The Battle for the Newsroom

Top to bottom: Jayson Blair and Howell RainesPhoto: Courtesy of the New York Times; Helayne Seidman

It ain’t bragging if you really done it!” crowed New York Times executive editor Howell Raines in April 2002. The newspaper had just won an unprecedented seven Pulitzer prizes for its coverage of 9/11 and its aftermath—Raines had assumed the office just a week before the planes hit the towers—and he was standing in front of his office in the third-floor newsroom, addressing the staff.

Not far away, beside the exposed-metal staircase near the heart of the newsroom, was the cubicle of a hale young reporter named Jayson Blair. It was a perfect vantage point for observing the comings and goings of the paper’s editors and reporters—a kind of reporting at which Blair excelled.

That April, Blair and Raines seemed to be going in different directions. Times Metro editor Jonathan Landman, who’d been wrestling with Blair over errors in his copy for months, had finally become fed up. He fired off an e-mail to associate managing editor Bill Schmidt and training editor Nancy Sharkey, insisting, “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.”

A little more than a year later, Blair and Raines’s trajectories intersected again. This time, Raines was sitting before 600 seething Times staff members at the Loews theater at 1515 Broadway. On the dais with him was Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the Times chairman, who’d chosen Raines to head the paper, and managing editor Gerald Boyd, Raines’s No. 2. The simplest question was, how had they allowed the Blair disaster to happen after such a blatant warning? But the issue was much bigger than one bad egg.

To many of the assembled, this triumvirate had come close to destroying the credibility of the newspaper—“this precious thing we hold in common,” as one reporter has described it. And the hastily called “town hall” meeting, on May 14, hadn’t helped, with its gauntlet of news cameras, reporters, and a hectoring man in a Saddam Hussein mask and well-worn loafers carrying a sign announcing FORMER NYT REPORTER, WILL LIE FOR FOOD.

“It was the most depressing and humiliating thing,” said one Metro reporter.

“It’s not the kind of thing you’d think you’d go through because of the Times.”

Inside the theater, it was worse. The outrage wasn’t against Blair, whose misdeeds had already been detailed over 14,000 fastidious words in the Times the previous Sunday, a public mea culpa said to have been opposed by several masthead-level Timespeople. It was against the people onstage—the ones who signed the memos “Arthur, Howell and Gerald.” It was a journalistic version of the perfect storm.

“I think the meeting was a fiasco,” said an editor at the paper. “I came away thinking they were very well-versed in saying, ‘We’re sorry, we’re sorry.’ But the answers were all the same corporate-speak.”

Raines went relentlessly after Bill Clinton on his editorial page, and now he’s facing impeachment calls of his own. Like the former president, he’s given his enemies the ammunition they need. The day before the town-hall meeting, the Washington bureau—home to a number of critics of Raines—held a brown-bag meeting where he was flayed in effigy, his perceived weaknesses dissected: Raines was seen to be p.c. about race, authoritarian, ruthless about restaffing. He was damaging the paper.

Many people have felt slighted by Raines, a cocky bulldog of a man with a relentless zest to remake the vast, self-important news bureaucracy of the Times as quickly as possible. Those whose status and self-determination were reduced by this urgent, top-down transformation want to see him lose. And now the Blair witch hunt (that’s one in-house joke; the other is the Blair lynch project) has begun: Three other writers are under investigation at the Times for reality high jinks, including two who were considered Raines’s favorites. But the Times is a terrifically political place, full of alliances, opportunities, and shadow governments. The Blair affair is both a morality play and a story of byzantine animosities and intrigue.


The movie playing at the cinema that was commandeered for the meeting was Identity, and the marquee said: IDENTITY IS A SECRET, IDENTITY IS A MYSTERY, IDENTITY IS A KILLER.

Jayson Blair (who didn’t return calls) didn’t seem like such a mystery. When he arrived at the Times after scoring an internship for minority journalists, he’d already done time with the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. A precocious kid from suburban Washington, D.C., he’d written for his high-school newspaper and many letters to the local papers. His mother is a teacher, and his father is an inspector general at the Smithsonian Institution, in charge of audits and fraud detection. A nonathletic member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, he went off to Jerry Falwell’s religious college, Liberty University, before transferring to the University of Maryland, where he became editor of the school paper.

