With a controversy-torn newsroom to attend to, New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines backed out of an address Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism had planned for last night, leaving the journalists to debate among themselves the impact of his paper’s recent run-ins with pathologically deceptive reporting.
Raines, and the Times, have been the focus of a fire storm of criticism since an internal investigation revealed that one of the paper’s reporters had engaged in large scale plagiarism and outright fabrication.
“He has a responsibility to be at The Times, in his newsroom,” Nieman Foundation Curator Robert Giles said of Raines’ last-minute cancellation. “He needs to be there now.”
The ongoing investigation has so far determined that reporter Jayson Blair misreported at least 36 news stories in the last year. In the wake of the revelations, Raines has come under intense criticism, especially from his own reporters and editors—some of whom have called for his resignation.
In Raines’ place, the Nieman Foundation convened a panel of four experts who spoke to the assembled journalists on the situation at the paper.
Though the Faculty Club event was closed to the press, panelists and others in attendance afterwards shared their thoughts on the broader questions raised by the Times’—and Raines’—mistakes.
Panelist Alex S. Jones called Blair’s behavior “absolutely appalling,” and called on the press to confront the credibility issues it raises head-on.
“This has got to be addressed aggressively by an industry, not just The New York Times,” he said.
However, Jones—a Pulitzer Prize winner and former media reporter for The Times—said the issues had serious internal components as well.
“Howell Raines has got some major fence-mending to do,” said Jones, who is also the director of the Kennedy School of Government’s Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy.
Adrian Walker, a Metro columnist for the Boston Globe, said he had known Blair for seven years, since the reporter was a 20-year-old intern at the paper.
Walker said Blair was a “charming” and “very talented” young reporter who did too much, too fast.
“He was advanced far beyond what he was capable of,” said Walker, adding that Blair’s actions reflected a “pathology.”
Others cited allegations that Blair’s race—he is black—contributed to his swift rise and to the failure of his editors to punish him for his mistakes.
But Jones repeatedly called this focus on race an “injustice,” identifying the real issue as “favoritism” shown to both minority and non-minority reporters at the Times.
“Being black was not getting your ticket punched,” Jones said. “He was given a favored position because he was perceived as having potential.”
Jones also shrugged off the suggestion that Blair’s transgressions had been made possible by Raines’ “top-down” approach.
“News organizations are almost inherently hierarchical,” he said.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that Times writers and editors sharply criticized Raines’ leadership at a heated meeting Wednesday attended by more than 500 staffers.
Jones said that Raines’ style might have rubbed some in the industry the wrong way, leading to a less charitable attitude towards him when the Blair story broke.
“He didn’t have enough in the bank” for other journalists to forgive him right away, Jones said.
Callie Crossley, the Nieman Foundation’s Program Manager, placed the blame for this perception squarely on the shoulders of Raines and his high-level associates at the Times.
“If the editors had taken responsibility, the broader view would have been that anyone, whatever their race, could have done this,” she said, citing instead an “all Jayson, all the time” attitude in the media.
And Crossley said there was no doubt in her mind that Raines and his colleagues at the Times were more responsible for the Blair incident than they have admitted.
“You can cheat if people aren’t at their appointed post,” she said.
—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.