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Can 'New York Times' Recover?

Aired June 8, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Earthquake at "The New York Times." Top editors Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd resign in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. Former editor Joe Lelyveld is back in charge for now. How bad is the damage? Can the paper regain its footing? And what about all the anger and bitterness that helped force the regime change?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. How often do the top editors of the "New York Times" have to resign in the face of a staff rebellion? Roughly never. Which is why the toppling of Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd so stunned the paper's headquarters near Times Square, and as a media mob descended, some staffers weren't shy about expressing their anger toward Howell Raines.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I called him Caligula. Everybody was afraid. And he was the nastiest editor I've ever worked with.


KURTZ: Ahead we'll talk with two media watchers and with the editor of the "San Francisco Chronicle."

But first, two "New York Times" reporters join us. Deborah Sontag, a writer for the "Times" Sunday magazine. And David Carr, a media reporter for the "New York Times." Welcome.

David Carr, you know from covering the press that a lot of good editors are not necessarily real popular with the troops. Why did the anger and resentment toward Howell Raines become the story even to the point of kind of eclipsing the Jayson Blair saga?

DAVID CARR, MEDIA REPORTER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I think that to suggest that there was some kind of coup d'etat is a little bit off the mark. I don't know about your newspaper, Howard, but ours is not a democracy. I think the leadership of the paper decided that because of the dimensions of the problem with Jayson Blair that it was necessary for the top editors to take a hard look at whether they could lead the paper. And I think they made the decision, an honorable one, to step aside for the good of the paper. KURTZ: Well, no newspaper that I know of is a democracy, but I also know that Howell Raines up until about 24 hours before he decided to resign, was setting up meetings and looked like he was planning to stay on for a while. Deborah Sontag, what has it been like to be in the middle of this tornado, kind of watch it spin out of control to the point that two leaders of the paper in a surprise to almost everyone decided to step down?

DEBORAH SONTAG, WRITER, "NEW YORK TIMES" SUNDAY MAGAZINE: Well, it's been incredibly distracting, and it's -- we've had a hard time getting our work done, and I think that when this climaxed this week and then Howell and Gerald were suddenly gone, vanished into the day, and Joe, our former leader, was back, you know, there was like a peak of emotion and then kind of a calm descended, and you could feel that the air was a bit more oxygenated. You know, we were calm by the end of the week, feeling we could actually get back to journalism.

KURTZ: A great sense of relief, then, after more than a month of substantial turmoil. David Carr, despite whatever missteps occurred on the unraveling of the Jayson Blair scandal, if Howell Raines was more popular with the staff could he have ridden this out?

CARR: I'm not so sure. I think that part of what went on is Howell had a certain skill set that served him very well in running the editorial page and in running the Washington bureau. Being the editor of the "New York Times" is being involved in mass communications. And I'm not sure he realized early enough that the staff was going to be assigning meaning to every flick of his eyebrow. And in a sense, the dimensions of the leadership challenge after a while tended to overwhelm him. He's still a very talented, very smart guy. It just is a very, very complicated job.

KURTZ: His strengths as an editor, I think, have been overlooked to some degree during this furor, you know, leading the paper to six Pulitzer Prizes, for example, for coverage of 9/11, but also, by his own admission, creating perhaps inadvertently what he described as a "culture of fear" at the paper.

A lot of staff members have told me, Deborah Sontag, that they were unhappy with both Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd for kind of retreating into a bunker, not giving any interviews and not publicly defending the paper during some of the worst of the criticism over the handling of Jayson Blair and then over the flap over Rick Bragg, the reporter who resigned over criticism of his use of stringers. Did you agree with that?

SONTAG: I think one senior editor described to me that the atmosphere at the top was sort of like what they imagined the West Wing during the Lewinsky scandal must have been like. And you know, we felt, yes, that they should have, especially after the furor about Rick Bragg, that they should have come out and said the way Rick Bragg was doing business was not the way the majority of "New York Times" reporters do business, that we, you know, do our own work, that we're excited to go out and talk to people, that is why we are in this business, we're not just rewrite people. And they kind of did not speak for us. And I think yes, people were waiting for that to happen and disappointed that it did not.

KURTZ: David, you know, the "Times" ran about 7,000 words on -- detailing all of Jayson Blair's fabrications and plagiarism. But in that piece, no one in top management seemed to accept responsibility. In retrospect, was that a mistake? Because it kind of fueled a lot of criticism about, well, who's ultimately responsible here for this having happened?

