The New York Times Débâcle

5 June: More Resignations but Still an Unfinished Story

Brian Steel   6 June 2003

Copyright © 2003 Brian Steel

Like a badly-doused fire, and equally predictably, the New York Times reporting scandal flared up again last week, ranging far beyond the original site of the conflagration of 11 May: the idiosyncratic journalistic antics of Mr Jayson Blair, who is now laughing all the way to the bank with his book contract. Last week's developments in the story revealed evidence of the first internal repercussions caused by the NYT's initial appointment of a 23-person internal review panel: two staff resignations as well as further revelations of a recent history of staff discontent, bickering, and polemics.

One week later (yesterday), the NYT provided far better copy for its rivals: the resignations of the Executive Editor, Howell Raines, and the Managing Editor, Gerald Boyd. The interim Executive Editor is to be the widely respected retired Executive Editor, Joseph Lelyveld, whose major task will be to restore the tarnished NYT reputation. When the full NYT story is written, it will reveal to the public the full reasons why these two executives, initially defended by the Publisher, have finally seen the need to fall on their swords. The final story is likely to deal not only with the much-publicised internal dissension and demoralisation at the NYT but also with more evidence of sloppy reporting by a tiny minority of its staffers and of an ignominious history of sweeping readers' criticism under the carpet. Naughty!

Nearly four weeks have now passed since the initial shockwave of the NYT's detailed confession of Blair's wrongdoing and the ensuing media feasting on Op-Ed and features articles about the predicament of their famous rival. The past month has left the NYT in the unrelenting spotlight of the national and international media, and, increasingly important these days as a vehicle for the dissemination of news, of Internet attention (especially of the Sixth Estate, the previously underestimated Bloggers).

Fanned also from outside by the intense interest (and glee) of the national and international press (ranging from Newsweek, with its teeth firmly embedded in the charred carcase, to The Scotsman and The Adelaide Advertiser), this corporate media bushfire obviously had a lot of fuel to keep it going for some time - enough to cause the sort of internal havoc in the offices of the New York Times that we have just seen with the resignations of the two senior executives, who are now keen to cultivate their gardens. Following the American appetite for such phenomena (and the lightning initiative of Mr Blair's agent), there may even be further book contracts for some of the protagonists of this media serial - or perhaps a film or a TV series.

The following survey of the nature and wider significance of the NYT affaire also offers, as a preliminary example of the sort of further revelations that must surely follow, one piece of evidence (albeit minor in comparison to the achievements of Mr Blair) of recent unsatisfactory NYT reporting which was followed by many letters of complaint (and follow-up reminders) from readers of the renowned newspaper. They were met with an arrogant silence (still unbroken) from the editorial and executive bunker. With the resignations of the top Editors, this silence will obviously come to an end and NYT readers and the media can look forward to more sorry but necessary cathartic confessions from the august newspaper. It's about time!

On 11 May 2003 the American media and public were offered a sensational but shamefaced NYT scoop: the detailed and evidence of the serial misconduct of one of its own junior fast-tracked reporters, Jayson Blair. The number and magnitude of the offences allegedly committed by the 27 year-old Blair as well as other initial indications suggested that one or two prominent NYT executives, and parts of the management system itself, would also have to share some of the overall responsibility for these major and continued lapses in professional standards.

Details emerging in countless newspapers, magazines, Internet reports and blogs suggest that the final analysis will show the main cause of the NYT's wider predicament: a 'new broom' executive sweeping too violently and insensitively in a radical attempt to bring about a major change of emphasis in this venerable newspaper, with the inevitable internal animosities, resignations, low staff morale, and an accompanying slipping of standards. For Australians, this image of the NYT's woes will revive memories of the short reign as CEO of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation of the massively unpopular Jonathan Shier.

It is hardly surprising that the acute embarrassment and reputation damage experienced by the NYT over this unusual confession did not end with the journalist's resignation and the newspaper's lengthy confession of his inventions and plagiarisms. Because of the ensuing internal upheaval and investigations within the NYT, its readers, the press, and the general public began to see evidence of serious internal management problems and lapses or breakdowns in internal communications between NYT executives and other staff.

Following an allegedly stormy meeting with the angry and embarrassed newsroom staff on 14 May, the Executive Editor of the NYT is quoted as admitting that "I was guilty of a failure of vigilance that, since I sit in this chair where the buck stops, I should have prevented." (New York Times, 15 May 2003) The Executive Editor also referred to the accusation by some of his own journalists and staff that he was "inaccessible and arrogant". Even then the press was hinting that the rumblings and criticisms within the NYT had not subsided and would produce further revelations and internal upheavals. They have proved to be right. Perhaps Mr Blair himself, in his projected book, or in media statements, will also have something revealing to say about the reasons why his multiple journalistic misdemeanours went undetected for so long - unless a part of his resignation conditions involved a promise not to make any statements prejudicial to the New York Times.

Meanwhile, following a not unfamiliar media pattern, Jayson Blair is now a world-famous junior journalist. Although professionally disgraced by his negotiated resignation, his rocketing rise to instant fame also promises instant fortune, with a bestselling book and other media goodies already being foreshadowed. The malfeasance (and the 'malefactor'[), now in the open and exhaustively exposed over the past three weeks, has been replaced as a news topic by the deeper and more important analysis of how such an extensive scandal came to besmirch such a prestigious American media establishment.

From the beginning of this NYT misfortune, murmurings about the ongoing internal NYT investigation of 'other cases' of unsatisfactory journalism and communication breakdowns were eagerly pursued by the press. These are the important unresolved 'time-bomb' issues which have ultimately exploded into public view with yesterday's resignations. Previously the only revelations had focussed on the use of interns and 'stringers' by staff reporters: mere red-herrings.

