Ed Driscoll

The New York Times Meets Manhattan

While we’ve all been celebrating the growth of the Blogosphere, it couldn’t have happened without the simultaneous decline of the mainstream media, which has been frequently and unceremoniously dubbed “the legacy media” by its successor (I know I’ve used that phrase more than a few times last year). While CBS fell the most spectacularly with RatherGate this past year, its collapse in credibility was foreshadowed in 2003 by Howell Raines, Jayson Blair and their disastrous impact on the ol’ Grey Lady herself, The New York Times.

Forbes has a well-written review of a new book called Hard News, Seth Mnookin’s look back at those (pardon the pun) grey days:

Although Mnookin’s relentless attacks on Raines sometimes seem repetitive, he marshals an impressive amount of evidence to make his point that Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s decision to appoint Raines executive editor was disastrous. Raines, who previously served as editorial page editor, was known at the Times for his arrogance and autocratic management style. Yet he started out in his new job brilliantly. Six days after taking over, Raines was leading the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath, and although he drove his staff hard, no one would deny that the results were worth it.

The troubles started not long after Raines turned to making changes in the paper’s personnel and content. He drove out talented editors and national correspondents while shamelessly playing favorites with reporters he considered stars, some of whom were his friends.

Raines also extended his authoritarian rule to the traditionally independent-minded Washington, D.C., bureau, and in effect made himself bureau chief. He disenfranchised the assignment editors who dealt directly with the reporters and transferred power to the masthead editors–then alienated the latter as well. Mnookin depicts him as an abrasive megalomaniac obsessed with the legacy he would leave as executive editor. He wouldn’t listen to legitimate criticism, intimidated his editors so much that they were afraid to bring up newsroom problems and saw himself as the embodiment of all that is great about the Times.

Equally devastating, in Mnookin’s view, is that Raines’ demands led to seriously flawed journalism that sullied the newspaper’s reputation. Stories were ordered up to create “buzz” and to advance Raines’ own agendas, such as a crusade against the Augusta National golf club, which hosts the annual Masters Tournament and doesn’t allow women to join the club. Mnookin also cites what he sees as the Times’ faulty coverage of the buildup to the Iraq war and the search for weapons of mass destruction.

Hard News thus becomes a case study in newsroom dysfunction brought about by gross mismanagement. As a consequence, Raines and Blair were put on what the author calls “a collision course.” Blair got away with extensive fabrication and plagiarism in three-dozen stories over six months. Incredibly, he was moved from the metro desk to the national news department to help cover a major breaking story about sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., area. Raines and his deputy, Gerald Boyd, thought Blair had potential despite his history of reporting errors and severe personal problems that included drug and alcohol abuse. It was just one of the mistakes that would cost the two top editors their careers at the paper.

After chronicling Blair’s transgressions in depth, the book shifts focus yet again, this time to the Times’ investigative team and its herculean efforts to uncover the full range of Blair’s fraud. They courageously did so despite the risk that the results could implicate their bosses and damage the Times’ standing as, in Mnookin’s words, the nation’s most important newspaper. Following the disturbing portraits of Raines and Blair, this is an inspiring portrayal of skilled professionals hard at work. Some thought their 13,500-word, four-page report was overkill. But for Mnookin it demonstrated the incomparable resources and talent the Times can unleash on any story, including an in-house scandal.

And yet, the next year, partially because they couldn’t unleash those same resources to document the excesses and past history of the presidential candidate that many felt the Times was explicitly backing, they were doomed to be run over by “the pajamahadeen”. (Even if they wouldn’t earn their sobriquet–and their jammies–until RatherGate).

Not surprisingly, you can find similar stories of dissipation and overreach in a variety of industries just before they too experienced a tectonic plate shift. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls documents the near collapse of the film industry twice within a single ten year period: first by the out-of-touch old fogies who ran the studio system in the 1960s, and then by the coke-addled youngsters who replaced them, only to be replaced as industry leaders in the late 1970s by two clean and sober hotshots named Lucas and Spielberg. Look in your library for a good business history of the Penn Central railroad, whose mismanagement and unrestraint in the late 1960s lead first to its bankruptcy, and then to not one, but two interventions by the federal government in the 1970s: first the creation of Amtrak in 1971 (and its eventual ownership of the ex-PC Northeast Corridor), and then the creation of Conrail five years later. And I’m sure Detroit has some interesting tales of greed, excess and corruption, just before Pacific automakers emerged as serious competition.

In Manhattan, Woody Allen’s character said that he wanted to write a book about people “who are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves–because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable terrifying problems” such as their own mortality. Perhaps industries have a similarly neurotic need for huge scandals to distract them when forces they can’t control are threatening to radically reshape the landscape.