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May 18, 2003
David Warsh, Proprietor


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The Name of the Moose

When New York Times Co. chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. fired Boston Globe publisher Benjamin Taylor four years ago, little attention was paid to fact that Sulzberger was deposing one of the handful of persons in the Times organization who could pose a threat to him internally were he to get in trouble, given that his hold on his family company was less than completely secure. It was a little like a subplot in a Shakespeare history play.

Newspaper families resemble hereditary monarchies, and the 52-year-old Taylor, four years older than Sulzberger, was one of the more widely-liked and well-respected figures in the industry. The Times had acquired the Globe in 1993, amid promises of a “moral commitment” to retain Taylor family management.

The Taylors had run the Globe since 1873. The Ochs-Sulzbergers had owned the Times since 1896. Sulzberger has succeeded to the chairmanship 18 months before, but only after the handful of cousins who controlled the Times put aside their differences of opinion about his suitability in the face of a bid by an non-family member, president Lance Primis, to take control. With the Taylors out and the Globe fully under Times management, there would be one fewer set of insider opinions that mattered.

Instead, stories treated the sacking of the fifth-generation Boston newspaperman in 1999 as a straightforward business matter, a manager’s routine failure to “hit the numbers” — complete with well-timed New Yorker profile of Sulzberger by the Sulzbergers’ authorized biographers, Susan Tifft and Alex Jones.

“In a remarkably short time,” they wrote, “Arthur has grown into a serious, self-disciplined executive and has been responsible for bringing more changes to the Times than anyone since his great-grandfather, Adolph Ochs, who bought the paper more than a century ago.”

Who can compete with that kind of spin? Let me disclose my interest in these matters at the start. I was among the many casualties of that management change. I was an admirer of the Taylors as well. But then there’s nothing like a mild degree of involvement to quicken the powers of observation.

For last week Arthur Sulzberger Jr. was in trouble, and the logic of his quickly having eliminated members of possible rival coalitions was clearer than ever before. The New York Times finally is in the hands of a scion who may not be up to the job.

The New York Times is an enormous force in the news business today because, from the beginning, it has aimed so high. In his very first editorial, proprietor Ochs pledged in 1896 “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of any party, interest or sect involved.” For more than a century, the Times has striven to maintain the delicate tension between innovation and even-handedness that the prescription implies.

Many other wonderful papers have illuminated different aspects of the newspaper game for periods of time during those hundred years, then gone out of business or otherwise fallen by the way — The New York World, The Boston Transcript, The New York Herald Tribune and The Chicago Daily News, for example. But the Times has kept getting bigger and better and more important with every passing year.

True, The Wall Street Journal long ago surpassed it in circulation and, at least in some quarters, influence. Now, the Times is trying to catch up. Having moved beyond its shrinking base in metropolitan New York in favor of a national edition that is printed (like the Journal) in cities all across the country, the Times is expected to soon be printing (like the Journal and the London Financial Times today) in countries around the world.

True, too, there have been some conspicuous deviations from the norm. Walter Duranty, the Times’ Moscow correspondent, was an apologist for Stalin throughout the period of 1930s purges. Herbert Matthews was enthusiastic to a fault about Fidel Castro. The Times itself deliberately downplayed the news that came its way about the Holocaust, for fear of being dismissed as a Jewish newspaper engaged in special pleading.

But these exceptions only serve to underscore the remarkable record of evenhandedness and creativity that the Times achieved. The Washington Post may have beaten it thoroughly to the Watergate story and become a better-run business. The Wall Street Journal may possess significantly higher standards of clarity and fairness. But for all its recent broadening-out to attract new readers, The Wall Street Journal remains a paper with a business focus. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, cosmopolitan as they may be, are rooted in their regions. They are not quite national papers.

The Times, on the other hand, remains The Times. You have only to think of John Burns’ dispatches from Baghdad, say, or Clifford Levy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series last year on the abuse of mentally-ill patients in state-operated homes in New York, or, for that matter, to look at any day’s front page. The New York Times is not so much a newspaper as an intimation of a dream of what a newspaper could be, a World’s Fair of journalism, reconfigured daily.

In fact there are today two Times — The Times as it was, and The Times as it has evolved in the hands of its current publisher since 1992. Under Sulzberger’s father, “Punch,” a succession of editors — Turner Catledge, James Reston, A.M. Rosenthal, Max Frankel — managed to keep the paper both balanced and enterprising. Fair play is harder than it looks. A newspaper has a responsibility to maintain the consensus, even as it seeks to change it.