One NYT reporting anomaly (albeit of very minor significance compared to Blair's whoppers) known to a number of disgruntled NYT readers is an article by one of the 'Old Gray Lady's senior reporters, Keith Bradsher. His well-written article, enhanced by exotic photographs provided by local photographers and full of interest and appeal was titled 'A Friend in India to All the World'. It introduced to American readers the prominent Hindu guru, Sathya Sai Baba, on the occasion of a courtesy visit to his ashram by the new Muslim President of India, Dr Kalam.

This very positive presentation of the spiritual leader and his devotees to the American public, endorsed by the name and prestige of the New York Times (motto, remember? 'All the News that's Fit to Print') was extremely simpatico.

Unfortunately, the colourful description and background information offered by Bradsher (including explanations by the guru's close devotees), was incomplete and therefore potentially misleading to NYT readers. What Bradsher had failed to mention, and perhaps did not even research, was that, in spite of Sathya Sai Baba's undisputed appeal, massive charisma, and beneficent charitable Trust, he has become the focus of a great deal of media and Internet controversy and allegations over the past three years, and many of his disaffected ex-devotees are Americans. Some are readers of the NYT and some of them feel very aggrieved.

The allegations (mainly of sexual misconduct) and the controversies surrounding this guru's claims to be God on Earth have surfaced and proliferated on the Internet. The sexual allegations have been aired in newspapers like the The Times and Daily Telegraph of London as well as other newspapers and magazines in India, Canada, Holland, Scandinavia, Argentina, Australia, and Colombia, and also in TV documentaries in several countries. As a result of this snowballing publicity, many devotees have renounced their guru - some, including this writer, to investigate and publicise the multiple anomalies surrounding Sathya Sai Baba and the story of his Mission.

Like most other information these days, news of these controversies, including a Petition for further investigation of the sexual allegations against this guru, is freely available on the Internet to any surfer. It seems that the NYT's Mr Bradsher (a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and the NYT's Bureau Chief in Hong Kong) either failed to take this basic research step or chose to ignore or dismiss the controversy and rely on what he found out and was officially told at the ashram in India.

This is where the NYT's internal procedures for dealing with legitimate reader complaints about substandard news reports begin to show up in an unfavorable light. For those aware of the current controversies surrounding the name of Sathya Sai Baba, the sudden appearance in such a prestigious American newspaper of this bland and one-sided report was almost unbelievable. Several (probably many) letters were sent from readers in several countries to the NYT Executive Editor and other executives, pointing out the peculiar lack of balance of the article and the inappropriateness of the NYT's tacit endorsement of the guru Sathya Sai Baba at a time when his Organisation is engaged in damage control operations, including publicity and propaganda initiatives which have been documented on the Internet.

As far as I am aware, all these letters were ignored by the Editors of the NYT and no public comment was made on this reporting lapse. Was any internal action taken? We do not yet know, but, given this hugely embarrassing scandal and the questions which are now being asked, it is reasonable to ask for official comment by the NYT on this lack of executive concern shown by New York Times' executives at some readers' displeasure with the Bradsher peccadillo in December.

As many media reports have suggested (and a visit to the website of ex-NYT writer Andrew Sullivan will corroborate), more skeletons are being extricated from the cupboards of that proud corporation. With this flow of evidence, it has begun to dawn on the public that what they are witnessing is yet another case of corporate arrogance sweeping under the carpet inconvenient critical communications from its customers and its own staff and resisting calls for inquiries - sometimes to the expensive extent of going all the way to the Supreme Court and losing.

When the headstrong managements of such corporations are unlucky, the truth seeps (or bursts) out. This in turn causes, if not a financial crash, a media feeding frenzy of schadenfreude, as in the case of the New York Times, sparked by a no longer avoidable public confession of the breaching of standards, wrongdoing, or errors. Inevitably, the delinquent corporation finally acknowledges the need to conduct internal investigations, which lead to further revelations and earnest promises by the spin doctors that the faults in the management system have been rectified and "it can't happen again".

After many recent corporate scandals, débacles, and collapses (worldwide, but especially in USA), the public is becoming more and more cynical about such bland assurances emanating from the Big Companies or Organisations. Nowadays we hear so often of cases where ethical or professional principles are bent or abandoned to cover individual lapses of executive judgement, or worse. Consequently, it is almost expected that a corporation or organisation will automatically try to cover up major errors - even the Catholic Church in USA has failed abysmally badly on that score. We have also read about the difficulties facing "whistle-blowers" in large corporations (including the security agencies and the military establishment). On a lower level, as customers, many of us experience personal frustration in our attempts to communicate problems, criticisms, or grievances to faceless corporations which hide behind the barriers erected with the aid of new technologies - particularly on the Internet but also increasingly via distant telephone "call centres" in India or elsewhere.

With such a dubious track record in mind, is it surprising that the public no longer trusts the "Big Guys" to be honest or impartial in matters affecting company expediency? Is it surprising that the reputation of the New York Times has been so drastically affected even before all the facts are revealed?

The real need in such cases is not belated public apologies and internal witch-hunts if a scandal or error is uncovered; it is for suitable legislation to ensure that the public relations departments of all large corporations are legally obliged to submit their procedures and systems for dealing with complaints to regular checks by an independent and conscientious Ombudsman. Whether this would prevent any corporate catastrophes is debatable, but, among other more significant advantages for the smoother functioning of society, our critical phone calls, letters, and emails to Big Corporations like the New York Times would stand a better chance of a fair hearing and a suitable response.

Maybe, after the past month's acute Severe Acute Reality Session, the NYT's final solution (and insurance policy), following the still inevitable full contrite confession, will be the simple one of appointing an Ombudsman - at last! Other newspapers, media, banks, and corporations, please take note.

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