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NYT’s Sulzberger cracks down, finally

June 2003


NYT's Sulzberger cracks down, finally
Commentary: CEO forces out top editors Raines, Boyd

By Jon Friedman,
Last Update: 12:10 PM ET June 6, 2003

NEW YORK (CBS.MW) -- Finally, Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times and the chairman of the parent corporation, started acting like a CEO.

On Thursday, the resignations of New York Times top editors Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd provided a denouement to a drama that seemed to be part Keystone Kops and part Shakespearian tragedy.

Raines, the Times' executive editor, and Boyd, its managing editor, had been under fire for weeks. Morale in the Times newsroom, never very high during Raines' reign, had sunk so low that he could no longer command the respect of the staff.

On May 1, Jayson Blair, a 27-year-old Times reporter and a protégé of Raines, resigned. Blair fabricated many stories, prompting extensive corrections in the newspaper.

Rather than discipline Blair -- or fire him -- the Keystone Kops at the Times were blinded by Blair's boyish enthusiasm and street smarts. They even gave him such high-profile assignments as the sniper case in Virginia. Perhaps they wanted desperately for Blair, who is black, to succeed as a confirmation of the wisdom of affirmative action programs.

Ultimately, the burden fell to Arthur Sulzberger to take action. But for weeks, Sulzberger did nothing, except to say he wouldn't accept Raines' resignation.

The Times' image problem was deepened when it found that Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rick Bragg, who like Blair had been one of Raines' favorite staffers, had failed to give appropriate credit to a "stringer" associate for his reporting. Bragg subsequently quit the paper.

Then, on Thursday, Sulzberger eased his burden. He effectively took off his good-old-boy publisher's hat and replaced it with a helmet befitting a hardheaded CEO (NYTnewschartprofile).

As a publisher, Sulzberger could afford to look the other way and take care of his buddies, Raines and Boyd. But when Sulzberger eventually had to look out for the corporation, he no longer had such a luxury.

Sulzberger may have feared that he could lose control of the processes of the Times corporation, just as Raines had clearly lost control of the newsroom.

"You could say Sulzberger had to separate the credibility of the newspaper from the corporation," said Ken Marlin, a media investment banker in New York. "As a corporation, the New York Times stands for more than a newspaper."

Indeed, the Times brand -- a key word in the media industry nowadays -- encompasses newspapers, including the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune, television and radio stations, a well regarded Web site and other interests.

With the FCC easing restrictions on media companies owning properties, an organization's image is more crucial on Wall Street than ever before. Would it have been more difficult for the Times to do deals with the taint of the Blair mess hanging over its head? Would Wall Street eventually lose its patience with the Times and start downgrading the company's stock?

"Sulzberger had to act to restore the public's faith in the Times as a newspaper of record," Marlin said. "It's similar to what happens at a Wall Street trading firm when someone is found to be guilty of insider trading. It's a breach of the public's trust."

Questions abound

Still, questions abound:

Why did it take so long for Raines and Boyd step down when it seemed obvious to everyone in the media world that they couldn't survive this scandal?

The resignations "probably should have happened when all of this Blair stuff came out," said Joel Kaplan, head of the newspaper department at the Newhouse School of Syracuse University.

Why did Sulzberger force out Raines and Boyd after saying he wouldn't do that?

"There were implications that the problems at the Times went beyond the Blair situation," Marlin said. In other words, Raines had lost the respect of the people in the newsroom.

And, finally, what would Adolph Ochs have made of all this?

Ochs, who was born in 1858 and died in 1935, was the first hero of the Times. He was its publisher at the start of the 20th century and his vision, of a newspaper filled with facts and news, set the course for the organization's legacy of greatness.

I thought about Ochs on Thursday as I stood dutifully outside the Times' headquarters at 229 West 43rd St., off Times Square. Not much was going on. The crowd of a few dozen journalists had thinned. Even the scandal-loving paparazzi had fled.

But I noticed something a plaque honoring Ochs. It hails him as the individual "who made the New York Times one of the world's great newspapers by setting standards of excellence and responsibility in journalism."

In an attempt to boost morale Sulzberger appointed former Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld to succeed Raines on an interim basis.

Tragic figure?

If there is a tragic figure in all of this, it might well be Boyd.

He worked hard to win the respect of his colleagues and peers. Further, he believed in Blair and supported his ascent at the Times.

Before the scandal developed, Boyd was widely regarded as Raines's heir apparent. But now he is finished there. Hopefully he can rebuild his career elsewhere.

"People I know at the Times speak well of him," noted Cynthia Gorney, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley's journalism school.

Monumental gall

If you look hard enough, you can always find an element of humor in every disaster.

In the case of Thursday's sad events, Blair, of all people, provided gallows humor when he issued a statement to CNN expressing his current mood.

Perhaps Blair, who had exhibited little regard for anyone's feelings throughout the disaster he caused, had a sudden attack of guilt (yeah, right!). Maybe it dawned on the punk that he had helped ruin the Times careers of Raines and Boyd and damage the credibility of his former employer -- and his craft.

Further, Blair has caused endless misery at the Times. Decent people throughout the organization have had to clean up Blair's mess.

In a debacle that featured innumerable, shocking examples of stupidity, arrogance and hubris, Blair set a new standard for monumental gall.

"I am sorry to hear that more people have fallen in this sequence of events that I had unleashed," Blair said. "I wish the rolling heads had stopped with mine."

We all do.

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