CARR: I think that's fair, Howie. I think what looked like a ledge turned into a trap door, in part because there weren't enough fingers pointed at the top. That was a decision made by the executives and certainly not by the able reporters that did the story. But I think it's important to remember that in the end, they ultimately took responsibility for what they did in a way that few corporate leaders right now are. I think in a way it was a model of corporate accountability because the two top guys had to go.

KURTZ: Deborah Sontag, is there some sympathy for Gerald Boyd for having to sort of walk the plank along with Howell Raines, or is there a feeling that, you know, he also bears some responsibility for the missteps and mishandling, particularly in the Jayson Blair case?

SONTAG: I think if you had taken a straw poll of the newsroom, you would find that an overwhelming majority of people felt that Gerald Boyd should stay at the paper. He's very much a part of the heart of the paper. You know, he should take responsibility. He was part of the management that so alienated and isolated so many -- such a large proportion of its staff. But there was a lot of affection for him, and I guess we would have hoped that he could find a way to step over to the business side for a year, or something, and then come back to the place where he had made a mark. He was a very humane guy.

KURTZ: David Carr, if you were still at "New York" magazine and were writing this story, would you say in your penultimate paragraph that the "New York Times" has unavoidably been badly damaged by this episode?

CARR: Well, it's hard for me to have that perspective, because after all, I am in the belly of the beast. But I woke up this morning along with two million Americans, read "The New York Times." I believed what I saw. I think it's in the DNA of the paper to write true and good things. I do think that Jayson Blair represented a breach of the contract. But I think the paper within a month of it happening has done a good job of repairing the breach and doing its best with Joe Lelyveld leading to move on.

It was not a misdemeanor matter. It was a very, very big deal. But I think the paper is mending as we speak.

KURTZ: And on that point, Deborah Sontag, you talked about the great sense of relief at former editor Joe Lelyveld coming back. Of course, he's going to be an interim editor for a couple of months until Arthur Sulzberger picks a new executive editor. Is it really too soon to say that everyone is now going to be calm there, or are there still pretty raw wounds here that are going to take some time to heal? SONTAG: I think for the moment we're going to enjoy getting back to business. But of course, it is a time of transition. Joe is only going to be there briefly. We don't know who will follow him. There is some anxiety about that. So it's not, you know, all peachy.

KURTZ: Anxiety is not an uncommon feeling in newsrooms, particularly when the leadership is changing hands. Deborah Sontag and David Carr, thanks very much under the circumstances for coming on and talking to us about what life has been like at "New York Times."

When we come back, we'll talk more about the upheaval on West 43rd Street with "San Francisco Chronicle"'s editor Phil Bronstein, "New York" magazine's Michael Wolff, and author Susan Tift. In a moment.



JAYSON BLAIR, FORMER "NEW YORK TIMES" REPORTER: I'm truly sorry for my actions and what they've done. I felt like, you know, I was in a cycle of self-destruction that I never intended, and I never intended for it to hurt anyone else.


KURTZ: Jayson Blair sounding a more contrite tone than he has in recent interviews. Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

And joining me now to talk more about the turmoil at the "Times" and what it means to journalism are three veteran journalists. In San Francisco, Phil Bronstein, the editor of "The San Francisco Chronicle." In New York, Michael Wolff, media columnist for "New York" magazine. And Susan Tift, co-author of "The Trust, the Private and Powerful Family Behind 'The New York Times.'" She's also a Duke University professor of journalism and an occasional "Times" contributor. Welcome, all.

Phil Bronstein, wouldn't you feel shafted if you lost your job because one of your employees turned out to be a pathological liar?

PHIL BRONSTEIN, EDITOR, "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE": I think, Howie, that it would depend on the extent of the damage to the institution, in this case the "San Francisco Chronicle." I think it would depend on what the culture was that existed that perhaps allowed that to happen. So I think this issue is not about one pathological liar. This issue is about culture, it seems to me. I mean, we don't know what's going on in the "Times" newsroom. We'll find out when all the books come out, what people are really thinking and what's really happening. But from what we can tell, certainly 3,000 miles away, it's a cultural issue as much as it is about one person.

KURTZ: Michael Wolff, corporate leaders are not known for being warm, handholding types. Should Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd have had to resign because a lot of the staff just didn't like their management style? MICHAEL WOLFF, "NEW YORK" MAGAZINE: No, as a matter of fact. And I don't think that that's why they resigned. I think that they resigned because the powers that be at "The New York Times," the shareholders of the "New York Times," decided that they were no longer -- that they were no longer useful to the future of this organization. You know, I mean, I think that in the end, end of the day, it comes down to, as it so often does, to lots of other people protecting their jobs.

