March 22, 2023

The Public Editor: Repairing the Credibility Cracks After Jayson Blair

Jayson Blair, a young Times reporter, lied and faked and cheated his way through story after story — scores of them, for years. He fabricated sources, plagiarized material from other publications, and pretended to be places he never went. The problem, once fully investigated and made public by The Times itself, brought down not only the reporter but also The Times’s executive editor and managing editor. For a while, it even made The Times a laughingstock in late-night comedy routines.

“I think of Jayson Blair as an accident that ended my newspaper career in the same unpredictable way that a heart attack or a plane crash might have,” Howell Raines, that executive editor, wrote a year later in a long, fascinating piece for The Atlantic. Last week, when I interviewed him by phone, Mr. Raines made a similar comparison: “It was like stepping on a land mine.” The result, he said, “was heartbreaking for me.”

It was also, as the publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., put it, “a huge black eye” for The Times. Glenn Kramon, who was the business editor at the time and helped in the paper’s exhaustive investigation of Mr. Blair’s wrongdoings, remembers just how brutal that period was: “I didn’t realize how bad things had become until the P.R. guy from Enron called to tell us to hang in there.” And he remembers the emotions: “I felt anger on behalf of the 400 or so scrupulous, dedicated reporters who were incapable of such behavior.”

Much has happened since, and The Times is in its second round of new editorial leadership. But even now, when newspaper companies are preoccupied with long-term survival, it is still a touchy subject.

After the scandal and a thorough internal analysis, Times management put safeguards in place. One was the role of the public editor — I am the fifth — to give readers a direct place, independent of The Times’s editing structure, to take complaints about journalistic integrity. Another was the creation of a full-time standards editor, an internal position within the newsroom hierarchy. Still another was a program to thoroughly and regularly evaluate journalists’ work.

But, despite all of this, could a similar episode — or something as damaging — happen again?

“You have to always believe that something awful could happen again,” the executive editor, Jill Abramson, told me last week. Both she and the managing editor, Dean Baquet, pointed out that the particulars of the Blair problems — repeated fabrication and lying in articles — would come to the surface much more quickly in the age of blogging and Twitter.

“The world is better at checking us and challenging us,” Mr. Baquet said. “But it would be arrogant to say something couldn’t happen.”

Though plagiarism and fabrication remain a worry for editors, more likely these days is a problem that could arise from the misuse of social media, in which journalists have unfiltered, unedited publication channels. And beyond the actions of individual journalists, The Times faces previously unimagined risks to its credibility as it experiments with new ways to replace advertising revenue, which continues to shrink. For instance, the company has said that it will run more events like last year’s DealBook conference, in which outsiders pay to attend, allowing them unusal access to Times journalists. Such events are relatively harmless — certainly not sins on the order of the Blair scandal — but the meshing of journalism and moneymaking raises the potential for conflict-of-interest trouble.

Ms. Abramson said that one of the greatest lessons of the Blair scandal was “how concerned, hurt and angry our readers were, because this was contrary to everything we stand for — the trust and authenticity that people attach to The Times.”

Clyde Haberman, the celebrated reporter and columnist who retired recently, called the episode “without question the worst period in my 36 years at the paper.” As bad as it was, though, he said that it underlined for him a continuing virtue of the journalistic world: the importance of trust between reporter and editor, and between the paper and its readers.

“Trust is the coin of our realm,” he said. “We trust that the people we interview are being straight with us. We trust that our confidential sources are decent folks. We trust that our reporters went to the places they say they went, and spoke with the people they say they met. Naturally, trust doesn’t mean blind faith. Trust but verify, as Ronald Reagan said in a different context. But generally speaking, we are no different from anyone else on this planet: We accept that the people we deal with, and work with, are honorable.”

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Media Decoder Blog: Times Co. Names Mark Thompson Chief Executive

Mark Thompson.

The New York Times Company has namedMark Thompson, the departing director general of theBritish Broadcasting Corporation, as its new president and chief executive.

Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the chairman ofthe TimesCompany and the newspaper’s publisher, announced the appointment late Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Thompson, 55, will join the company in November. In addition to his executive roles, he will also sit on the board.

In choosing Mr. Thompson, a veteran of television who has spent nearly his entire career at the BBC, The Times reached outside its own company, its own industry and even its own country to find a leader to guide it in an uncharted digital future.

“We have people who understand print very well, the best in the business,” Mr. Sulzberger said in the interview. “We have people who understand advertising well, the best in the business. But our future is on to video, to social, to mobile. It doesn’t mirror what we’ve done. It broadens what we are going to do.”

Mr. Thompson who just arrived on Tuesday afternoon fromLondon, said that he had been “a reader of The New York Times for decades” and said he was honored to take the new position.

