The Worst of Times

New York Times plagiarist Jayson Blair.Photo: Andres Serrano/Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery

Howell, Howell, come back here,” Sulzberger cried out. Raines came back in. “Nobody hates you… . But I think a lot of people are angry at you right now.”

There are dozens of moments like this one in Seth Mnookin’s Hard News, riotous little tragicomic scenes from the series of untoward events that played out last year at the Times and eventually brought down the paper’s two top editors, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd.

In this particular scene, Raines flees the Times’ fourteenth-floor executive dining room after being told by a clutch of senior editors exactly why he’s such a terrible manager. Lapsing into shrink-speak, publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. cajoles Raines back into the room, and the pouty editor launches into what Mnookin calls a “litany of the paper’s accomplishments” under his leadership, “each one preceded by an ‘I.’ ‘I won seven Pulitzer Prizes.’ ‘I led the paper on the September 11 coverage.’ ” Mike Oreskes, an assistant managing editor, interrupts: “I actually agree with how impressive those accomplishments are, except for five words: ‘I, I, I, I, and I.’ It’s ‘us.’ ”

The narcissist has no clothes, and it’s hilarious. But are we supposed to be laughing? Tonally, Mnookin—an occasional New York Magazine contributor—delivers his goods with an absolutely straight face. There’s the time when Raines tries to “reach out” to his Washington bureau chief, Jill Abramson—whom he’s been systematically undermining—by cooking her a lamb dinner and taking her to a funk concert. Later, when his own paper is investigating his managerial lapses, Raines vows to keep the scoop (that is, the news of his own undoing) under wraps as a Times “exclusive,” then promptly spills the beans on The NewsHour. Oh, and after he’s finally exited the building in disgrace (and in his famous Panama hat), Raines goes on Charlie Rose and confides that he now hopes to have a great explosion of artistic activity in his sixties, with Yeats and Picasso as his role models.

Media scandals now come along with clocklike regularity, reliably shrouded in drear and doom. From Dan Rather’s obloquy to Bill O’Reilly’s phone-play to the newspaper industry’s plagiarism-of-the-month, there’s a general sense that the news Establishment is sledding right to hell and, gosh, it’s a crying tragedy. What’s the beleaguered citizen to do, other than tune in to CNN’s Reliable Sources and wring hands on cue?

Mnookin’s book is deceptively packaged as just another journo-jeremiad; the subtitle has the scolding undertone that is the genre’s trademark. The book opens and closes with broad contextual sections that strive earnestly to turn the paper’s troubles into lessons for the wayward media. “The Times,” he writes, “is like Harvard or the New York Yankees. It so dominates our imagination that it has become the archetype of what it means to be a journalistic enterprise.” What does it say about modern journalism that a troubled, 27-year-old reporter named Jayson Blair could single-handedly paralyze the Harvard of newspapers and take down its leadership? Mnookin even proposes some professional reforms.

But between these conventionally fretful parentheses, the book has another purpose entirely, one that, in the current atmosphere of mandatory gloom, feels downright subversive: to tell a richly dramatic, hugely entertaining story, replete with egos run amok, duplicity, hypocrisy, and all the other stigmata of massive institutional failure, in the media and beyond. The author’s deadpan delivery becomes a canny narrative trick. By playing the serious media-crit game on one level, the book gives us permission to laugh on another. If this were just a rollicking send-up of the Times at its modern nadir, it would seem small and mean.

Instead, it’s large and mean—and this is meanness with a purpose. Comedy is the best way to speak serious truths, after all. Mnookin covered the fall of Raines for Newsweek, and he culled his notebooks with a wicked eye. In drafting this account, he was smart enough to zero in on an element of the story that few outside the Times knew much about: the team of five Times reporters and two editors who were charged with investigating Blair’s plagiarism and other offenses and composing the front-page account of his misdeeds.

These seven men become the drama within the drama, as they toil away in a special office removed from the third-floor newsroom, and gradually realize that they’ve got a first-class thriller on their hands. Using phone records and other evidence, for instance, they figure out that Blair had gained access to Merlin, the paper’s internal photo archive, and used it at least once to describe a house he was supposed to have visited for a story, but never had. “It was like a horror movie where the killer is actually on the phone inside the house,” one of the reporters, David Barstow, tells Mnookin.

This taut, involving story slowly takes on a Woodward-and-Bernstein urgency, with Raines and Boyd jointly playing the Nixon role, with all the stonewalling, denial, and self-deception that implies. In the newsroom, where Raines has managed to alienate much of the population with his high-handedness and cronyism, there’s a palpable hope that the story will do him in. But the seven realize this could be a career-killer for them. What if Raines doesn’t like their work and survives? They wonder if they might wind up in some Timesian Siberia, like the dreaded “large-type weekly.”

None of these things happened, of course. Raines and Boyd were eventually forced out, and the customary wailing ensued about the crisis of journalism, even as the paper got right back to work fixing itself.

I don’t know how close Mnookin gets to the truth. Some of the key characters, including Boyd and Raines, refused to talk to him. Journalists are notoriously prickly about their own stories, and one can almost hear the cries of outrage that will issue from certain quarters. Still, what’s remarkable is that, for all its gory detail, Hard News doesn’t leave you feeling hopeless about Our Corrupt Media. It’s a glimpse of the Times not as the grand abstraction of legend, or the hood ornament of a whole trade, but as a collection of people—people who routinely do a lot of great work and occasionally screw up in the most mortifying ways, and then learn from their mistakes. Kvetching about the media is easy. When you know enough about one of these scandals that you can laugh, and laugh darkly, then you’re making progress.

  However well Hard News sells, it’ll probably do better than Jayson Blair’s own non-seller, whose publisher recently went bankrupt. But the principals of the Blair affair have only just begun to publish. Last year, former managing editor Gerald Boyd got around $300,000 for a memoir with HarperCollins’s Amistad imprint, with a 2006 pub date. Howell Raines also has a book in the works, but don’t expect major revelations. Called Catch and Release, it’s a sequel to his 1993 memoir Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis, and promises a much softer focus than his diatribe about his fall from Timesian glory in The Atlantic

Hard News: The Scandals At The New York Times And Their Meaning For The American Media
By Seth Mnookin.
Random House. 352 Pages. $25.95.

The Worst of Times