Raw Copy: A Sorry Sight

Bill Steigerwald, the associate editor of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, began his column on Monday with this sentence: "Excuse me for enjoying the sight of The New York Times being kicked when it's down."

Lest the subtlety of that sentiment is lost on you, Steigerwald went on: "[I]t's fun to see The Times squirm under the national klieg lights." He then proceeded to dust off a petty, quarter-century-old beef with a journalist who at the time was writing for The Sun, a daily paper in Baltimore, but is now with the Times. He seemed to be saying that said writer's employment at the Times is somehow a sign of the paper's diminished moral character.

Let's get a couple of things straight. The New York Times is, on more days than not, the best newspaper in the country. The breadth and scope of its reporting is inspiring; the accumulated experience and intelligence of its correspondents is awesome; its Sunday magazine is often spectacular. The only reason the paper's internal scandals have so dominated the national conversation about the media in recent weeks is that it remains among the most impressive and defining news properties in the country. It's not fun to see the Times squirm under the national klieg lights. The vast majority of journalists work long and hard because they believe in their missions. The Jayson Blair debacle and the Rick Bragg mini scandal have given conspiracy theorists and professional curmudgeons everywhere license to shout, "I told you so." "I told you the press couldn't be trusted." "I told you reporters were lazy ...," "dishonest ...," "immoral." But that's bad for us all. But Steigerwald unwittingly gets to a larger issue: there's so much blood on the floors of the Times's 43d Street newsroom that everyone with a bone to pick, regardless of how insignificant, thinks the time has come to voice their complaint. It's the revenge of the mediocrities. Bragg got in trouble for overusing a stringer; now every stringer that's ever filed copy to the Times is wondering why he or she didn't get a byline. Blair fabricated and plagiarized; now everyone who ever felt wronged by a Times story is ascribing their displeasure to dishonesty and malice. The complaints aren't just coming from the outside. Howell Raines, the Times's relatively new executive editor (he took over in September 2001), has made a lot of enemies in his newsroom. The complaints have been well documented; many of them are valid. But real beefs about the star system or ruling from above are now being mixed in with petty concerns. Suddenly every reporter who has gotten shut out of page A1 is crying foul, refusing to believe that others in the newsroom got their plum assignments for reasons no more complicated than they're just more talented than many of their peers. Raines hasn't helped himself much in the past month. Several times, he has had opportunities to step up to the plate for his troops, and several times he's failed. Just last week, Bragg gave an interview to The Washington Post that many Times reporters found insulting. Bragg said many of the paper's correspondents relied on stringers to do on-the-ground reporting, that that was just how things were done. For two days, his comments burned; a torrent of e-mails from the paper's reporters sent to public Web sites and leaked to journalists tried to set the record straight. But, it wasn't until after those e-mails were made public, and after Bragg had resigned, that Raines released a memo defending his staff. Now, many people inside and outside of the paper think Raines's days at the top of the masthead are numbered. At a meeting with his staff yesterday afternoon, business editor Glenn Kramon said that a lot of people thought there was a real possibility that Raines wouldn't survive the paper's current problems, and that his section should seize the initiative and focus on getting good stories in the paper. "The business department sees how companies work," Kramon told NEWSWEEK. "I was just trying to get attention off of, 'Will he or won't he,' and just move forward." Kramon, who helped lead the reporting team that produced the Times's May 11 dispatch about the Blair debacle and who is a member of one of two internal committees set up to determine how to reform the paper, is nothing if not a knowledgeable observer. And it's telling (if a little surreal) that a section editor, who a month ago was force-fed stories from closed-door masthead meetings, is now comfortable telling a roomful of reporters his boss might be on the way out. Last night, Slate's Jack Shafer outlined the reasons why Raines will go. Even Raines himself seems to be realizing he might not last out this wave of scandals. In conversations with newsroom staffers, he's said his wife will love him whether or not he has the title of executive editor after his name. Still, Raines also seems to be preparing to serve out his term, which will end regardless when he turns 65 in 2008. He's been meeting with groups of reporters; on Monday, he ate dinner with a group of metro and business staffers, a kind of mini focus group of in-house skeptics. And he's said he now sees part of his mission to change the way the paper has long been run, to soften the arrogance, to open lines of communication--never mind that he very recently seemed to embody so many of these qualities. (Raines had refused to talk to the press for several weeks.) At least for now, no lines of succession seem to be set up. The three obvious candidates--Bill Keller, a former Times managing editor and currently a Times columnist and magazine writer; Dean Baquet, a former Times national editor and currently the managing editor of The Los Angeles Times, and Marty Baron, former Times associate managing editor and currently the editor of The Boston Globe, a Times property--all say they haven't been contacted about the job. And for the first time in weeks, Times reporters seem to be rallying around the flag, closing ranks and trying to get on with the task of putting out a daily paper instead of worrying about the latest rumor or scandal to come down the pipeline. If Raines stays, I hope he can somehow find a way to win the trust and respect of his newsroom. It'll be an uphill climb. If he goes, I hope the next editor can right the ship. But whatever happens, I hope some real news comes along and reminds us all just what it is we're in the business to do and how valuable a great newspaper can be.