Commentary Magazine


Hard News by Seth Mnookin

Hard News: The Scandals at the New York Times and the Future of American Media
by Seth Mnookin
Random House. 330 pp. $25.95

At some point during the 2003 commotion over Jayson Blair at the New York Times, I found myself embracing a heretical thought: that the story was far less earth-shaking than the paper itself was postulating. Did it really matter so much that a screwed-up young man had plagiarized some stories, had done a lot less on-the-scene reporting than he represented, was finally caught, and rapidly retired?

Clearly, the sequence raised serious personnel issues for the paper’s management. But had readers of Blair’s articles been misled about any major matters? Were his transgressions really worth four full pages in a Sunday edition of the Times—roughly six times the space given that same day to the impending Bush tax cuts? Was it really necessary, three days later, to take over a Broadway movie theater so that the staff—every last Times employee appears to have been invited—could collectively discuss the meaning of it all?

And what was the meaning of it all? When the newspaper’s publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., arose at the meeting to address this question, what he came out with was: “We didn’t do this right. We regret that deeply. It sucks.”

Seth Mnookin, a reporter who has written about the media for Newsweek and other publications, rates that answer as inadequate. He believes the Jayson Blair affair incorporates large lessons that the media ignore at their peril. He also suggests that the sequence of events—which culminated in the dismissal of the paper’s two top editors—showed serious weaknesses in the Times organization. In the course of developing these themes, drawing upon more than 100 interviews (many with staff people talking off the record), he gives readers a good look at the Times‘s peculiar “culture.”

Hard News begins with a familiar tale: the rise and long reign of the Sulzberger family, which took over the daily in 1896 and has retained control ever since. We get a brief sketch of the current incumbent. Many people do not like “Pinch,” as Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. is often called (satirically echoing his father’s nickname of “Punch”), and one senses that Mnookin is among them. He depicts the younger Sulzberger as a child of the 60′s with a mystical side and derisory ideas about management, like “empowering” newsroom denizens low in the pecking order.

Next we come to the book’s main character—one might actually say “main villain.” He turns out not to be Jayson Blair but Howell Raines, the executive editor who was running the Times when the scandal broke and who was one of those ultimately fired in its wake. Over a span of 80 pages, Mnookin takes us through Raines’s journey: a string of journalism jobs beginning in his native Alabama and leading quite rapidly to a job as a correspondent for the Times covering the Reagan White House. In the paper’s Washington bureau he met the young Arthur, nominally a reporter but obviously making one more stop on an heir-apparent’s tour of the family business. The two soon became friendly.

In Mnookin’s account, Raines appears to have cast himself as a mentor to Sulzberger. Over time—long after they had stopped working in the same office—the relationship became a kind of courtship, with Raines making it clear that he yearned for higher things. He soon landed a job running the London bureau, and two years later won the far more important position of Washington bureau chief.

In the early 1990′s, with Arthur, Jr. now established as publisher, Raines offered himself as a regular op-ed columnist. Sulzberger countered with an even better deal: editorial-page editor. For the next nine years, Raines was in charge of Times editorials, tilting noticeably farther to the left than his predecessors but obviously not distressing the publisher (who is himself well to the left of his father). In 2001, just six days before 9/11, Raines took over as executive editor, i.e., boss of all news operations. The paper’s coverage of the Twin Towers disaster was judged a huge success and won seven Pulitzer Prizes, a record for a single publication.

Raines was on top of the world. His wedding reception in March 2003 was attended by New York’s governor and senior U.S. Senator, the city’s mayor, three network anchormen, and, of course, the top tier at the Times. But six weeks later Jayson Blair was in trouble and, it soon became clear, so was Howell Raines.

_____________

 

The story of Jayson Blair—a young black man with virtually no prior professional experience when the Times hired him—comprises about half the book and is mostly great fun to read. The figure at the center of it all was almost comically unfit for the job he was filling. His spelling and grammar were atrocious. He had attended the University of Maryland, but never graduated. He had serious problems with drugs and alcohol. Long before his downfall, he was notorious for error-ridden reporting that resulted in a series of published corrections. But in the spring of 2003, he was still getting important assignments, most recently to help cover a huge national story—the sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C. area. Just before that, his byline had appeared atop a front-page news article about a missing-in-action soldier in Iraq.

