Scott McLemee
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Newsday, 21 November 2004

HARD NEWS: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media, by Seth Mnookin. Random House, 330 pp.

 

In journalism, credibility, not profitability, is the bottom line. The past few years have seen one scandal after another undermining that standard. The list is depressing. At the top, of course, are the fabrications of Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair. Near the bottom, there is an endless series of plagiarism cases. The utter gullibility of important sectors of the media in the face of the Bush administration's preparations for war in Iraq will take years to examine. And then there was the recent failure of CBS to authenticate documents purporting to cover President George W. Bush's military service. (As if that weren't bad enough, Dan Rather assumed thoughtful poses in commenting on the matter, which does nobody any good.)

With Hard News, Seth Mnookin offers a contribution to the protracted round of soul-searching now under way. His account focuses on various recent problems at The New York Times, with most of it devoted to l'affaire Blair. (Mnookin covered the scandal for Newsweek.) "Virtually the entire current editorial team leading The Times agreed to talk to me," he writes, "despite the fact that they knew the result was likely to be painful for them and for some of their colleagues and friends."

The result is a sometimes gripping narrative of life at The Times that seeks to provide an explanation for what is going wrong in journalism. And that explanation is simplicity itself.

Here it is: Everything is Howell Raines' fault.

Indeed, so toxic was the reign of Raines that, according to Mnookin, it has continued to undermine the credibility of the journalistic profession even after he was forced to resign as executive editor.

Now, a plausible case can be made for treating problems at The Times as the fastest way into any discussion of the overall crisis of journalism. Mnookin gives a serviceable account of the role the "newspaper of record" plays as briefing book to the nation's elite. He also sketches the paper's internal ecology during the 1990s in terms that are depressingly familiar even to those who are not Timesmen.

Most publications must endure a shrinking subscriber base, competition from new media and the inertia of routine common to any gigantic bureaucracy.

Mnookin portrays Raines as someone trying to solve these problems through the sheer force of his own personality. He became executive editor not quite one week before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, at a moment when The Times was in a crisis of confidence. The paper's remarkable coverage of that event only fed the ego of a talented (but ultimately failed) literary author who became a shrewd operator in office politics. His charismatic megalomania (so goes the story) created a climate in which Blair could publish articles that were plagiarized, or even just made up, on the front page.

How Blair's malfeasance was discovered, investigated and exposed to the world takes up the larger part of Hard News -- along with an account of the aftermath, including the editor's resignation in June 2003.

At this point, someone more concerned with the public role of The Times than in its corridor scuttlebutt will expect a searching account of Judith Miller's articles claiming ties between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. After the war, she reported on the great progress being made in the search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. This May, The Times had to publish a criticism of its own coverage -- without quite saying that its distinguished senior journalist had been, for all practical purposes, rewriting State Department press releases.

So one turns the page expecting that now Mnookin will really dig in -- only to find that he gives three pages to it. (Which is to say, half the space devoted to the topic of Blair's substance-abuse problems.) Miller's "flawed Iraq reporting," announces Mnookin, "was often directly the result of the manner in which Howell Raines ran The New York Times" -- even after Raines had been shown the door.

During the 1930s, Walter Duranty, The Times' man in Moscow, wrote articles justifying Stalin's policies while never quite noticing, say, the famines or concentration camps. It was certainly farsighted of Duranty to adapt himself to "the manner in which Howell Raines ran The New York Times," long before Raines became executive editor. (Or was, for that matter, alive.)

Gossip is sometimes defined as the social criticism of the powerless. It has also been said that the difference between gossip and history is about one generation. At a time when the journalistic profession is succumbing to the demands of the 24-hour news cycle and a culture of streaming infotainment, we certainly need both analytic power and historical memory.

But an analysis that examines the problems of The Times and concludes that the scapegoat has been well-sacrificed -- well, I'm not sure that quite counts. Good gossip, though.