Archive for Sunday, June 8, 2003

N.Y. Times begins healing process

June 8, 2003

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I knew journalism itself was making news when I picked up the latest issue of Time magazine and spotted a reference to the Internet site Romenesko in the back-page cartoon. Romenesko is a "daily fix" of media news and gossip, not a name I thought was part of the lexicon of anyone who wasn't a journalism junkie.

But there it was, in a general magazine, without even an asterisk of explanation.

Of course, the cartoon wasn't about the goings-on at any ol' newspaper. Journalists do to each other what we are accused of doing to everyone else: Swoop in like turkey vultures after the prey, scouring the landscape for fresh meat and the chance to show how silly the mighty look as they tumble, especially when we're envious they rose so high in the first place.

And, my, how we've gone after the New York Times. Just check out Romenesko to see how many have opined that the Times was in deep trouble after examples of sloppy, deceptive reporting and incompetent management were revealed. When a name that had become shorthand for excellence becomes the butt of late-night TV jokes, it's too difficult to resist.

Then came Thursday's resignations of editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd.

Sorry, but gloating must take a short break. Even if their departures were necessary -- and clearly they were -- this is a heartbreaking development.

It's heartbreaking because the Times is the gold standard in American journalism. The breadth and intelligence of its news, commentary, design and editorial mission are virtually without peer. I grew up with that newspaper, and it shaped my love of journalism and public life the way the music of his father influenced Mozart. It hung in the air, an ideal to meet.

Then to read about Jayson Blair and his continual lies; Rick Bragg and his deceptive use of stringers; and the arrogant, top-down management style of Raines and Boyd, made me want to throw up my hands in disgust. The reporters I know would never make up facts, deceive their editors and, worse, their readers. The editors I know would not stand for such unprofessional behavior, never mind promote it.

Now you, the reader, will have every right to doubt our integrity if the Times, the gold standard, was so discredited.

That is why Raines' and Boyd's resignations were inevitable and essential as the first step toward restoring not only the Times' good name, but also the credibility of American journalism. No longer should our misdeeds become the story.

At the risk of indulging my Pollyanna instincts, I'd like to believe that good can come of this. In fact, it already has.

In the month since the Times' scandal broke, the aforementioned Romenesko digest of goings-on at newspapers has offered countless examples of editors revisiting their own codes of ethics and behavior. To the degree that the profession examines and improves its practices, all society benefits. It may be fashionable to deride our free and rambunctious press, but find me a democracy that can thrive without one.

The New York Times' leadership had lost not only the respect of its newsroom. It also was losing its connection to readers. The string of embarrassing inaccuracies published under Blair's byline showed how little the public believed it was invited to challenge and correct the big, gray, establishment newspaper.

The lesson is crucial. Newspapers must be perceived to be part of a community, not above it. If we are inaccessible, if we are arrogant, then we will lose the trust of the very people we are here to serve.

In the wake of all this, I do hope that one thing will not be forgotten: The New York Times of Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd produced extraordinary journalism. The paper's work after the 2001 terrorist attacks -- which occurred days after Raines took over -- showed that journalists could be more than recorders, opiners and watchdogs. We could, through our words and pictures, help heal a community.

Now we wish for healing at the New York Times.

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