The story about the missing soldier, which ran on April 26, 2003, was Blair’s downfall. Datelined Los Fresnos, Texas, it featured an interview with the soldier’s family and a rather detailed description of the household, including the Martha Stewart furniture on the patio. The article was read with intense interest at the San Antonio Express-News, which had also published a feature on the soldier’s family. To anybody comparing the two articles, it would have been instantly clear that the Times reporter had gotten much of his information, beginning but not ending with the patio furniture, from the Express-News, and also had not bothered to change much of the wording. The paper’s editor called the Times to complain, and the fat was in the fire.

Jim Roberts, a national editor who had been supervising Blair for the prior six months, called and asked the young man to explain the similarities. Reaching Blair on his cell phone, Roberts assumed he was in the Washington, D.C. area, where he was supposed to be reporting on the sniper case. In fact, Blair was in Brooklyn. It gradually emerged that (a) he had no coherent explanation for the similarities, (b) he had never been to Los Fresnos, and (c) he had invented the anonymous government sources cited in a front-page story about the Washington sniper that had been effusively praised by Raines. On May 1, Blair resigned from the paper.

Confronted with any such embarrassment, most newspapers would have run a correction and an apology and rapidly turned to other matters. The Times, gripped by its own mythic view of itself, was institutionally incapable of such a response. If a newspaper regards itself not just as a superior publication but as a “public trust,” and sees its journalists as engaged not in mere news-gathering but in a kind of sacred calling, then reportorial derelictions like Jayson Blair’s start to look like national disasters.

So the Times treated it as a blockbuster story. It created a task force—five experienced reporters and a senior editor—with a mandate to tell all. The Times being the Times, and wedded to “diversity,” it also made sure that one of the five members of the task force was black. (There were complaints about diversity anyway. At the mass meeting in the theater, the absence of women on the team was scored.) When the task force turned in its final report after nine days of ’round-the-clock investigation, it was rewarded with those four full pages in the Sunday edition.

_____________

 

The task force had been charged with explaining how the inconceivable could have happened, and what it signified for the paper’s future. Approaching the conclusion of his book, Seth Mnookin incurs comparable obligations. On my reckoning, neither party has done a very good job; and the reasons for their respective failures are somewhat similar.

The law of parsimony tells us that when there are alternative explanations of events, the simplest one is likely to be correct. The most parsimonious explanation for Jayson Blair’s offenses resides in the Times‘s passionate commitment to diversity and affirmative action—i.e., preferences. In trying to understand how an inexperienced, incompetent, and irresponsible young black man could be hired and steadily advanced, no other explanation makes sense.

When the publisher is a “hawk” on behalf of affirmative action—and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. prided himself on being exactly that—the paper’s editors and executives will inevitably be hawkish in their turn. At the 2001 convention of the National Association of Black Journalists, Howell Raines declared that the Times‘s internal affirmative-action campaign had “made our staff better, and, more importantly, more diverse” (emphasis added). When the top people say that diversity counts for more than good journalism, nobody down below will be eager to report malfeasance among affirmative-action hires.

One might think this would be as plain as day to both the Times task force and Mnookin. It is not. Both take refuge in extremely unparsimonious explanations that simply raise more questions. The task force’s line on the Blair affair began with “a failure of communications among senior editors.” To be sure, the task force would have had a problem with affirmative action. An explicit assignment of responsibility to racial preference would logically have been seen as a poke at the publisher—definitely not a good career move for Times reporters and editors.

Mnookin does not have that problem, but, it turns out, he too is a huge fan of preferences. When the scandal first broke, he wrote a column in Newsweek attacking the Times for not immediately reaffirming its commitment to diversity. In his book, we get a somewhat blurry explanation of the Blair affair. There are repeated references to Raines’s bullying management style, said to have inhibited open discussion of any staff problems. In this connection, Mnookin also states:

Blair’s career at the Times had undeniably been shaped by his race—he’d initially been recruited into a minority internship program—but the vagaries of his career under Howell Raines’s tenure had more to do with the favoritism and factionalism that had gripped the paper.

To which the only thing one can say is: huh?

Hard News does little to elaborate the reference in its subtitle to “the future of American media.” To forestall future Jayson Blairs, Mnookin would have newspapers work much harder at ensuring accuracy in their news accounts. He proposes random fact-checking of news stories after their appearance in print, and other unlikely-to-be-adopted measures. Untouched with a ten-foot pole in Hard News is the possibility that systematic liberal bias at the Times, manifest even in its coverage of its own internal woes, is a far larger problem than inaccuracy, or even plagiarism.

_____________

About the Author

Dan Seligman is a contributing editor of Forbes.