During the nearly thirty years in which Punch Sulzberger was publisher, The Times made an extraordinary journey — from the aftermath of Bay of Pigs incident (in which the paper’s managers had acquiesced to government’s pleadings that it withhold the news it had uncovered of an impending US-sponsored invasion of Cuba) to the Pentagon Papers case (when it defied the government to publish its secret history of the war in Vietnam.) Throughout, the Times managed to retain the respect of those whom it covered.

The new New York Times emphasizes the innovation part of the traditional recipe, and de-emphasizes balance. As long ago as 1998, this led media critic Jack Shafer to ask in an article called The Changelings, “When did The Washington Post swap identities with The New York Times? One day, it seemed [he wrote], The Post rollicked readers with the cheeky personality and the next suffocated them with the sort of overcast official news that had made The Times famous. Meanwhile, The Times sloughed its Old Gray Lady persona for the daredevilry that was the Post franchise.”

That was uncommonly shrewd in 1998. Since then, The Times has often overshot, until today its dominant overtones seem, at least to me, to have become strident, intemperate, even undignified. This is strong language, I know, and a big newspaper is a very complicated place. Plenty of straight journalism appears in The Times every day. But “edge” and “attitude,” those signature concepts of the ’90s, slowly have been gaining the upper hand.

And the memorable stories of recent years are those in which the newspaper threw its weight around — the long trials of the Clinton Administration; the peculiarly exaggerated fever over the supposed Chinese theft of American nuclear secrets; the drawn-out badgering of the Augusta National Golf Club last year over its failure to admit women; the ultimate trivialization of the Enron story through excessive coverage.

These campaigns — most of them conducted on the Times’ front page — have not been as excessive as the various crusades undertaken on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal during the last twenty years. Indeed, the Journal’s editorial page successes in marshalling public opinion may have goaded the Times into seeking to achieve similar effects. (A battalion of wall-flies would be required to know for sure.) But the Times’ various campaigns have been startling nevertheless — including the one waged since the last election against George W. Bush.

And while the Times op-ed page possesses two of the most talented commentators in the business in Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman, the failure of its editors to hold them to elementary standards of courtesy and fair play has created the impression that the paper no longer cares about the place it traditionally has occupied among newspapers.

In all these matters, it is the publisher who ultimately sets the tone.

Oddly enough, it is the recent flap over the various misdeeds of a young reporter named Jayson Blair that has called into question Sulzberger’s stewardship of the paper. On the surface of it, the facts are straightforward. Blair, 27, had been a reporter for the paper for four years, rising from the lowly status of a college intern to the lofty position of a staffer undertaking assignments for the national desk. After a San Antonio newspaper raised questions of plagiarism in April, the Times conducted an investigation, and last week printed an extensive story about Blair’s many fabrications, and how they were overlooked for so long.

It was not a simple story. It turned out that numerous editors had quietly voiced warnings about Blair’s sloppy reporting and irregular behavior — virtually from the beginning of his service. These culminated in April 2002 in a two-sentence memo from his supervisor, metropolitan editor Jonathan Landman, to the newsroom’s managers. “We have to stop Jayson writing for the Times. Right now.”

Yet even after this unambiguous warning, Blair’s meteoric rise continued and even accelerated — apparently because the paper’s two top editors, executive editor Howell Raines and national editor Gerald Boyd, wanted him to succeed. They assigned him to cover two of the most important national stories of the day — the sniper attacks in Washington, developments on the home front during the war with Iraq.

In the Times story last week, Raines and Boyd were portrayed as men who had been betrayed by a diabolically clever deceiver. “Every newspaper, like every bank and every police department, trusts its employees to uphold central principles, and the inquiry found that Mr. Blair repeatedly violated the cardinal tenet of journalism, which is simply truth,” the authors of the investigation wrote. The implication was that it was difficult to catch a determined liar.

In fact, the Times’ story last week satisfied almost no one.

For one thing, new facts quickly surfaced revealing a greater degree of closeness between the top editors and the man whose career they had advanced. The youngster Blair, for example, had nominated the veteran Boyd “journalist of the year” to the National Association of Black Journalists — then wrote up news of the award and of Boyd’s subsequent promotion to managing editor for the Times house organ.

For another, the Times investigation made only the most fleeting reference to outside opinion as to how various institutional failures had occurred. Outsiders were, naturally, quick to volunteer their opinions, and also surface the views of insiders who otherwise were reluctant to speak out. Village Voice commentator Cynthia Cotts, for example, who follows the Times as closely as anyone, described one veteran as saying that Jayson Blair had been a favorite not because he was black but because he was green — that is, youthful, pliable and anxious to please.

