After resignations of top news execs, NY Times works to restore credibility

Friday, June 6th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) -- The New York Times must restore its credibility among readers, journalism experts said after its top two news executives resigned in a scandal that began with a young reporter's fabrications and revealed a newsroom rife with dissension.

Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd announced their resignations Thursday.

"Given the events of the last month ... Howell and Gerald concluded that it was best for the Times that they step down," Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said in a memo to the staff. "With great sadness, I agreed with their decision."

Former Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld, 66, came out of retirement to lead one of the world's most distinguished newspapers on an interim basis. It's not clear how long he will remain at the helm.

Spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said the paper would look both "inside the Times and outside," although many expect the next editors to come from within the paper's own ranks.

"It would be a huge surprise, and a mistake, if an outsider was named to head The New York Times," said James Naughton, a former Times reporter and president of the Poynter Institute, a training center for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla. "It's a hugely complex organization."

The Times' new leadership will have to make peace with a disgruntled news staff that viewed Raines as aloof and arrogant and repair damage to the paper's reputation inflicted by 27-year-old reporter Jayson Blair, who frequently invented or plagiarized material in his stories.

In its lead editorial for Friday's editions, the newspaper said the introspection the Times has been going through since the Blair story surfaced "will, in the long run, be healthy. A string of rather spectacular successes might have made us too cocky, too sure that the future would simply bring more of the same. Now, we are re-examining some of our internal rules and structures."

In the Times' third-floor newsroom Thursday -- the same spot where they celebrated a record seven Pulitzer Prizes just a year ago -- Raines told the staff he planned to return to writing and studying history and would pursue interests in painting and photography.

"It's been a tumultuous 20 months, but we have produced some memorable newspapers," he said.

He ended his remarks with an exhortation: "Remember, when a great story breaks out, go like hell."

Some staffers were in tears. Minutes later, Raines left the building on 43rd Street.

None of the executives who spoke at the meeting mentioned the Jayson Blair debacle, which the Times had called "a low point" in its 152-year history.

Attempts by The Associated Press to reach Blair were unsuccessful; his cell phone had been disconnected. He told WCBS-TV in New York that he was "sorry for his actions and what they've done."

"I was in a cycle of self-destruction that I never intended, and I never intended for it to hurt anyone else, and the pain that it's caused my colleagues -- the great and wonderful journalists at the Times -- I'm sorry," he said.

Blair's troubles weren't the only thing to shake the Times' foundations. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Rick Bragg left shortly after being suspended for a story that carried his byline but was reported largely by a freelancer.

"The Times' values need to be strengthened, shored up and reinforced," said Susan Tifft, a former associate editor at Time and co-author of "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times."

"For that reason, it's one of the most important watershed moments in the paper's history," Tifft said. "It brings together the paper's credibility, which is the most central thing that a newspaper has to sell. If you don't have that, you might as well shut down."

The crisis at the Times is being watched closely by newspaper editors across the nation, many of whom are concerned that the fallout from the Blair scandal and the ensuing management shakeup could affect the credibility of other news media as well.

"It's clearly a time of searching reappraisals by smart editors and journalists to assess how we do our jobs," said Rich Oppel, editor of the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman.

"Nobody could have anticipated a lying sociopath like Jayson Blair in their newsroom, but now we must tighten policies on plagiarism and search wherever we can for problems of accuracy and fairness," said Oppel, whose son works in the Times' Washington bureau.