The NYT's Much Ado About the Wrong Thing

On the morning of Thursday, June 5, the leadership of the New York Times called together their staff for the second major town hall meeting in as many weeks. The first time, editors Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd fell three-quarters of the way down their swords -- dispensing mea culpas but, in executive editor Raines' case, stating he would not resign.

This time, they resigned.

I've got one simple question. Why?

This is not a trick question. It strains belief to think that that one ludicrously megalomaniacal liar, Jayson Blair, could topple this paper. If so, it may well be that he was simply one domino who started a chain reaction.

Take the first town hall meeting. Raines said, "You view me as inaccessible and arrogant. You believe the newsroom is too hierarchical, that my ideas get acted on and others get ignored. I heard that you were convinced there's a star system that singles out my favorites for elevation." According to one reporter in the room, this self-denunciation didn't mollify the assemblage as much as inspire bloodlust. Now that heads have rolled, what kind of newsroom will emerge?

My prediction is that there will be a final round of mea culpas, and then it's back to business as usual. No, I don't mean letting liars run wild -- that was never typical. I mean getting rid of the autocratic management style that stifles real innovation and creativity. Raines' fiefdom was called "the republic of fear." It will take tremendous courage, including the willingness to experiment and fail, for this institution to become more democratic. If the Times became more open to the needs and contributions of its reporters, it could set a tremendous precedent for the industry.

Unfortunately, the business right now resembles a herd of sheep. Many editors assign pieces more to impress their fellow editors than to serve the needs of the public. When I read the pile-on of attack pieces about the New York Times, I hear a distant baaa.

Most media institutions would be better served looking at scandals closer to home: the gaps in their own coverage. My nominations for the top media scandals of the year:

  • Why didn't news organizations have the courage to challenge the Bush Administration's flimsy, now-discredited, rationales for war?

  • Where are the follow-up investigations on spectacular business debacles like Enron? Where'd the money go, and how can we prevent corporate fraud in the future?

  • Why did we only learn of the loopholes cutting poor families from the tax cut after it was passed?

  • Why isn't there more innovative reporting on critical, but not sexy, issues like public education and the growing debt spiral facing American families?

  • Why isn't there more innovative reporting on successes in citizen action, like the California referendum mandating treatment for nonviolent drug offenders which has shrunk the country's largest prison system?

  • And, yes, why isn't there more innovative reporting on the media industry itself, particularly remembering the media's role in the 2000 election debacle and leading up to the 2004 elections?

The biggest challenge facing the news industry today is not any single fraud, but whether journalism itself is relevant to the lives of Americans. That's one town hall meeting I'm still waiting for.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics and a regular contributor to AlterNet.

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