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Reporting scandal drives out New York Times editors

Criticized for their leadership style, the top two editors step aside amid an ethical crisis and growing hostility from the newsroom.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Television Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 6, 2003

Until a few days ago, former Time Magazine reporter Susan Tifft thought the newspaper's executive editor might survive one of journalism's worst scandals in recent years.

Then she went to a book party and heard Times staffers vent their frustration and anger at top managers. And she wondered if the Gray Lady could ever be fixed without losing the man near the top of the masthead.

Tifft got her answer Thursday, when executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd resigned from the New York Times. They announced their resignations before a crowd of several hundred staffers in the same spot where the newspaper had celebrated an unprecedented seven Pulitzer Prizes 14 months earlier.

Raines and Boyd's departures came five weeks after reporter Jayson Blair resigned from the newspaper amid allegations he had commited numerous acts of plagiarism, fabrication and other journalistic deception. New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. Thursday appointed the newspaper's onetime executive editor Joe Lelyveld as interim executive editor until permanent replacements could be named.

In a brief but emotional meeting in the paper's third-floor newsroom, Raines thanked the paper's staff "for the honor and privilege of being a member of the best journalistic community in the world."

Later, Sulzberger would note in a memo to employees that "with great sadness, I agreed" to accept their resignations.

"What you had was the perfect storm: a building sense of anger and resentment in the newsroom about Howell's management style ... and then comes Jayson Blair," said Tifft, co-author of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times. "This might have been (relegated to) quiet carping in the newsroom, but when you have the matchstick of Jayson Blair hitting the tinder of the newsroom, you have an explosion."

A New York Times investigation eventually found problems with at least 36 of the articles Blair wrote in his five years at the paper. A package of articles totalling 14,000 words detailed a history of what the newspaper called "widespread fabrication and plagiarism," the worst case of journalistic fraud in the publication's 152-year history.

Times observers said Raines and Boyd shouldered much of the blame internally - criticized for an autocratic style, poor communication and for playing favorites.

The internal conflicts began to play out in public as more news organizations published stories on the scandal. Newsweek magazine featured the Blair scandal on its cover, the Wall Street Journal was said to be preparing an expose and the paper became fodder for David Letterman jokes.

Newsroom anger peaked after Rick Bragg, a Pulizer Prize-winning national correspondent and former St. Petersburg Times reporter, was suspended for placing his name on a story largely reported by a free-lance journalist - a practice some said was widely accepted at the New York Times.

Bragg, a longtime friend of Raines who blamed a "poisonous" post-Blair atmosphere at the Times for his problems, resigned from the newspaper last week to focus on a $1-million book deal. Reached at his home in New Orleans, Bragg declined Thursday to comment on recent events, saying, "I'm moving on to my books and just don't have anything to say about it."

Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said in an interview that Raines made the decision to resign Wednesday night. Though a number of names have come up as possible successors - from Boston Globe executive editor Martin Baron to New York Times columnist (and former managing editor) Bill Keller - Mathis would say only that the search for a replacement would "move quickly" involving candidates "both inside and outside the Times."

Because the New York Times is considered the gold standard of journalism - not just among newspapers, but among news outlets in general - the crisis in its newsroom over journalism standards reverberated far beyond the newspaper.

"What to learn from this ... is that failure to do due diligence can cost you the highest ranking people in the biggest newspaper in the world," said Keith Woods, instructor in ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Petersburg Times.

J. Rody Borg, a professor of economics at Jacksonville University, said the current business climate - with scandals enveloping corporate names such as Martha Stewart - means top managers can quickly pay the ultimate price for subordinates' ethical errors.

"Ethics and values are vastly more important today than they have ever been," Borg said. "If I make an unethical decision out there, I can bring down a company. And you might not have time to figure out (what happened) before the consequences have been felt."

Raines, 60, took over as executive editor at the New York Times in 2001 after an eight-year stint as the newspaper's editorial page editor. Boyd, 52, was named the newspaper's first black managing editor in September 2001, after 18 years at the New York Times as a reporter and senior editor.

Raines had moved to the New York Times in 1978 after two years as political editor at the St. Petersburg Times, where he developed a reputation for vivid and incisive profiles of area politicians.

Andrew Barnes, chairman and chief executive officer of the St. Petersburg Times, served as Raines' editor during his time in Florida. He remembered his longtime friend as a thorough reporter who would become an editor with a "cutting" style of arguing, and "didn't mind winning in a way that left the other side bloody."

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

At the New York Times, some staffers are tired of being part of news stories, and just want to go back to reporting them.

"One of the things we haven't been doing is our normal work," said New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman. "We put out one hell of a newspaper, and we just need to get back on our game."

- Information from Times wires contributed to this report.

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