KURTZ: Susan Tift, what is it about the culture of the "New York Times," a place you know pretty well, that unleashed all this anger and bitterness toward the two top editors once the Jayson Blair problem became front page news just about everywhere else?

SUSAN TIFT, AUTHOR: Well, first of all, you know, this is unprecedented in the history of the "Times." It's never really happened quite this publicly at "The New York Times." The "Times" has kind of a courtier (ph) culture, almost like the court of Louis XIV. And there's always a lot of sniping and carping in the newsroom and by the water cooler.

But I think the thing about "The Times" is that there's always been this kind of insular culture, this idea that they are, in a way, kind of, if you will, kind of in the Vatican, kind of really the top temple of journalism. And I think the fact that this kind of plagiarism and deceit could happen at a place like that was something that angered people at the "Times." And then I think it was, of course, the high-handed and heavy-handed management style of Howell Raines.

KURTZ: That's actually some milder adjectives than some "Times" people have been using in interviews, both on the record and on background. Phil Bronstein, was the cardinal sin here the failure to catch far earlier than they did the fabrications and plagiarism of Jayson Blair? I mean, would you as an editor of a large newspaper necessarily know if one of your reporters was misquoting someone or stealing elements from other stories?

BRONSTEIN: Well, I think not necessarily. And part of the problem, Howie, I mean, we have to keep in mind two things. One is that there are thousands of journalists, not just at "The New York Times," but around the country who are going to work every day and practicing their craft with a great deal of ethics and style and skill. So this is an aberration.

But it's an aberration that will happen, these kinds of things. Janet Cook comes to mind and others. I think the problem is the issue of the notion of infallibility. The Vatican was mentioned. It's not just "The New York Times." I think journalism in general, print journalism in particular, has to be very careful not to project itself as being infallible. So I think, yes, one can argue about the details of this. If you have 50 mistakes that a reporter makes that had to be corrected, you really -- you know, you should have paid attention on the first 10.

But I think it's easier to point a finger than it is to sort of look in at our own system, and overall journalistically we need to tell people, look, we're an imperfect profession, we're an art more than a science, just like a lot of professions, including medicine. There are good practitioners, there are bad practitioners.

KURTZ: Right. And these kinds of problems have cropped up in other major newspapers and magazines. But on this question, Michael Wolff, of telling people that you're not a perfect institution, as I mentioned earlier, you know, Raines and Boyd kind of went into the bunker, they held staff meetings and issued memos, but they didn't do interviews. They were seen by their own troops as not publicly defending the reporters and editors, the 99 percent who work hard and play by the rules and don't fabricate or plagiarize. Doesn't "The New York Times" understand basic public relations?

WOLFF: Well, obviously not. I mean, this was a botched job from the get-go. From the 14,000 words of apology that they issued several weeks ago, I mean, which I think are at the root of why they ultimately had to resign, to the last several weeks of bunkerdom. Obviously, everything was wrong. But I think it's also interesting and important to realize that neither Raines nor Boyd were the top, were ultimately making the decisions here. They have a boss, and their boss was as intimately involved with this as anyone. And he's Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. And I think that becomes the next part of this story and the interesting part. What part did the family play in this, and what happens to Arthur now?

KURTZ: Susan Tift, the Sulzberger family plays a prominent role in your book about "The New York Times." Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., for those who are not intimately familiar, you know, is the man who appointed Howell Raines, who vowed very publicly at a staff meeting not to accept Raines' resignation. He's also succeeded his father, Arthur Sulzberger, Sr., as publisher and CEO of the company. And then obviously Sulzberger changed his mind after taking the staff temperature.

How much, if at all, in your view, has he been tarnished by these events?

TIFT: Well, I don't think he can consider it a success, can he? But I think one thing you have to remember about the Sulzberger family is that it's in their DNA to protect "The New York Times." That is what they call their jewel. That's the central focus of the family. And at the end of the day, they're going to do whatever it takes to protect that paper.

I think Arthur became persuaded by some events this week and possibly, probably even likely by some tough talk with his father, "Punch" Sulzberger, the former publisher and chairman, and other members of the family, that this was the way to go. And I'm sure he was very unhappy about it. I mean, Raines was his pick.

But I think at the very end of the day he's going to have to do what's best for the "New York Times," and that's been very much in the tradition of the family.

KURTZ: Was it a smart move, Phil Bronstein, to bring back the former executive editor, Joe Lelyveld, to kind of try to right the ship (UNINTELLIGIBLE), as it was so clearly floundering?

BRONSTEIN: Well, again, Howie, I think, you know, we can engage in a little too much Kremlinology (ph) in this, but yes, I think...