Though the Times assumed he had graduated from Maryland, he’d in fact stopped at least a year short. It wasn’t the first mistake the paper made about him. And Blair quickly made an impact in the newsroom. He knew how to make friends. Astute at gossip and eavesdropping—which are crucial newsroom skills—he learned everybody’s name and quickly went on to know a lot more. In fact, colleagues were amazed—to the point of suspicion—at the volume and quality of his information: From salaries to assignments, he had the goods. For one thing, there was the key position of his desk. “He was right next to Janny Scott and Glenn Collins and other big shots,” says a newsroom neighbor. “He saw everybody come in, in the morning.” Strangely, he was often there already. And when people went home at night.

“He seemed to be very in-the-know, and everything he said seemed to be accurate,” says another staff member. “He’d tell people they’d be transferred before they knew it themselves. He spent enormous amounts of time on his office-politicking. He wandered around the Times building collecting his tidbits.”

Glad-handing, making friends with up-and-comers, he also wasn’t above dropping the names of higher-ups he was friends with. He talked a good game, much to the resentment of the younger staff whose careers seemed less blessed.

Blair had no shortage of friends at the paper. “There’s that whole younger generation of Metro reporters,” observed one reporter who’d gossip and carouse with him. Blair was one of its brightest lights and a social nexus. “He hung out at [Robert] Emmett’s, on 44th and Eighth—one of those new prefab bars on Times Square,” with a group of young Times people.

One of Blair’s closest friends was Charlie LeDuff, a rising star in Raines’s firmament known for his colorful writing style. “Jayson would sort of tag along” with him, said a friend of LeDuff’s. “He was very competitive with Charlie, and then kind of took it many, many steps too far—because he could get away with it.”

Also, says a friend of Blair’s, “there was this constant refrain about corrections.” The Times has always been fetishistic about corrections. The corrections box was instituted regularly under Max Frankel, but policies became even more stringent during the regime of executive editor Joe Lelyveld. “You had to write a memo saying how you made it and how you’d not do this again,” says a reporter. “Everybody felt persecuted by it.”

But Blair made a show of being singled out. “He’d always say, ‘Somebody was on my ass. Why are they on my ass? It’s not fair. Why does Charlie get to go and do all these great stories and I don’t get respect for my writing?’ ” But Blair survived these trials. He was promoted to full-time reporter in January 2001. He was still making more than his share of mistakes, but at least some of his superiors believed that his energy and potential more than made up for his drawbacks.

Jayson Blair’s “personal problems,” as the Times has called them, like his journalistic sins, were hidden in plain sight. “It’s sort of an open secret that he was a cokehead,” says an acquaintance on the paper. “Everybody says he’s a really nice guy; there’s something about him that’s really strange. But that’s partly because he’s a total cokehead,” said a friend.

“It’s so Bright Lights, Big City,” said one of his friends who indulged with him. “He was constantly coming into parties or coming over at, like, literally dawn, and always with a ton of coke. And he was the kind of person who didn’t let people leave until it’s gone. Every time I saw him, it seemed like it was eight o’clock in the morning. The most epic nights I’ve ever had, he’s been there. And he’s been the driving force.”

The effects of his bingeing were often too severe to hide—and sometimes, he didn’t even try. “I remember shortly after September 11, I saw him really disheveled on the subway, and he said, ‘Dude, I’ve been up for four days straight,’ ” says a reporter.

At some point that fall, Boyd took him into his office and discussed his problems. He seemed to get better for a while. “He’s a very nice guy. I know he had a lot of issues, but I don’t know what they were,” says publicist and crisis manager Steven Rubenstein (son of Howard Rubenstein), an acquaintance whom Blair called shortly before he resigned.

For the most part, Blair cut a compelling figure at the paper. “He was irreverent in a way that kind of gets you places in the Times,” says a friend. “This cocksure swagger and willingness to laugh at tradition. He never wore a tie. He’d keep the company car for weeks at a time. He’d take one and be gone for a month. There were like two in Metro. When he would return it, it was trashed and there were parking tickets on it. But especially in a period where Howell and Gerald were trying to shake things up, it was good attitude.”

When the Washington Post ran its story about the similarities between Blair’s article about a missing soldier and one that had been previously published in the San Antonio Express-News, Blair showed it to a colleague. “This looks really bad,” said the other reporter, advising him, “The only thing to do is tell the truth.”

But Blair, summoned to a meeting with National editor Jim Roberts, didn’t.

Troubled Times
The Times is more than a newspaper. To its reporters and editors, it’s a religion. And the Jayson Blair Affair is a story of a sinner (Blair), the powerful (Howell Raines), the faithful (led by Metro editor Jon Landman), and a highly unusual exorcism.

