The New York Times – still fit to print

Nytimes_hq

Daniel R Schwarz

EndTimes? Crises and Turmoil at The New York Times, 1999-2009
500pp. Excelsior Editions
Paperback £14.64

 

The late Christopher Hitchens once offered the opinion, in a piece for The Guardian, that journalism has a low reputation because it has a bad press.

This celebration of mischief has never caught on in the United States. American newspapers are, on the whole, both less lively and more reliable than their British counterparts. When The New York Times – nicknamed the Grey Lady – became embroiled in a series of scandals, it was seen not merely as an embarrassment but as an existential threat.

Despite the gloomy title of his book, however, Daniel Schwarz has not come to read the last rites over an institution which he believes publishes “the worst newspaper in the world except for all the others”.

The Cornell University professor considered calling the book ‘Obit: The New York Times as a Newspaper’ but is now confident that the printed Times has a future. For how long – who knows? The newspaper industry has replaced Hollywood as the place where ‘nobody knows anything’ is a management mantra.

In microscopic detail, Schwarz relates how during the alternately autocratic and indulgent editorship of Howell Raines from 2001-03, the New York Times became ensnared in a scandal surrounding fabricated articles about serial killings written by a reporter called Jayson Blair and published reports by another star journalist, Judith Miller, which hyped the Bush administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction as the rush to war in Iraq gathered place.

Raines was deposed in a staff coup but Miller stayed on to embarrass his successor, Bill Keller, when she was jailed after refusing to reveal her sources for what she knew about the outing by the Bush administration of Valeria Plame as a CIA agent. Miller was regarded by liberals as a cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq and they were unenthusiastic about defending her First Amendment Rights. Keller kept his reporters in the dark about Miller’s sources, wasting their time and talent.

Schwarz admits he is no journalist, but like any good reporter he has been diligent in his ground work. He conducted 45 interviews, including every living executive editor of the newspaper along with a good number of section editors and senior staff writers. The result, which took seven years to write, is stronger on the economic causes and consequences of the Times’ tribulations than the personality clashes which also contributed to its troubles. Readers hoping for the stuff of soap opera must look elsewhere – this isn’t Ugly Betty.

The economic rot set in, according to Schwarz, around 2005, when operating profits and the company’s stock price plunged and investors took fright. He does not hide his disdain for the smoke and mirrors that too often surround media economics, and lambasts a number of Times journalists for their rose-tinted reporting of the paper’s dire straits. This feels a little unfair. No doubt the reporters were sent in to bat for their senior executives who really did seem to have their head stuck in the sand. Schwarz believes that media reporters ought to “occupy a place like the public editor, that is, a place insulated from the editorial supervision and hierarchy of The Times”. In an interview available on You Tube, the author admits that the journalists he met had a tendency to think that he was an academic on release from an ivory tower. You can occasionally see why they would form that view.

But he is surely correct when he writes that the publisher of the Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Junior,“flagrantly misread” the economic situation and behaved as if “he were trying to convince himself that the gathering storm clouds didn’t exist”.

Schwarz writes: “At times, he seems to believe the Times as a Sulzberger property has a divine right to survive.”

If he is acute in his description of the disease, Schwarz seems to me to be on less sure ground in his prescription of a cure. The professor believes there is a highbrow and a lowbrow, hard news and soft news, and never the twain shall meet. He clearly has no truck with fancy-pants postmodern suggestions that an article on, say, Tom Ford, could rub well-tailored shoulders with an analysis of the conflict between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

He writes: “I think The Times could sell a reduced paper edition – without the fluff I have called Timeslite and Timestrash – with a focus on opinions, investigatory journalism, cultural coverage, and analytical foreign news.”

You can hear the stampede of readers, investors and advertisers toward the exit.

Schwarz is culpable of his own Pollyanna moments. He states that the “competition among reporters and editors for external recognition in terms of prizes fosters the search for truth”.

On the contrary, it was in part lust for such baubles which led previous executive editors at the paper to allow too much licence to wayward journalists.

In essence, Schwarz has written a lament for a passing world, one where, it seems to him, standards were higher, motives were nobler and newsmen (for they were, mostly, male) more honourable.

We are all tabloid readers now.


 

This review was first published in The Times Literary Supplement on April 4, 2014

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