KURTZ: But it's so much fun.

BRONSTEIN: Yes, so much fun for you on the East Coast. Here on the West Coast, I don't know. But I think, you know, bringing back someone who represented stability, who was well liked but also someone who was very skilled, clearly and certainly from what we're reading of the comments of the people at "The Times," including your two guests earlier, it has had a calming effect, and I think that's what needs to happen.

KURTZ: Right. Let me jump in and ask you this, Phil Bronstein, because you've been on the other side of this camera. You've been written about, not just because you're a hotshot editor but because you're married to Sharon Stone. You've been the subject of unwelcome media coverage. To some degree, did the press furor over Howell Raines get out of control?

BRONSTEIN: You know, I think the press can tend to devour you, particularly when you're not used to being on that side, on the other side of the camera. Out of control? Probably not. I think the press does what it does. And we're now in this sort of Roman amphitheater period of our culture with reality television and, you know, some TV shows, yours obviously not included, being more like "Survivor" than like journalism. And I think that's going to happen, and it will happen. And we wait for the pendulum to swing back. But I think so far there's been probably too much publicity. There's been too much for I think the average reader or average listener, but I don't think it's been particularly savage.

KURTZ: We need to get a break in. And when we come back, can the "Times" and journalism recover? In a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Michael Wolff in New York, as a product, as a brand, as a journalistic standard setter, how badly has "The New York Times" been soiled here?

WOLFF: Well, it's been soiled badly. But I think that this is almost a larger story. "The New York Times" is involved in an interesting transition. It has been for its entire life a regional metropolitan paper. It is now in the process of becoming a national suburban paper. And I actually think that this is at the root of what's happened here.

KURTZ: At the root?

WOLFF: That there is a change in the DNA of the paper. And that's what we're seeing. And I don't have any idea where it will end and how this new creature will come out.

KURTZ: You're saying more pressures to push the envelope harder just because you're writing for a national and international audience?

WOLFF: Definitely. I think you are writing for a larger and less discriminating audience. It's not an audience particularly interested in the paper of record anymore.


WOLFF: It's an audience that wants to be entertained, like any news audience anywhere.

KURTZ: Where have we heard this before? Phil Bronstein, you run "New York Times" wire stories, as do many newspapers, in "The Chronicle." Will you now be more wary of some of those, and do you think readers will be more wary of "The Chronicle" because of the fallout from this whole affair?

BRONSTEIN: Well, I think, you know, Howie, we're sort of going in the other direction. "The New York Times," it must be said, has a tradition of consistency for 100 years of being a newspaper of quality. Not all newspapers can say that. San Francisco print journalism has not been known particularly historically for being great, whether deserved or not. And we're kind of moving in the opposite direction. We're doing more investigative pieces and more cultural pieces, we're better reflecting the San Francisco Bay area. And so we're kind of moving towards being a great paper. And the "New York Times," you know, is sitting at a pinnacle. And anytime something like this happens, it starts to fall a little bit. There's no question about it.

KURTZ: When you're on top, everybody likes to shoot at you. Let me...

BRONSTEIN: But in terms of our stuff, in terms of our wire stuff, we're always cautious, whether it's "The New York Times" or the AP or anyone else.

KURTZ: OK. Caution is a good byword here. Susan Tift, is this something that journalists mainly obsess over, or in the wake of Steven Glass and CNN's "Tailwind" debacle and the "L.A. Times" Staples Center scandal, is this another nail in the coffin of media credibility?

TIFT: I think the credibility is already at a very low ebb as the Gallup poll recently showed us. But I think there's a silver lining here for journalists and for the "New York Times," and that is that I think this is going to make us all, "New York Times" included, be stronger and pay much more attention to the basics, journalism 101, accuracy, fairness, balance, that sort of thing.

KURTZ: One would like to be optimistic on that point. Susan Tift, Phil Bronstein, Michael Wolff, thanks very much for a great discussion.

When we come back, it's all Hillary all the time in the media.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: "TIME" magazine this morning is sticking with its cover on Hillary Clinton, despite the fact that its exclusive book excerpt is no longer exclusive, with copies of her book leaking out. And before Barbara Walters' exclusive ABC sit-down with the senator tonight, Tim Russert this morning airing a clip on "Meet the Press" of Clinton's pre-taped interview for tomorrow morning's "Today" show. Everyone wants a piece of this Hillary story immediately, if not sooner.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. Stay tuned for an interview with Secretary of State Colin Powell on "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER," which begins right after this check of the hour's top stories.


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