How serious do you think the scandal is? Discuss.


Race at the Times is, to say the least, a charged issue. “The two attitudes at the Times are Upper West Side liberal or southern guilt. Nobody knows how to deal with black as just neighbor,” notes one reporter. Diversity is of declared importance to the paper, and to Raines himself—after all, he won his Pulitzer for a piece on the black maid he grew up with. That afternoon at the theater, he sought to head off criticism by admitting up front: He might’ve given Blair more chances than he would have otherwise gotten because he was black.

“The black reporters are really angry,” says one reporter. Because Blair opened the door to the idea that maybe they didn’t deserve to be there.

Blair seemed to understand these issues, and turned them to his advantage. “There’s that perception that Howell has unique feelings in this realm, and the widespread perception is that this kid gamed the system,” says an editor.

By all accounts, Blair was not hesitant to bring up race around the office. “As soon as we met, he wanted to know how I felt about him being a black man,” says a Times writer. “He was obsessed about how minorities were hired differently.”

There was certainly a kind of favoritism in Boyd’s treatment of Blair, but it wasn’t necessarily racial. Some actually say Boyd was known for being out for himself more than for participating in the mentoring of other young black reporters. Even Boyd’s critics—and there are many—tend to cut him slack when it comes to his relationship with Blair. “Jayson was really Gerald’s guy. And I think people will overemphasize that he was black, but I think that came almost more from Jayson’s playing of that than Gerald’s pushing of that,” says one reporter. “Gerald was certainly in his corner, but Jayson made sure that was the way it was.”

“He latched on to Gerald,” says another.

Boyd denied having any sort of mentoring relationship to Blair at the town-hall meeting.

A former Metro editor known for his dry wit in large meetings and his often brusque style, Boyd has been portrayed as a crucial element in the succession drama that pitted Bill Keller, Lelyveld’s managing editor, against Raines for the top job when Lelyveld was nearing retirement. Keller said that if appointed executive editor, he would pick Jonathan Landman as his No. 2. Howell told Sulzberger he’d select Boyd, which was widely perceived as a canny political move, since Sulzberger was committed to diversity and Boyd was the only serious possibility.

“Keller said, ‘We can’t have Gerald as the next editor of the paper,’ ” says a well-placed Times reporter. “And Howell picked Gerald to please Arthur.”

“It’s totally why he picked Boyd, and he’s not the best person for the job,” says one well-placed Timesman.

“He’s Howell’s henchman,” says a Metro-section observer. “Howell’s about politics. It’s like Mondale picking Ferraro. They both turned out to be mediocre candidates, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.”


Saying this scandal is about Blair is like saying Clinton’s impeachment was about Monica Lewinsky. Blair was just the spark. The old guard was as up in arms at Raines as the Army is at Donald Rumsfeld for his dreams of reengineering the military. Both emphasize speed over depth, and both share a contempt for the people who are standing in their way.

Over the past twenty months, the Times has become Raines’s Times in the way that Tina Brown’s New Yorker was hers. Where Lelyveld had been a soft-spoken mandarin (and a skilled infighter), Raines is brash, loud. Glamour, never a hallmark of the newsroom, was suddenly in—Raines’s wedding reception at the Bryant Park Hotel, with its array of notable potentates, which was featured in a page 1 full-access New York Observer story, was in a sense the new regime’s coming-out party. But the velvet glove in evidence at the hotel contained—of course—an iron fist.

He’s treated the staff in what is widely seen as a very top-down, high-handed way, especially Metro and Business. As many point out, you can issue fatwas when you have a job like Washington-bureau chief or edit-page editor, Raines’s previous jobs. Arguably, his attacks on Clinton were what got him promoted—certainly they raised his profile. But the take-no-prisoners style has alienated many long-standing reporters.

There’s a philosophy behind all this change. Raines, with Sulzberger’s blessing, is taking the paper back to the future, to an older news-gathering model. He’s treated people roughly because he sees no place for them in his reengineered paper. Under Lelyveld, given the growing 24-hour-news saturation from outlets like CNN, the paper took a more thoughtful tack, becoming analytical and investigative, less obsessed with breaking news. Raines, though, armed with the Website and, with the absorption of the International Herald Tribune, a European newsroom, seemed to view the news-gathering operation as a vast, directable army he could use to “flood the zone” of whatever the story of the moment was. The problem is that “flooding the zone,” and “competitive metabolism” (another Raines favorite), while good catchphrases, are not necessarily where the paper’s strengths lie, which is in deciding the national news agenda, declaring what is important.

