The Times pays for its hubris
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 6 June 2003)

Yesterday The New York Times announced the departure of its executive editor and managing editor, Howell Raines and Gerald M. Boyd, in the way the Times always deals with its business in public -- solemnly, and with a profound sense of its own importance. Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, said, "Howell and Gerald have tendered their resignations, and I have accepted them with sadness based on what we believe is best for the Times." He applauded the two editors "for putting the interest of this newspaper, a newspaper we all love, above their own."

The rhetoric sounded a bit like the bathos surrounding the abdication of Edward VIII. In any case, it was clear something pretty momentous had happened, but it was hard to say exactly what. Why did Raines and Boyd have to go? True, they presided over a scandal. They took responsibility for the bizarre career of a young reporter, Jayson Blair, who wrote many fraudulent stories. Editors even promoted him, long after he demonstrated his irresponsibility. The Times later published a 14,000-word analysis of Blair's perfidy, and subsequently Raines admitted that perhaps his own style of management was partly to blame. Possibly those who wanted to fire Blair were afraid to confront Raines with the evidence. Possibly Blair, as a black reporter, was treated far too gently because of the "diversity" program that both Raines and Boyd enthusiastically backed.

Even so, cutting loose the two leading editors seems an excessive response to mistakes in supervision, even if the mistakes revealed flaws in high-level management. There have been editorial calamities before, many of them much more serious. In this case no one's reputation was destroyed, and no crippling libel action was brought. When Blair lied in print, he lied harmlessly.

The reason why Raines and Boyd left the paper can be found in the tone of yesterday's announcement and the tone of all that the Times has published on this issue. Everything it has said carries a strong implication: The Times is no ordinary newspaper and certainly not a newspaper in which mistakes like this can happen. Its report on the Blair case made a point of calling it "a low point in the 152-year history of the paper." The meaning of that number was clear. The Times is so venerable that anything it does automatically becomes important.

It is pleasant for those working on a paper if others call it a great institution, but only disaster can result if the people editing it take that notion seriously. For as long as most of us can remember, The New York Times has spoken of itself with the utmost reverence, as if it were not a newspaper but a national institution, much as the Times of London was regarded in Britain a century ago. The New York Times may not be as important as the Supreme Court, but certainly it gives every impression of believing that it's on a par with the State Department. Last month the editor of the London Daily Mail called it "the most insufferably pompous organ in the history of newspapers." Overstated, perhaps, but pomposity is in the DNA of the Times. It seems to imagine it exists in a region of the empyrean that transcends the petty squabbles and desires afflicting other publications. This produces crippling self-consciousness. The editorial page reads as if the writers asked themselves, whenever confronting an issue: "What would The New York Times say about this?"

These attitudes weigh heavily on editors and writers, and no doubt explain why the Times is rarely a pleasure to read. If most newspapers are a first draft of history, the Times feels more like the seventh draft of a rather dull president's State of the Union address. On Saturday a story in the National Post called the Times "the gold standard" in American journalism. I'd say bronze, or maybe on its best days silver.

The Times is the most thorough newspaper on earth, and I would hate to be deprived of it at times of crisis. In the months immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, its coverage was resourceful, sympathetic and eloquent. But in general The Wall Street Journal's reporting is more audacious and surprising, and The Washington Post's livelier. I've read the Times every day for many years, but have rarely opened it with joyful anticipation. The arts pages, while much revised and worried-over in recent years, rarely offer critics who stand out from the crowd; likewise, the book section. Those who run the Op-Ed page have a weakness for official pronouncements from important personages. The Sunday Magazine, a model of its kind just a few years ago, has lately grown predictable.

Staff writers tend to write Times-speak, a highly formal and painfully respectable version of English, and few of them emerge as individual voices. One senses that they worry more about satisfying editors than readers. The result, while usually dignified, is rarely engaging. When someone breaks through those platoons of editors with a few irreverent personal touches, as Maureen Dowd did in the 1990s, she becomes the paper's heroine of the decade.

Joseph Lelyveld, executive editor until his retirement in 2001, will now serve as interim executive editor while a permanent replacement for Howell Raines is chosen. Reading that news yesterday, I thought of the last article I read by Lelyveld, a long piece in the New York Review of Books about Sidney Blumenthal's The Clinton Wars. That review had more bite, style, wit and intelligence than anything I can remember Lelyveld writing for the Times. It spoke directly and powerfully to the reader. It felt like the work of someone recently set free, unburdened by the self-importance of the Times.

What killed the careers of Raines and Boyd? Hubris, the sin of pride, the extravagant self-regard that afflicts all institutions once they decide they are great. To restore its towering self-esteem, the Times needed a grand gesture. Raines and Boyd sacrificed themselves to maintain the moral superiority of The New York Times.

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