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What Will 'Times' Resignations Mean for the Paper's Reputation?

Aired June 5, 2003 - 19:07   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, ANCHOR: Now "The New York Times."
For one of the world's most influential newspapers, it has been a day of disgrace, no doubt about it. The two top editors resigned today more than a month into the scandal that has shattered the famed newspaper's longstanding reputation for accuracy and integrity.

Jason Carroll has the story.


JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): One "New York Times" staffer called it the worst day in the paper's 150-years history. The two top editors at the "Times" resigned, executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd.

The paper's publisher issued a statement saying, "Howell and Gerald have tendered their resignation, and I have accepted them with sadness based on what we believe is the best for the 'Times.'"

Reporter Deborah Sontag said she, too, was sad but also hopeful.

DEBORAH SONTAG, "NEW YORK TIMES" REPORTER: I hope we will come out of it reexamining some of the ways in which we've done big for many years now, and growing from it.

CARROLL: But "Times" art director Jerelle Kraus could barely contain her excitement and contempt for Raines, an editor criticized by staff for being arrogant and inaccessible.

JERELLE KRAUS, "NEW YORK TIMES" ART DIRECTOR: Everybody was afraid, and he was the nastiest editor I've ever worked with.

CARROLL: Raines was disliked by many staff after setting up a star system that they said favored a few at the expense of many others.

Raines and Boyd stepped down after the paper found one of Raines' youngest stars, Jayson Blair, was responsible for dozens of infractions, including plagiarism and lying, much of which was missed by management.

On Mother's Day, the paper published a four-page article detailing Blair's deceptions. Morale at the paper plummeted. Then, weeks later, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Rick Bragg resigned after conceding a story with his byline had been reported mostly by a freelancer.

Former "Times" staffer and author Alex Jones says Raines and Boyd simply lost the staff support.

ALEX JONES, AUTHOR: I think that the problem was that they didn't have enough in the bank with the staff. They had lost the confidence of the staff, apparently. And I think that when that happens in an institution like the "New York Times," that's it. That's something that you can't find a way around.

CARROLL: Joe Lelyveld who was top editor for seven years before retiring, was named interim executive editor. He's respected by staff, but his temporary appointment won't solve the paper's larger problem.

LENA WILLIAMS, UNION REPRESENTATIVE: Joe is an interim, it's a band-aid. We still don't know who our next executive editor and our managing editor is going to be. And until we have that resolved, there's going to be some anxiety, some -- not discomfort, but we just don't know where we're going to go.


CARROLL: And the turmoil may not end anytime soon. Sources say an internal committee will continue to investigate the paper's practices and policies, and because of that, some staffers say they're not sure where that will lead to -- Anderson.

COOPER: Tough day at the "Times." Jason Carroll, thanks very much.

Of course, no media outlet wants the kind of public humiliation "The New York Times" has faced over the past few weeks, but in the case of the "Times," the criticism has been especially stinging, because it erodes the carefully honed reputation that has made the "Times" the newspaper of record for much of America.

A short time ago, I spoke with two journalists who followed the "Times" over a span of decades. Gay Talese, a former "Times" reporter and the author of "The Kingdom and the Power," and our own Jeff Greenfield.


COOPER: OK. We received a statement from Jayson Blair today, and I just want to read you what he said. He said, "I'm sorry to hear that more people have fallen in the sequence of events that I had unleashed. I wish the rolling heads had stopped with mine."

Are you surprised that these two top editors stepped down today?

GAY TALESE, AUTHOR, "THE KINGDOM AND THE POWER:" Very much. I've known that paper, worked on the paper, wrote a book about that paper, thought I understood it. Today I'm a surprised citizen.

I did not believe that, with all the grievances that were so expounded upon in that long, long apology that the "Times" made to its readers some weeks ago, I never thought that it would lead to the severance of the connections of the two top editors, Howell Rains and Gerald Boyd.

COOPER: Surprised because you don't think they bear any responsibility?

TALESE: On the contrary, I think they bear great responsibilities, and particularly in an area that hasn't been explained to me well enough.

How could men as insightful as these two, rising from the lower levels of journalism to the very peak of journalism have such failed insight into the qualities or lack of qualities of that young reporter? How could they have been so judgmental of the world and not seen this onerous little man who shouldn't have been on the paper in the first place, continually making mistakes? That was really amazing to me.

COOPER: Jeff, why these two men and why now?

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Well, to some extent, I think the "Times" may have applied to itself the standards it, in its editorial pages, applied to every large institution, accountability at the top.

The safeguard mechanism for weeding out -- not just a bad reporter, but a journalistic sociopath clearly failed here.

COOPER: That's Jayson Blair you're talking about?

GREENFIELD: Yes. Absolutely.

And what happens with any institution under the gun of places like the "New York Times" would say what, you know, why didn't you respond better? You're the accountable force.

And the second part is any further mistakes, much less any further revelations of journalistic malpractice, but even just factual errors, is multiplied by 100 in the wake of this.

And I think what happened -- whether voluntarily or not, I don't get no -- is that somebody, maybe it was Mr. Raines and Mr. Boyd, maybe higher up, said this paper cannot move to where it has to be as long as you folks or we folks are running this place.

COOPRE: Do you think that -- will "The New York Times" survive, I mean, in the way that it has been seen in the past? I mean, it has always been called the paper of record, and though in the last year or so, in particular, it's come under a lot of criticism for its coverage.

GREENFIELD: Here's what worries me. First, we live in a climate now where, thanks to the late-night comedians and other forces that didn't used to exist, "The New York Times," at least for now, is the punch line, quite literally ,of jokes. COOPER: And that had never happened before.

GREENFIELD: No, "The New York Times" was considered stodgy, stuffy, elitist, establishment, whatever. But the idea that somebody would say I didn't know today whether to read a novel or pick up "The New York Times" -- and that's a bad example of a David Letterman joke -- he's funnier than I am. But that's a condition that at least in the short run will remain.

The second thing is, in general, journalism has become much less trusted, and there are all kinds of reasons for that. The polarization politically, the view that the media are of a certain political ilk. And I think the fact that "The New York Times" for so many decades has been a kind of common source where everybody got his or her information from and then argued, the fact that that is at least temporary at risk is a blow.

COOPER: We're going to have to leave it there, gentlemen. Gay Talese, appreciate it, it was nice to meet you.

TALESE: Thank you very much.

COOPER: And Jeff Greenfield great as always, thanks.



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