it was disclosed that a 27-year- old reporter, Jayson Blair, had repeatedly plagiarized material and fabricated stories. The Times subsequently published a 14,000-word report that sought to correct the record. It described the Blair incident as “a lowpoint in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”
The turmoil only increased two weeks later when one of its star reporters, Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg, resigned after admitting that some of his stories had actually been reported in large part by a 20-year-old intern. Today the Times announced that retired executive editor Joseph Lelyveld will serve as interim editor.
Joining me now to discuss the troubled Times are Geneva Overholser, former editor of The Des Moines Register and professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Welcome to you both.
A little full disclosure here requires that we admit that all three of us have worked at one point or another in our careers at The New York Times.
Alex Jones, tell me your reaction to today’s resignations, and tell me if you think they were necessary in order to get the paper out of the bind it’s been in.
ALEX JONES: I have reluctantly concluded that we were necessary. I think that the most sort of poignant words in Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s announcement was that “this was being done for the good of the Times.’”
I know that Arthur had a close relationship, especially with Howell, but also with Gerald Boyd, and I know that his impulse was to support them and back them as they tried to find their way out of the morass that Jayson Blair had seemed to put them in. But what it turned out to be a problem that they really could not solve without changing the leadership at the top, and he concluded it and so did Howell Raines, and that was that.
TERENCE SMITH: Geneva, your reaction? And, do you have any sense of what changed to make this necessary, because it was only two weeks ago or so that the publisher said in front of the entire editorial staff of the paper that if Howell Raines submitted his resignation, he, the publisher, would not accept it.
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Exactly. Well, first of all, my response, really Terry, was to be stunned. And it’s not because nobody had suggested this might happen, that Howell especially might resign, but talking about it and seeing it on the computer screen are two different things.
And also the fact of two resignations: An editor and a managing editor constitute a very powerful dual leadership role, and to have both of them gone is stunning.
I don’t know if it’s ever happened.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, it was in part, I suppose, an acknowledgment that you couldn’t lay all the blame on a 27-year-old reporter.
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: It was a shared responsibility. As to what changed, I think that’s a terribly important point. My supposition — and it really is only that — is that that fateful meeting where the news room spewed anxiety and unsettlement mostly directed I think at Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd and the management for not only how could this have happened, but sort of a pent-up anxiety about a star system and veteran reporters who had been leaving, and that that must have been a stunning sight for Arthur Sulzberger and the realization he gained there and over the next two weeks was what changed his mind.
TERENCE SMITH: Alex Jones, the… go ahead, I’m sorry.
ALEX JONES: I think there’s one other element that is worth noting.
I think this story has been kept alive, in many ways, by the Internet, I think in the world that journalists occupy especially this story has just kept on and on.
There’s been story after story, it really hasn’t seemed to go away. I think that that roiling quality and the Rick Bragg sort of development and the sort of ongoing sense that there was story after story about problems at the Times, helped create a sort of sense that the solution had to be one that was dramatic. And I think that you couldn’t have had, as Geneva said, a more dramatic solution than to take both the executive editor and the managing editor off the masthead at the same time.
TERENCE SMITH: What explains that? Why would a story like this continue to roil and boil on the Internet and elsewhere?
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, I think we’re in a very different era in terms of anything that happens in the journalism world ricochets all over the Internet, and all of us now have a prime location to view it and to comment on it.
But I really would argue that there was more going on internally, and that this wasn’t just about Jayson Blair and it wasn’t just about Rick Bragg; that it was about a significant degree of discomfort in the newsroom, and that that’s part of what Arthur decided was true.
TERENCE SMITH: Alex Jones… go ahead.
ALEX JONES: I think Geneva is quite right. I mean, I don’t think there’s any question that this was about an administration, and I think that it was not really about journalism so much as it was about a lack of confidence in this newsroom in their top leadership. And I think that that was probably the thing that did break it.
But I think it happened in this atmosphere of ongoing roiling, you know, unhappiness and controversy and scandal about the way the paper had been managed.
TERENCE SMITH: But, Alex, there was external pressure as well. There were clients of The New York Times news service who cast skepticism, even on this broadcast, on the quality of the material they were receiving.
ALEX JONES: I would be willing to bet that that had no real impact. I mean, I don’t have inside information about that, but I think the way the institution works they were not in any real jeopardy there, I don’t think. I don’t think any of the subscribers had gone away, I don’t think anybody had dropped the paper or of any consequence, I don’t think advertisers had gone away. I think that there was, you know, certainly though there was a lot of controversy and it was a live subject. It struck a chord, it really did, and I think that’s one of the important things here.
