N.Y. Times leaders must rebuild trust
BRODER; The Washington Post
WASHINGTON - The series of fabrications that resulted last week in
the resignations of the two top editors of The New York Times is a
calamity for all of American journalism.
Executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd were
more than the leaders of a distinguished and influential newspaper.
They are friends of many of us who are roughly their contemporaries,
colleagues on past assignments and role models for a whole generation
of younger journalists.
Anyone who can gloat at their discomfiture is worse than a fool. This
is far more than a personal embarrassment or a black eye for the Times.
It is a serious blow to the credibility of the press, and it comes
at a time when public trust is fragile.
Those of us who work at The Washington Post know what our friends
at the Times are going through. In 1980, a talented colleague of ours,
Janet Cooke, concocted a front-page story about an 8-year-old heroin
addict. It was not until the story was awarded a Pulitzer Prize that
it and its author were exposed as phony.
We live with that legacy every day. No matter how much distinguished
work is done by this staff - and there is a wealth of it - it does
not erase the enormity of the failure to prevent the Cooke fiasco.
It reflected on all of us - the editors who ignored the warning signals
and, almost equally, on us veteran reporters who failed to impart
to this young woman the same sound journalistic values, starting with
respect for the facts, that had been pounded into us by old-timers
when we were starting. Editing and internal communication changed
at the Post after that.
If the Times' leadership is wise, it will recognize this institutional
disaster for what it is and reflect on the culture that produced it
- not simply change editors but change attitudes.
The besetting sin of big-time journalism is arrogance - the belief
in our own omniscience, that we know so much we don't have to listen
to criticism. And the Times as an institution leads the league in
More than 35 years ago, as a newcomer to the Post, I recognized that
we were dangerously cut off from the forces that were reshaping this
country. In the 1968 presidential campaign, we were (and I definitely
include myself) slow to pick up on the anti-establishment movements
that propelled such different candidates as Eugene McCarthy, Robert
Kennedy, George Wallace and Richard Nixon.
The next year, I was on sabbatical at the Institute of Politics at
Harvard when elite students trashed Harvard Square in an antiwar demonstration
and forced the university to shut down weeks early.
Returning to the paper, I showed no special wisdom in suggesting to
executive editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham that any
institution as large and visible as the Post could expect to be targeted
by anti-establishment forces. It was one of many factors that led
them to hire the first ombudsman at the Post - a professional journalist
whose sole responsibility is to respond to reader complaints and provide
his own independent critique of the paper's performance.
When the Janet Cooke story exploded, the ombudsman on duty, Bill Green,
conducted his own investigation, and his detailed report to readers
was the first crucial step toward restoring the paper's tarnished
By contrast, the Times management has consistently rejected having
an ombudsman or reader's representative, asserting that it would enforce
its own standards, thank you very much.
When Jayson Blair turned out to be a serial Janet Cooke, Times reporters
were assigned to produce a lengthy "what happened" piece.
But it never fixed responsibility, and it failed to clear the air
- because the Times staff was, in effect, investigating itself. Chronically,
readers found themselves unable to communicate with the Times' bureaucracy,
and those who worked in the Times' newsroom were equally frustrated
by their inability to talk to their bosses.
That is not an isolated example of institutional arrogance. It was
arrogant for publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. to move Raines from
editor of the editorial page, where he was a particularly acerbic
critic of Republicans and conservatives, and put him in charge of
the Times' news coverage.
In another but not unrelated manifestation, the arrogance showed when
Sulzberger, whose family had been invited into a partnership with
the Post on the distinguished International Herald Tribune by a generous
Katharine Graham, forced the Post out of the partnership recently
- because he wanted the prestigious European franchise for himself.
The Times has had its comeuppance. Its sins are symptomatic of the
press' inflated self-importance. The Times can lead the way back to
trust - if its publisher will.
David Broder is a reporter and political analyst for The Washington
Post. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.