Inside the Rivalries, Feuds, Triumphs and Failures at the New York Times

From a New York Times story by Alan Rusbridger headlined “Inside the Rivalries, Feuds, Triumphs and Failures at The New York Times”:

Alan Rusbridger was editor in chief of The Guardian from 1995 to 2015. He chairs the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford and edits Prospect magazine.

There was a moment during the presidency of Donald Trump when, to some of us watching helplessly from other parts of the globe, it seemed The New York Times was all we had.

Actually, that’s not quite true. The Times was among a handful of American journalistic organizations that appeared to have the steel, integrity, resources and discipline to hold the line in the face of a remorseless attack on long-held notions of reason, evidence and truthfulness.

Other once-solid pillars of the Republic seemed to have fallen, or were wobbling under intense siege. The question was whether, after enduring years of battering, the institutions of the Fourth Estate were still up to the job.

With The New York Times, the answer was not a given. The newspaper’s reputation had taken some hugely damaging direct hits in the previous 15 years or so. There had been a merry-go-round of executive editors, at least two of whom had departed abruptly, leaving a trail of turmoil in their wake. The paper had been in considerable financial distress. It had been slow to adapt to the new technologies that posed an existential threat to news organizations the world over. Maybe its form of quasi-hereditary ownership wasn’t quite working out as hoped?

“The Times,” the latest book about the paper’s history, begins in 1976 and covers two publishers, seven executive editors, a financial meltdown, a reinvented business model and a revolutionary transformation in how journalism itself is done, ending with the 2016 presidential election. Written by Adam Nagourney, a veteran Times reporter, it is something of a white-knuckle ride with — spoiler alert — a broadly happy ending.

It is not necessarily a book for those who have a favorite restaurant but would rather not know what goes on in the kitchen. Nagourney describes his journalistic colleagues as “by their nature self-reliant, secretive, insecure, competitive, sensitive and suspicious. They have sprawling egos and high self-regard.”

That isn’t even half of it. Numerous passages are devoted to rivalries, feuds, conspiracies, squabbling, bullying and jostling for position. Of the paper’s executive editors during the book’s time frame, Nagourney describes Max Frankel as the “not-Abe” (Rosenthal, his predecessor) and Bill Keller as the “not-Howell” (Raines, his predecessor).

But why stop there? Raines more or less defined himself against his predecessor, Joseph Lelyveld, who, he said, had made the paper boring. Jill Abramson, who succeeded Keller, appears to have detested Raines, who frequently criticized her when she served as Washington bureau chief under him, while Dean Baquet, Abramson’s successor, famously punched his fist against a wall out of fury with her.

But how many readers noticed? Like all great institutions, The Times mostly succeeded in rising above these behind-the-scenes dramas and got on with the job of reporting on the city, the nation and the world in a sober and serious way.

Of course, readers could not remain in total innocence of some of the troubles that beset the paper, if only because of its deeply ingrained instincts toward a degree of transparency that sometimes verged on self-flagellation.

In 1991 the paper’s dubious decision to investigate, and name, a 29-year-old woman who reported to the police that she had been raped at the Kennedy family compound in Florida prompted internal turmoil — as well as a “media memo” by a Times reporter and a harshly critical column by an opinion writer. Nine years later the paper acknowledged flaws in its reporting on a Chinese American scientist at Los Alamos whom The Times, relying heavily on sources in the F.B.I., portrayed as a probable spy. (He wasn’t.)

Four years after that came a debacle involving the reporter Jayson Blair, a prodigious plagiarist and fabulist with a severe alcohol and cocaine problem to which nearly everyone turned a blind eye. Still later, there was public embarrassment over the decision to kill — and then belatedly to publish — a story about President George W. Bush and the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens.

And then there was Iraq — personified for the paper by Judith Miller (“a bulldozer of a reporter,” Nagourney writes), whose front-page stories claimed the country was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist. This may have been the nadir of New York Times reporting, and Nagourney delves into the conflicting agendas and egos that lay behind the editorial handling of the stories. If you were hoping for a single villain in his book, there isn’t one.

All these failings were aired at the time and are explored again here, ammunition for those who wish the paper ill. But it’s possible, I think, to draw a different lesson from these errors, lapses and frailties. The perfect news organization has yet to be created, but there are a vanishingly small number willing to admit as much.

It’s incredibly rare to encounter a newspaper, or broadcaster, prepared to apply the same scrutiny to itself that it routinely subjects to others. And herein may lie a clue to The Times’s institutional strength.

Yes, the paper could be staid and stuffy at times. Yes, it had an almost hubristic sense of self-importance. Yes, it was slow to change. But its publishers, flawed as they were, invested in journalism at a time when others were taking an ax to newsrooms. Its senior editors believed in the craft of journalism and had high ethical standards. There was, for the most part, a separation of news and commentary. The relentless pursuit of profit and clicks, or traffic, was alien to the culture.

And so, by the end of this narrative, in 2016, just after Trump’s election to the White House, The New York Times has successfully weathered many storms and is, by and large, battle-hardened for the tests that lie ahead. In singling out The Times as “a true ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE,” Trump unwittingly threw the paper a lifeline, with 6.5 million digital subscribers by 2020 preferring its version of the truth to the president’s.

Nagourney tells the story with restrained skill, including 53 pages of endnotes to support his narrative. It is, if you like, a history of kings and queens, and some readers might have wished to hear more from the foot soldiers. But it’s an important story. Thirty years into the digital revolution, we now have a clear idea of how to destroy or hollow out news organizations, and how to create the sort of information chaos where no one knows what to believe or whom to trust.

The New York Times, rooted in the wealthiest city in the world and with its family ownership structure, cannot provide a playbook for all its peers. But, notwithstanding the slips along the way, its quality and resilience are still a beacon to many. Which, given all the likely challenges in the future, is just as well.

THE TIMES: How the Newspaper of Record Survived Scandal, Scorn, and the Transformation of Journalism | By Adam Nagourney.

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