“The Times newsroom does not operate as a meritocracy,” wrote Cotts, citing another Times insider. “Instead, sources say, Raines and Boyd pick their favorites for whatever reasons and become so invested in showcasing these reporters that they turn a blind eye to their flaws, which are said to range variously from inexperience and laziness to intellectual dishonesty and a high volume of factual errors.” Yes, reporters always doubt their editors’ judgment — still, some mechanism of this sort must have been at work to account for the more extreme dissonance in the Blair case.

Most startling of all was the Times’ apparent determination to shrug off the episode. “The person who did this is Jayson Blair,” said publisher Arthur Sulzberger in a valedictory quotation near the story’s end. “Let’s not begin to demonize our executives — either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher.” With that stonewall defense, the paper’s management apparently rested.

Don’t look for the rest of the newspaper industry to rush to the Times’ defense.

The fact is that the newspaper industry has changed a great deal in the last twenty years. I don’t pretend to know enough to evaluate Sulzberger’s performance as CEO of the business, except to note that he is facing many new commercial pressures that his father never did. He has been publisher for a dozen years now, chairman since 1997. For most of that time, the share price has stayed up.

But the Blair story is sure to refocus attention on Sulzberger’s stewardship of the Times. He narrowly dodged a bullet two years ago when newsroom opposition to the creation of a Times Digital “tracking stock” delayed its issue just long enough for the dot.com bubble to collapse — without involving the Times directly in the debacle.

The manner in which he forced The Washington Post to surrender its half of The International Herald Tribune to the Times has been widely criticized in the newspaper industry — even if the Times’ decision to expand abroad makes sense. Next, the Times is readying a big push into television, with the purchase of a major stake in the Discovery Channel, now the Times Discovery Channel. The venture may or may not succeed.

Even the situation at the Boston Globe continues to disappoint. Sunday circulation was 730,000 copies in 1999, the year the Taylor family was dismissed. In the accounting period just ended, 705,000 copies of the Sunday paper were reported sold, despite more liberal accounting rules — a 3.5 percent decline in the last 6 months alone. And weekday circulation plunged 6.3 percent to 449,000, the worst performance of any major American newspaper. This in a year when the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the Catholic Church’s cover-up of priestly sexual abuse.

All of which must be disappointing to a man who rode into the Times on his enthusiasm for “Total Quality Management.” In fact, Sulzberger has displayed throughout his career a softspot for management fads, “mission statements,” “leadership moments” and the like. In recent years a favorite gimmick around the Times has been to speak of “the moose in the room” — a reference to a cautionary business fable about out-of-bounds problems in which a moose is invited to dinner and no guest is willing to ask why.

Sure enough, when the Times managers held a meeting last week to permit its staff to vent complaints about the Blair affair, there on the stage of the rented movie theater was the mounted head of a moose. Expressed was much anger and dismay about the managerial style of editor Howell Raines. But at The New York Times, the name of the moose is Arthur.

* * *

There is some disagreement among reporters as to role of the moose last week when the editors and publisher met an estimated 600 staffers of The New York Times in a rented theater in Times Square last week.

Peter Johnson wrote in USA Today, “A moose head — a longtime prop intended to assure forthright and honest discussion at the paper — was on stage with the executives.”

Mickey Kaus, on the other hand, writes in Slate, “My sources, plus the Daily News,say Pinch [publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.] had a stuffed toy moose in a plastic bag and dumped it on Raines’ lap (which might be kind of symbolic, if you think about it)…”

It makes a difference, of course. Unrelenting bombast? Or self-deprecating humor designed to demonstrate that executives had abandoned their previous pretensions?

Readers who (like me) were not at the meeting may be unable to form a judgement. Here is a profession of a changed heart, in management’s own words, from a memo to the staff the next day, signed “Arthur, Howell and Gerald.”

“We will not tolerate an atmosphere where people feel afraid or disenfranchised. We accept our responsibility for creating that environment. We apologize and commit ourselves to fixing it. Our goal, as we told you yesterday, is to ensure that our newsroom is a place where every man or woman feels valued and fulfilled.”

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One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] 21-year tenure as publisher has been marred by many firings.  It started back with Boston Globe publisher Benjamin Taylor in 1999 (having bought The Globe for $1.1 billion […]


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