“It’s a privilege,” he said. “What we’ve got in The New York Times is an outstanding newsroom,” calling it “the envy of the world.”

The Times has been without a chief executive since Janet Robinson left in December 2011. Since then, Mr. Sulzberger has said the company was looking for a candidate with experience in the digital world and across multiple platforms.

Mr. Thompson’s reign at the BBC has largely been categorized as one of digital expansion and as having an emphasis on developing the BBC internationally. He championed the BBC’s collaboration in YouView, a joint venture with ITV, Channel 4 and other channels, that provides digital TV and many of BBC’s international for-profit ventures, like BBC America. He has also overseen several rounds of cost-cutting at the corporation, which depends largely on public support (through license fees), not advertising, for its operating budget.

Mr. Thompson’s candidacy had been rumored for several months. He was regarded as an unorthodox choice not just because he was from television but because he worked for a public broadcaster and had no experience running a publicly traded concern like the Times Company. He also rose through the editorial ranks of the BBC, whereas publishers in theUnited Statestypically emerge from the business side.

“I think of myself as a journalist,” Mr. Thompson said. “I spent many of my years as a working journalist.” He did not say whether he would favor video over other components of The Times like apps or social media. “These are all going to be important,” he said.

The search for a new chief executive was led by the firm Spencer Stuart. Mr. Sulzberger declined to provide details about the other candidates except to say that the board interviewed all of the finalists and he met with the candidates privately before a decision was made.

John Janedis, a research analyst with UBS, said that finding the right chief executive for the Times Company was a tall order. “They would have to have the respect of the newsroom and a digital background,” he said. “On a practical level, it was hard to find deep roots in both of those things. In Mark, I guess those boxes get checked.”

Craig Huber, an independent research analyst with Huber Research Partners, cautioned that Mr. Thompson’s adjustment to a company driven by ad and circulation revenue would take time.

“The New York Times has to prove itself every day to keep its subscribers and advertisers,” he said. “The BBC certainly doesn’t in the U.K.”

Mr. Thompson had said he would step down from his current position after the London Olympics, which ended Sunday. He leaves the BBC on a high point, particularly in the news organization’s digital ventures. The BBC reported that a total of 55 million viewers logged onto its sports Web site during the Olympic Games held in London from July 27 to Aug. 12. The Web site averaged about 9.5 million visitors each day of the Olympics.

“If you look at what the BBC has done with digital, especially in coverage of the Olympics and interactive, it’s been extremely good,” said Ian Whittaker, a media analyst at Liberum Capital in London. He added: “Having said that, Mark Thompson has never had to scrap for advertising revenue or circulation revenues.”

A graduate of theUniversity of Oxford’s Merton College, Mr. Thompson first joined the BBC in 1979 as a production trainee. After working as an editor on the BBC’s flagship “Nine O’Clock News” and the news program “Panorama,” he graduated to overseeing the separate channel BBC2 and serving as the BBC’s director of national and regional broadcasting. In 2000, he became the BBC’s director of television.

After a two-year stint as chief executive ofBritain’s Channel 4, he returned to serve as BBC Worldwide’s director general in 2004 and added chairman to his title this year. As director general, he oversaw 20,000 employees globally and 400,000 hours of programming, according to the BBC Web site.

Mr. Thompson has frequently weighed in on controversies about the BBC’s coverage. In 2010, he told The New Statesman, a current affairs magazine, that in the past, particularly during the Thatcher years, the BBC had a “massive” left-leaning bias, but added that the bias no longer existed. In June, the BBC fielded more than 4,000 complaints about its coverage of the queen’s diamond jubilee. Mr. Thompson apologized for “some inaccuracies in the commentary that we shouldn’t have had.”

Mr. Thompson is described by friends as being both a committed journalist and an astute politician. One London friend who did not want to discuss Mr. Thompson for attribution said he was extremely intellectual, a quality that can at times come across as remote or condescending.

Mr. Thompson lives inOxfordwith his wife, the American-born Jane Blumberg. They have three children. According to the BBC’s annual report, Mr. Thompson earned £622,000 (about $962,000) in the 2011 fiscal year.

Mr. Thompson will be joining the Times company as it continues to face challenges posed by changing reader habits and a shifting advertising market. Last month, it reported a net loss of $88 million for the second quarter of 2012. A positive sign has been the success of its digital subscription strategy, which has so far attracted 509,000 paid subscribers to the Web site, e-reader and other digital editions of The Times and The International Herald Tribune. “They’re much more subscription-driven than I think people give themcreditfor,” Mr. Janedis said.

Shares in the company closed up slightly on Tuesday at $9.09.

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