And for all of Raines’s interest in racial diversity, his p.c. views, according to some Timespeople, haven’t extended to women. “Its totally a boys’ club,” says one veteran. “Not one woman even in that group that wrote that piece on Sunday,” says another. “And the only woman with any real news authority”—aside from Gail Collins, who is the editorial-page editor—“is Jill Abramson.”

But Raines is known for governing by his gut. He has his favorites—like Patrick Tyler. Raines and Tyler have been close since their days working together on the St. Petersburg Times in the 1970s; Tyler had been put in place to replace Jill Abramson in the Washington bureau. Rumors are rampant that the Washington Post is about to make a serious play for her. Tyler is now the Times’ chief correspondent. He’s had stories on the front page almost every day explaining Iraq, even though he’s been involved in two of the paper’s highest-profile errors in recent years, once writing in a dual-byline story that Henry Kissinger had come out against the war, and also being entirely bamboozled by a Russian defector who claimed to have seen atrocities in Chechnya (a story he had to retract).

Even before the Blair affair became public, these kinds of sins didn’t sit well with the Times faithful. “He’s kind of run this place like a frat boy,” says one Timesman. “There’s this atmosphere of immaturity. There’s a lot of laughter over silly things. It’s the way he uses football metaphors. It’s almost like he’s brought down the dignity of the place. He’s taken away this self-image people have built up over decades.”


Metro editor Jon Landman and Raines, though similar in stature, are opposites in most other ways. Landman isn’t a media cool cat. He’s a Timesman’s Timesman, a bit of a nerd, with a stiff posture that mimics his reputation for journalistic and ethical probity. He and Raines worked together once before, at the paper’s Washington bureau. Coming to the Times from the Daily News, and before that the Chicago Sun-Times, he took care of the members of the bureau who weren’t part of Raines’s inner circle, the reporters who weren’t Maureen Dowd or Michael Oreskes. Even before the Blair affair exploded, he was seen as a beacon in a dark time.

By all accounts, he hasn’t had an easy time of it under Raines. Raines made it clear that the focus of the paper was on being a national, or global, news source. Landman made a stand over Raines’s micromanaging the news coverage after 9/11, and Raines backed off. In a New Yorker profile of Raines a year ago, Landman was quoted being critical of his boss as being, implicitly, politically correct about race, and the two quarreled over the remark.

Landman was much more interested in investigative reporting. He had defended the Pulitzer-garnering investigations department even though that wasn’t an interest of Raines’s (Stephen Engleberg, the head of investigations, left a year ago; several other members of that staff have since left). Raines killed later installments of a hard-hitting series on Senator Robert Torricelli just before the senator dropped out of his reelection campaign, angering some who thought the Times had missed an opportunity to take credit for the kill. Still, the Times won a Pulitzer this year for Clifford Levy’s Metro-section investigation of the state’s poor supervision of mental-health facilities.

Landman’s role in the Blair affair is more ambiguous than it appears. In the daily front-page meetings, Landman sits next to Jim Roberts, the national editor. When Blair was suddenly yanked out of his post-Metro Sports refuge in late 2002 to cover the sniper case in Maryland, he was picked by Raines and Boyd to do so. But Roberts never knew of Blair’s history, partly because, sources say, Landman didn’t tell him—because Roberts and Landman aren’t on speaking terms. Which seems a less-than-efficient way to run a news-gathering operation.


Landman’s name was invoked many times in the meeting last week. In the dull, repetitive, self-flagellating, and in some cases tearful questioning that went on at the Loews theater last week, when someone suggested the committee investigating the Blair after-effects be named the Landman committee, the room exploded in applause.

Raines and Boyd, by contrast, were under continuous fire. Investigations editor Joe Sexton took them to task for not having demanded Blair’s sources. “It’s right fucking there,” he said.

Raines called the inquiry “demagogic.”

But it was Sulzberger, the real power in the kingdom, who made the strangest showing. “The publisher today showed up with a stuffed moose—the moose is a symbol on the fourteenth floor of speaking openly,” said one reporter.

Sulzberger removed the stuffed moose from a plastic bag and handed it to Raines. Raines looked nonplussed for an instant, then set it down next to his chair.

“You’re sitting in the room with giants in the business,” said the reporter. “It was mortifying.”

The Battle for the Newsroom