Troubled Times

At the Times, you have a 27-year-old reporter in over his head, who’s cut every corner he could possibly cut and been especially cavalier or cynical about the standards and requirements of his job. And then you have “a low point in the 152-year history” of the greatest newspaper in the world.

These would not, intuitively, seem to be the same thing.

But let’s just assume the Times is right about the activities of its young reporter Jayson Blair being among the worst things to have happened to the paper ever—meaning, one might suppose, that the company’s reputation and value have been damaged as much by this as by any other event during the past century and a half.

And so?

Employees are in near revolt—expressing rage as well as no confidence in a company-wide meeting last week. The media is in jackal mode—the paparazzi are staking out Times managers. The Feds are investigating. The mob is at the door.

Lawyers have surely been called. Outside directors are undoubtedly being consulted.

And certainly, it is hard to imagine a public company where the managers who failed to take action against such historic acts of treachery would not be fired. If this is not cause, then what would be?

It is not only Howell Raines—under whose direction of the newsroom this fraud unsurpassed in the annals of its business was allowed to occur, and who, in the new tradition of humiliated executives and politicians, is making desperate acts of public contrition—who must be fired. But after Raines, it is hard not to cast an unforgiving eye on Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the chairman of the company (who, while a member of the family that controls the voting stock, is not, after all, a sun god). Raines is his man. Indeed, part of the rap on Raines is that his job has been to carry out the mandate of the corporate-retreat-loving chairman to hurry up and transform the paper—that he is the first editor to be working directly under the instructions of the business leadership of the Times.

So the whirlwind heads for Arthur Jr. too.

I mean, you just can’t be the head of a 152-year-old company and preside over one of the worst things that’s ever happened to it and not expect to lose your job—especially not in this era of hypersensitivity in the boardroom.

A mistake this size is not a mistake you can recover from. Large men must pay for large errors.

But what if it’s not really such a “low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper”?

What if that’s just a useful turn of phrase? A bit of mythmaking, of self-congratulation. Infallible for 152 years, and now this! Oy.

Certainly you can argue that it’s not only so not the low point, it’s just, well, embarrassing. Not so much damaging to the organization—because of this, is anybody going to stop reading the Times or advertising in it?—as something that shows that the Times is as dumb and haphazard a place as any other.

The kid was a fuck-up.

He was given lots of sidebar and human-interest and feature sorts of stories, and he embellished madly. He often wasn’t where he said he was (although he would not be the first Times reporter to have reported an event from television instead of actually showing up). Also, he stole egregiously from other reporters’ stories (egregiously

Still, it seems only fair to point out, his errors and fictions were mostly benign—they would not have caused anyone to make a wrong decision, or to misunderstand what was really happening in the world, or to like an unlikable politician, or to have lost money (unlike many other stories in the Times).

With a little critical interpretation, the Times’ 14,000-word, multipage exegesis of the reporter’s errors and fabrications shows somebody trying to keep pace with reality rather than depart from it. Indeed, in some of his stretches, you see the bright reporter’s instinct to try to state the truth that the subject or source is trying to obscure (e.g., according to Blair, the American Craft Museum was “already in serious financial trouble before September 11”—whereas the museum’s CFO says that the museum had broken even). So who is more negligent: the reporter who accepts what he reasonably knows is not true or the reporter who falsifies the story even though what he makes up is possibly closer to the truth?

It does appear, as the Times reports, that “the audacity of the deceptions grew by the week.” The Times suggests that this was a result of the young man’s emotional problems—he is now commonly referred to as a sociopath, which probably means he was very charming—but it was also no doubt a result of the ease with which he found it possible to get his whoppers through the system. (Every reporter is his own fact checker, the Times story notes. Huh?) Also, he was getting a fair bit of positive reinforcement (including atta-boy notes from Raines himself): Newsrooms increasingly place high value on the colorful, subjective, and, as often as not, semi-bogus detail. And possibly, too, he found himself enjoying the process of making it up—creating a better, more interesting, as well as more efficient, reality.

Of course, it is impossible to know whether the kid was falling apart, just desperately trying to stay in the game, or guided by some larger, grander philosophical subtext of illusion and reality. Was he a pathological liar? Or, perhaps, a Walter Mitty type whose fervid imagination strayed into print? Or did he see himself in the great tradition of the most creative reporters (like Joe Mitchell and Lillian Ross, for instance, at The New Yorker, both famous quote pipers)?

It does, though, seem possible to say with some certainty that whatever he was doing, he was doing on his own. It wasn’t a newsroomwide conspiracy of deception. It was not systemic. It was just one kid living a life of fantasy or deception or self-styled genius—or amoral ambition.

Yet the point is that he wasn’t stopped. His mentors did not take the professional interest, or do the professional good deed, to keep him from screwing everything up.

That’s the embarrassment—possibly the biggest embarrassment in “the 152-year history of the newspaper.” Although even that seems a reach. (There was, just for starters, the instance when the Times chose not to report that the CIA and a band of Cuban exiles were about to invade the Bay of Pigs, thus failing to prevent one of the biggest debacles of the Cold War, and when it reported that the scientist Wen Ho Lee had passed nuclear secrets, which, whoops, wasn’t exactly true—causing the paper to issue an epic correction.)

So how has it gotten to meltdown?

It may be, most of all, the Times’ own view of itself that has brought it here. Its 14,000-word apologia, which appeared on the front page a week ago, surely changed the nature of the drama. (Reporters everywhere are scratching their heads about the weird mea culpa. One reporter from an Italian newsmagazine called me last week wondering if I could help him understand “why the New York Times would shoot itself in its own balls.”)

The Times, as though helplessly, seems to have seen a scandal at the Times as necessarily the ultimate scandal.

Then there is the Church thing. Those who are in the Church of Our Gray Lady suffer ever so much more than others. They flagellate piously—and assume they deserve special forgiveness because of it.

And then there is the Times’ ever-reliable self-absorption. Hence, its misguided sense that readers would actually be interested in this for 14,000 words. And, too, as a function of this same self-absorption, there is a real sense of awe at the Times about how this could have happened. People at the Times actually believe that it is, in the description of its own columnist William Safire, “the most rigorously edited newspaper in the world,” a protector of sacred fact (which would surprise almost anyone whom the paper has ever written about).

And then there’s the PR thing. The paper overreacted to the anticipated overreaction. This is, after all, an awkward moment. Stephen Glass, the most famous (until now) journalistic maker-upper, is back in the news with a novel and a 60 Minutes appearance. What’s more, the conservative media, in hot pursuit of liberal bias everywhere, is always accusing the liberal media of making it all up. Then, of course, this is an age that demands dramatic corporate self-criticism.

Battle in the Newsroom
How the Jayson Blair scandal touched off a struggle for the soul of the Gray Lady.

What do you think of the Gray Lady’s imbroglio? Discuss.

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?

Troubled Times