The executive editor of the New York Times, during a frequently acrimonious meeting with hundreds of the newspaper’s reporters and editors, vowed Wednesday that he would not resign over the newspaper’s reporting scandal.
Howell Raines apologized to staffers and promised to end a “climate of fear” at the newspaper, which has been rocked by disclosures that Jayson Blair, 27, had used fabricated or plagiarized material in dozens of stories over nearly four years as a New York Times reporter. Blair resigned May 1.
The controversy has engulfed the highly honored newspaper, a 152-year-old institution whose coverage is read closely by the nation’s government, cultural and media elites. And, during the private meeting in a midtown movie theater, Raines, Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd accepted responsibility for the scandal, acknowledging that their oversights and mistakes had caused great pain.
“I’ve received a lot of advice on what to say to you today, all of it well-intended,” Raines said, according to an account released by the newspaper’s corporate spokesperson. “The best came from reporters who told me to speak to you from my heart. So the first thing I’m going to tell you is that I’m here to listen to your anger, wherever it’s directed. To tell you that I know our institution has been damaged, that I accept my responsibility for it and I intend to fix it.”
Raines fielded a host of questions from reporters who were angered that a series of warning signals about Blair’s unprofessional behavior had been ignored by higher-ups. They complained about a hierarchical newsroom culture that intimidated people from criticizing the newspaper’s policies. They wanted to know why Blair had been able to perpetrate his journalistic fraud for so long, according to attendees who spoke on the condition that they not be identified.
Asked if he was going to resign, Raines said he would not. Then, Sulzberger stepped forward to say that he would not accept the editor’s resignation even if it were offered, those present said.
Encouraged to speak their minds, staff members were promised that the paper would address concerns about the Blair controversy, as well as journalistic practices, communication, diversity, staffing, hierarchy, advancement, leadership and equal treatment, according to the statement.
As they filed out of the meeting, only a handful of reporters offered comments. Most looked somber and quietly returned to the newsroom one block away.
Asked to describe the gathering, veteran reporter R.W. “Johnny” Apple was silent for a few seconds, then answered: “Candid.”
“I wouldn’t call [the meeting] congenial,” said sports reporter Mike Wise. “They’ve got a lot of internal problems here, and they want to take care of them.”
Earlier Wednesday, the Times reported that the U.S. attorney’s office had requested information about the case in which Blair misled readers -- and editors -- into thinking that he was in remote locations covering news stories when he was actually in New York. Investigators are “attempting to determine whether Jayson Blair’s reporting conduct violated the law,” the paper said in a statement, adding that it would cooperate with the inquiry.
Representatives of the U.S. attorney’s office declined to discuss the inquiry, including what laws may have been violated.
The newspaper published a four-page postmortem Sunday on Blair’s journalistic transgressions -- listing numerous stories in which he had either made up quotes, plagiarized other reporters’ accounts or invented facts. All the while, staffers say, the morale in the New York Times newsroom has been deteriorating. Columnist Clyde Haberman told the New York Observer that the past 10 days have been “the worst” he’s ever seen at the paper.
The paper acknowledged, for example, that newsroom administrators had ignored a strong warning last year from Metropolitan Editor Jonathan Landman that Blair -- an error-prone reporter who had demonstrated “unprofessional” behavior -- should no longer be writing for the Times. Raines and Boyd, who had been strong promoters of Blair, an African American reporter, not only kept him on the payroll, but eventually promoted him to the national staff without warning Blair’s new editors about his track record.
And it was on the national staff that Blair committed his most egregious acts, according to the newspaper’s account: He filed a series of misleading and, in some cases, false stories about the Washington, D.C., sniper case. He pretended to have spoken to sources in key stories who had no recollection of meeting or talking with him. Blair’s deceit was finally unmasked when the editor of the San Antonio Express-News complained that the New York Times had run a story under Blair’s byline that lifted key paragraphs from an Express-News story.
Confronted with this mounting evidence, Blair resigned.
Raines convened Wednesday’s meeting in an effort to reassure his staff that the Times was serious about correcting the internal problems that had allowed Blair’s behavior to continue unchecked. But he faced some monumental challenges and a crisis of credibility, according to several media observers.
Ken Auletta, a media critic who wrote a lengthy profile of Raines last year for the New Yorker, said one of the central issues facing Raines is “whether there is a culture of fear in the newsroom.... [He] has to answer all the questions, whatever they are, and to lay to rest the concerns that have been raised.”
Others said Raines had to demonstrate a high level of leadership to regain the full confidence of his newsroom.
“He needs to show that he can effectively lead them now, because this is an anguished time, a very painful time at the New York Times,” said Alex Jones, a former New York Times media reporter who now directs the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “This is a moment at the paper when everybody needs to come together and not just be a professional group, but also be a family.”
The setting for the meeting was bizarre: As hundreds of Times reporters and editors entered the movie theater, which had temporarily suspended its showings of “Identity,” they were greeted by a large crowd of reporters, camera crews and photographers from other news organizations. They were also met by a lone demonstrator dressed in a costume and mask as “Baghdad Bob,” a nickname given during the war to the former Iraqi information minister. He heckled the journalists as they entered the theater and held a sign reading: “Former New York Times Reporter: Will Lie for Food.”
When Raines, Sulzberger and Boyd arrived, they strode to a side door but were quickly surrounded by photographers and TV cameras, as if they were entering a courthouse. The sudden tumult attracted the attention of curious passersby.
“You’re kidding, these aren’t movie stars?” asked Sheila Sharkey, visiting New York from Belfast, Northern Ireland. “Never mind,” she said, walking away. “I guess it’s not important.”