Times passes the buck ... again

News & Politics

While as I was sitting around in my nightie idly contemplating the need for a biting critique of the way the Times has yet again tried to shrug off its editorial bad faith with the "bad apple" defense, Jeremy Gerard at Radar was busy actually writing it (though I disagree with the CBS parallel). Here are some excerpts:

Just as it’s impossible to believe that Miller can’t recall who gave her the name Valerie “Flame� Plame, it’s equally impossible to accept Keller’s account of Miller “drifting� back to the critical national security beat, which she’d been forbidden to cover. At whose behest, this drift? If it was with the tacit or explicit approval of the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., did Keller say that this was not acceptable, that it was Judy or him? Well, no. And if Keller was simply not paying attention or, worse, felt too cowed by Miller’s audacity to intervene, then what was he doing at the top of the masthead?
That failure of responsibility set the scene for all that followed. Everyone else seemed to know from the outset that this was a tainted test of a reporter’s right to guarantee the confidentiality of a source. Why didn’t the executive editor of the New York Times? By drinking the Miller Kool-Aid without demanding to know what she knew and how she came to know it, Keller abdicated his supervisory authority, which is, after all, the essence of his job and the most meaningful part of his contract with the Times’s readers.
The problem goes beyond Keller or any other editor at the top of the masthead -- as it did with Jayson Blair. To begin with, both Blair and Miller point to the priority the newspaper's leadership places on "loyalty" -- read, sycophancy -- over talent. Yes, this is a disease that afflicts all hyper-competitive work environments -- as are all newsrooms -- but when it begins to influence news coverage, it's time to call in the medics:
Even 20 years ago Judy Miller was known as a willing bullhorn for the ruling class, including members she knew intimately. Those men in power are there for a reason, and you’re not. Shut up and listen. Morphing from reporter to editor merely gave her more venues to promote that vision. If, like Judy, you understood power at the Times�where the furtive seduction of the boss’s boss while twisting the shiv in subordinates can be as important as a talent for getting the story�you did fine. ...
Bill Keller promises to put out the best paper in the world despite cutbacks that chip away relentlessly at the newsroom. But after a series of embarrassing gaffes, it’s time for the paper of record to own up to the fact that much of the trust readers place in the Times has been squandered, not only by loose cannons but by the very people entrusted with its future. It’s really no news to anyone familiar with the place that some people in the Times newsroom get away with murder. But this time around they contributed significantly to the nation’s march to war.
As the nation's most prestigious newspaper, the Times undoubtedly attracts the best and the brightest in the field. A fact that I'm sure allowed many editors to believe that they could favor their admirers over equally talented others without sacrificing quality. And it is equally obvious that they were wrong. As Miller has demonstrated, sycophancy in the newsroom can just easily translate into sycophancy out in the field. An infatuation with power is always dangerous -- almost as dangerous as the self-infatuated powerful.

The greatest obstacle to meaningful reform within the Times is its own exalted self-regard, a view that many of its readers no longer share. The Sulzbergers and Kellers of this world refuse to accept the fact that their readers attention -- and more importantly, admiration -- is no longer a given. Yes, the New York Times is still the leading newspaper of record in the nation, but that title itself has less meaning in a world saturated with a mind-boggling variety of new outlets. And even a full-scale reform will not bring back the heady days of yore. What is needed is a brave reenvisioning of the newspaper and its relevance to a 21st century reading public -- a task that will require humility and flexibility, qualities that the Times leadership better acquire in a hurry.

The first step would be to take responsibility for its current woes, and recognize them, in Gerard's words, as "symptoms of an institution struggling with an acute identity crisis, one brought on by the ruinous combination of its own hubris and the steadily approaching threat of irrelevance." [LINK]

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