It struck a chord because it’s something that, although The New York Times is on the bull’s eye, it’s something that applies to journalism across the board, and that’s this question of being committed to accurate reporting. I think that’s where the real fault line is, and I think it goes well beyond The New York Times.
TERENCE SMITH: What do you think about that, Geneva? What’s the impact on the larger world of journalism?
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: First of all, I think anyone who thinks it couldn’t happen here is setting himself up for a dangerous fall.
Second, I think that there are lessons that we can take from this that are hopeful. It’s good that there have been all these ethics discussions in newsrooms across the country. It’s good that people are looking at anonymous sources — thank goodness — it’s overdue for a real careful look.
And it’s good that we’re worrying about whether we’re hearing our readers as the Times, I think, was not doing enough of. And the Times itself now has an opportunity to hear the Siegal Commission whereas people used to think, “oh, they’re going to have the solution.”
They couldn’t have been the solution, but now we’ll hear their recommendations, and I assume there will be some policy changes at the Times.
TERENCE SMITH: We should explain that that’s an internal committee set up under an assistant managing editor, Al Siegal, to look at the procedures within the Times.
Do you think these resignations today, Alex Jones, are enough to reestablish the credibility of the paper?
ALEX JONES: I think they’re plenty enough to maybe a dramatic statement about the seriousness that… to which New York Times is taking this.
I think it’s going to be the number one priority of the new administration — I don’t mean Joe Lelyveld, but the new editor, whoever that turns out to be — to deal with the issues that go beyond, you know, the ones that are internal politics, that deal with the Jayson Blair issues, and the other fissures and morale problems that existed that had to do with the quality of the report. I think that is what is going to have to be done to restore credibility, and that’s going to have to be restored to people who are the consumers of the New York Times, not the staff.
TERENCE SMITH: Geneva, what about the selection of Joe Lelyveld, a former editor, a distinguished journalist, Pulitzer Prize winner himself? What does that say, the choice of Joe Lelyveld as an interim editor until a permanent replacement can be found?
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I think it was a very wise, prudent, thoughtful decision on Arthur’s part, Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher.
Joe Lelyveld is a temperate, very thoughtful, respected man. He has the confidence of the newsroom; he was leader there for years, he knows the traditions of the New York Times. Clearly, it’s a choice that is an interim choice, which I think is smart. It becomes a calming factor now for the newsroom.
A new editor would be yet another, perhaps exciting, but unsettling factor. What the Times now needs is calming, and I think Joe Lelyveld will bring that and that if Arthur had desperately sought immediately to replace him, it would have been a much more complex and less successful thing. I think it’s a great step for the newsroom.
TERENCE SMITH: Alex, your view.
ALEX JONES: I completely agree. I think Geneva is right. He’s the perfect choice, and I’m just very glad that he was available and willing to take this on, which doesn’t surprise me, but the Times is lucky to have someone of his stature. You know, he’s a relatively young man as well, but I don’t think he’ll want to stay in the job for longer than he has to.
TERENCE SMITH: And is this, both of you, is this the end of it or do you have a sense that there are other shoes to drop? The Times has acknowledged publicly that it’s looking into the reporting of some of its other correspondents.
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: But any new stories will be seen differently because of this exceedingly dramatic happening. Of course, we’ll hear more, there will be self-examination across the nation; other newspapers are going to discover these kinds of things.
The Times will be making some probably dramatic announcements. Maybe there will be an ombudsman, maybe they’ll figure out ways to increase… enhance the communication among managers that we could all learn from, but everything will be seen differently.
This roiling atmosphere that Alex spoke about will be changed because of this clearly very powerful thing that the publisher has done, I think.
TERENCE SMITH: Alex, do you have a sense of… or can you put into words why the readers and the public should care about what happens inside, after all, The New York Times?
ALEX JONES: I think The New York Times is the most important journalism institution that exists. I think that it has set itself up to be the standard bearer.
I think that when something like this happens at The New York Times, it’s more important than if it happens anywhere else, not to denigrate anyone else, I don’t mean it that way. But I think The New York Times has symbolic importance. And I think these two firings — not two firings, these two resignations, these two… this dramatic gesture that has been made by Howell Raines and Gerald Jordan…
TERENCE SMITH: Gerald Boyd…
ALEX JONES: …I mean, Gerald Boyd.. is something that has a great symbolic power, and I’m hoping that that is going to say that this is a, you know, a ship that is too important to not do the painful thing when it’s required.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Alex Jones, Geneva Overholser, thank you both very much.