Newspapers' timely accountability

For most of the past 20 years, The New York Times has managed to dodge the well-publicized gaffes by reporters and columnists that rocked The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal. And the "Gray Lady" avoided the battles between owners and top editors that led to numerous senior-staff resignations at the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Christian Science Monitor.

But The New York Times' Teflon armor evidenced chinks - if not gaping fissures - Thursday when Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd resigned in the wake of the journalistic fraud scandal involving former reporter Jayson Blair.

It's doubtful that any newspaper could have survived intact after being conned and mugged by Mr. Blair, a 27-year-old African-American who plagiarized, fabricated, and blatantly played the race card before resigning on May 1. And it didn't help matters when Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter, resigned May 28 after the paper had suspended him over one of his bylined stories that was largely reported by a freelancer.

Mr. Raines and Mr. Boyd were blamed for overlooking Blair's errors and for not heeding warnings from other editors who complained about the quality of his work. They were also accused of promoting a young journalist with limited experience to better diversify the newsroom, even though his shortcomings were well known.

Americans' faith in journalists has declined steadily in the past few decades. Journalism didn't need yet another blow to its credibility.

When Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke's fabricated story of "Jimmy," an 8-year-old heroin addict, won the Pulitzer Prize 22 years ago, the event triggered the biggest media-ethics debate of the late 20th century. Were that event to be repeated today, it's unlikely the paper's leadership would survive - as then-editor Ben Bradlee and senior editor Bob Woodward did.

Newspapers face many pressures, not the least of which is the need to shore up sagging circulations and bolster diminishing ad revenues, while at the same time maintaining unrealistic expectations of annual profit margins of 20 to 30 percent.

Also, the pressure to hire minorities - especially African-Americans - is omnipresent. Too few black students are being attracted to journalism schools, the "feeder system" for most newspapers, so the competition for this limited talent pool is intense. Young black journalists carry a heavy burden to prove they're not affirmative-action tokens, and they work in predominantly white environments where some editors promote them unrealistic. Or, in the case of Blair, managers are reluctant to take action when black reporters make mistakes, for fear of appearing racist.

Creative people, the sort usually attracted to newspapers, don't naturally perform well under the sort of constant deadlines that exist at elite daily newspapers. Thus, editors are challenged to find the right management style to motivate their staffs. By many accounts, Raines and Boyd did not get the formula right, and their style was seen as autocratic. This is a shame, as they are exceptional journalists and committed to social justice.

In the best of times it is a daunting task to manage creative tension at The New York Times, where egos are enormous, talent tremendous, and Pulitzer Prizes commonplace. Instead, these were the worst of times, due largely to the havocwreaked by Blair.

The Times' gold-standard reputation has been tarnished, and will be further sullied if the paper avoids its responsibility to change and simply makes scapegoats of Raines and Boyd.

If Times management wishes to revamp the environment that allowed Blair to flourish, there are well-established tools - everything from ethics codes and news councils to ombudsmen and media critics - that it could employ to regain public trust.

In the past, the Times has been reluctant to embrace such accountability tools. But times have changed, and the Times should change as well.

William A. Babcock is professor and chair of the department of journalism at California State University, Long Beach.

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