Skip to comments."The Battle for the Newsroom" (Jayson Blair/NY Times Scandal)
Posted on 05/26/2003 10:43:42 PM PDT by LdSentinal
How the Jayson Blair scandal touched off a struggle for the soul of the Gray Lady.
It aint 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 aftermathRaines had assumed the office just a week before the planes hit the towersand 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 papers editors and reportersa kind of reporting at which Blair excelled.
That April, Blair and Raines seemed to be going in different directions. Times Metro editor Jonathan Landman, whod 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 Rainess 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, whod chosen Raines to head the paper, and managing editor Gerald Boyd, Rainess 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 newspaperthis precious thing we hold in common, as one reporter has described it. And the hastily called town hall meeting, on May 14, hadnt 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.
Its not the kind of thing youd think youd go through because of the Times.
Inside the theater, it was worse. The outrage wasnt 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 onstagethe 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, Were sorry, were sorry. But the answers were all the same corporate-speak.
Raines went relentlessly after Bill Clinton on his editorial page, and now hes facing impeachment calls of his own. Like the former president, hes given his enemies the ammunition they need. The day before the town-hall meeting, the Washington bureauhome to a number of critics of Rainesheld 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 (thats 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 Rainess 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.
WHO IS JAYSON BLAIR?
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 didnt return calls) didnt seem like such a mystery. When he arrived at the Times after scoring an internship for minority journalists, hed already done time with the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. A precocious kid from suburban Washington, D.C., hed 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 Falwells 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, hed in fact stopped at least a year short. It wasnt 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 eavesdroppingwhich are crucial newsroom skillshe learned everybodys name and quickly went on to know a lot more. In fact, colleagues were amazedto the point of suspicionat 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. Hed tell people theyd 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 wasnt 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. Theres that whole younger generation of Metro reporters, observed one reporter whod gossip and carouse with him. Blair was one of its brightest lights and a social nexus. He hung out at [Robert] Emmetts, on 44th and Eighthone of those new prefab bars on Times Square, with a group of young Times people.
One of Blairs closest friends was Charlie LeDuff, a rising star in Rainess firmament known for his colorful writing style. Jayson would sort of tag along with him, said a friend of LeDuffs. He was very competitive with Charlie, and then kind of took it many, many steps too farbecause he could get away with it.
Also, says a friend of Blairs, 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 youd not do this again, says a reporter. Everybody felt persecuted by it.
But Blair made a show of being singled out. Hed always say, Somebody was on my ass. Why are they on my ass? Its not fair. Why does Charlie get to go and do all these great stories and I dont 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 Blairs personal problems, as the Times has called them, like his journalistic sins, were hidden in plain sight. Its sort of an open secret that he was a cokehead, says an acquaintance on the paper. Everybody says hes a really nice guy; theres something about him thats really strange. But thats partly because hes a total cokehead, said a friend.
Its 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 didnt let people leave until its gone. Every time I saw him, it seemed like it was eight oclock in the morning. The most epic nights Ive ever had, hes been there. And hes been the driving force.
The effects of his bingeing were often too severe to hideand sometimes, he didnt even try. I remember shortly after September 11, I saw him really disheveled on the subway, and he said, Dude, Ive 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. Hes a very nice guy. I know he had a lot of issues, but I dont 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. Hed keep the company car for weeks at a time. Hed 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 Blairs 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, didnt.
THE PAPER AND THE RACE CARD
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 himselfafter 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 mightve 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 didnt deserve to be there.
Blair seemed to understand these issues, and turned them to his advantage. Theres 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 Boyds treatment of Blair, but it wasnt 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 Boyds criticsand there are manytend to cut him slack when it comes to his relationship with Blair. Jayson was really Geralds guy. And I think people will overemphasize that he was black, but I think that came almost more from Jaysons playing of that than Geralds 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, Lelyvelds 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 hed 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 cant have Gerald as the next editor of the paper, says a well-placed Times reporter. And Howell picked Gerald to please Arthur.
Its totally why he picked Boyd, and hes not the best person for the job, says one well-placed Timesman.
Hes Howells henchman, says a Metro-section observer. Howells about politics. Its like Mondale picking Ferraro. They both turned out to be mediocre candidates, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.
POWER AND THE DIVIDED KINGDOM
Saying this scandal is about Blair is like saying Clintons 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 Rainess Times in the way that Tina Browns 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 inRainess 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 regimes coming-out party. But the velvet glove in evidence at the hotel containedof coursean iron fist.
Hes 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, Rainess previous jobs. Arguably, his attacks on Clinton were what got him promotedcertainly they raised his profile. But the take-no-prisoners style has alienated many long-standing reporters.
Theres a philosophy behind all this change. Raines, with Sulzbergers blessing, is taking the paper back to the future, to an older news-gathering model. Hes 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 papers strengths lie, which is in deciding the national news agenda, declaring what is important.
And for all of Rainess interest in racial diversity, his p.c. views, according to some Timespeople, havent 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 authorityaside from Gail Collins, who is the editorial-page editoris Jill Abramson.
But Raines is known for governing by his gut. He has his favoriteslike 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. Hes had stories on the front page almost every day explaining Iraq, even though hes been involved in two of the papers 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 didnt sit well with the Times faithful. Hes kind of run this place like a frat boy, says one Timesman. Theres this atmosphere of immaturity. Theres a lot of laughter over silly things. Its the way he uses football metaphors. Its almost like hes brought down the dignity of the place. Hes 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 isnt a media cool cat. Hes a Timesmans 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 papers 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 werent part of Rainess inner circle, the reporters who werent 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 hasnt 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 Rainess 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 wasnt an interest of Rainess (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 Levys Metro-section investigation of the states poor supervision of mental-health facilities.
Landmans 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 Blairs history, partly because, sources say, Landman didnt tell himbecause Roberts and Landman arent on speaking terms. Which seems a less-than-efficient way to run a news-gathering operation.
WHAT MOOSE KNEW
Landmans 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 Blairs sources. Its 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 moosethe 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.
"Youre sitting in the room with giants in the business, said the reporter. "It was mortifying.
Sound like anyone you know?? <|:)~
ROFL! Was that a Freeper?
That just leaped out at all of us!
"a hectoring man", LOL!
They could at least have said, "a hectoring freeper".
Just double-checking.... This is a lie, right?
Man, that went away long ago. The Old Gray Whore is just another big-city DNC mouthpiece, with no "dignity" left.
Man, that went away long ago. The Old Gray Whore is just another big-city DNC mouthpiece, with no "dignity" left.
Then these "black reporters" are nincompoops. Blair didn't open that door - - that door has been wide open for decades, kicked off its hinges by "affirmative action", Democrat style.
I would trade them all for a good old-fashioned honest liar.
Baghdad Bob, the New York Times needs you to bring integrity back to their badly soiled news staff!
"[W]ent relentlessly after Bill Clinton" means "Raines humped X42's leg."
Oh, but of course. Write a little (and not particularly well) for your high school newspaper, get some letters to editors published, and you're ripe and ready for the Times!
More AA damage control, this time more subtle than the others.
Blair looks particularly coked-up in this 1997 Boston Globe photo.
"It's totally why he picked Boyd, and he's not the best person for the job," says one well-placed Timesman.
"Its totally a boys' club," says one veteran.
"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."
These "Timesmen" speak like doped-out Malibu surfers. Dude, like totally.