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Troubled Times

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And then there is the difficulty in actually attempting to explain, in an increasingly literal world, the true realities of reporting. It obviously isn’t advisable in this climate to try to describe, no less to mark, the line between absolute fact and the instinctual sense of how far over the line of absolute fact it’s safe to go, which is more and more the real tradecraft. Nor is it really possible to explain that smartness in a soft-news world involves a certain quality of plasticity. Or how star reporters (and more and more, star reporters are the non-hard-news reporters, the feature reporters, the opinionists, the narrative stylists, unmonitored by other reporters transcribing the same quotes) are often the ones who are willing to push exactly to that point on the reality continuum beyond which you self-destruct. Or how, if you hold back in this game of reality chicken, your career suffers.

But of this we must not speak.

And then, unavoidably, there’s the Howell thing. And the affirmative-action thing. In that regard, the Times’ 14,000 words were meant not so much for Times readers as for members of the Times itself.

The Times is a fraught political environment—dense, clotted, depressive. People are in or out, rising or falling—most often by elusive and capricious standards. It is an unhappy and anxious place (and one that is hard to escape—indoctrinated as everyone is in the belief that there is only one true paper). Much of this unhappiness and anxiety, this fear of falling and resentment of others’ rising, has been focused—since he stepped up to the position a year and a half ago—on Howell Raines, the executive editor.

He’s the Bigfoot. You don’t get onto the front page without Howell and his cronies saying so. Your career doesn’t go anywhere without their approval. Everybody (except the stars) complains about Howell’s star system—a star system that has overridden the incremental, long-suffering Times way of doing things. Now it’s all glitz. It’s all Howell. It’s all in-crowd.

But this is not all. The Times has long suffered under newsroom despots and egotists. But Raines has seemed to be something different. Not just a son of a bitch but a son of a bitch out to change the world—or, worse, the paper. To make it a different kind of product. A stronger brand. Howell is Arthur Jr.’s ham-handed agent for the transformation of the Times from its cautious, culturally insular, frequently obsessive-compulsive identity as World’s Greatest Newspaper into a more freewheeling, glamorous, unTimesian World’s Greatest Information Brand!

Jayson Blair was in the Howell in crowd. Hence, the racial point—he was there by special treatment. (Who in any in crowd is not there by some advantage?) He was there, in the angry-white-man interpretation, because the black No. 2 editor, Gerald Boyd, was his patron. But as likely, he was there because he was unTimesian—not dour, literal, grave, but amusing, charismatic, and eager to please. Not to mention, he could turn a phrase. (What’s more, as was often noted with great resentment last week, the mother of Blair’s girlfriend on the photo desk was friends with Howell’s wife! It was just so . . . inside.)

It would be almost impossible to describe to an outsider the way these elements—Raines, the closed-court social life at the Times, facile writers versus dull ones, racial preferences, preferences of any kind, change of any kind—mingle and fester and become toxic in the third-floor newsroom.

Simply, Blair became Howell’s sin against the Times. Howell’s transgression. Blair wasn’t just a screwup or a cheater—he was Howell’s monster. It’s a morality play—hence the offense rises to a maximum insult against 152 years of unimpeachable integrity.

The forces of sanctimony—always a power center at the Times—are in control.

Raines presented himself before this tribunal last week—and the jury is still out.

Indeed, the Sulzberger family itself may not be able to resist the sanctimony of its own paper.

Interestingly, the failure to cover up—or at least to downplay, or demonstrate some more subtle perspective—and this urge to unburden, confess, to stand naked in front of 152 years of Times history, may, in the end, do them in.

The fact that this miscreant reporter wasn’t just fired, wasn’t just escorted from the building, but cast out like a demon, exorcised, is what has shaken the earth and given rise to the Times’ own religious right.

Still, the message from on high continues to be that this was so far out of the normal range of expectations and experience that no one could be held responsible—that’s why no one stopped him, because no good person could imagine such wickedness.

Jayson Blair was a pretender, an imposter, a satyr. A sociopath. And a really brilliant criminal mind. A journalistic terrorist.

Diabolical. Evil.

But now he’s gone and we can come together—can’t we, please?

The worst thing that’s ever happened—metaphorically if not literally —happened, and we survived.

Making us, you know, even stronger. Right?


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