What does it mean when a news-weekly becomes the news story of the week? On May 18, Newsweek invited its rank-and-file staff to join the editors in the conference room for the weekly cover meeting to address the implications, both internal and external.
The expanded invitation was a break from the usual Wednesday routine, according to a Newsweek staffer. But crisis management at the embattled newsweekly had reached a crucial point. Two days earlier, editor Mark Whitaker had retracted a May 9 item about alleged Koran abuse at Guantánamo Bay. Now, top executives had descended on New York. Donald Graham, chief executive of the Washington Post Company, came in from Washington; Newsweek chairman and editor in chief Richard M. Smith had cut short a trip to Asia and flown back.
Mr. Graham opened the meeting with a speech seeking to rally the staff, according to one person who was in the room. He recalled his tenure as publisher of The Washington Post in 1981, when Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer Prize–winning story of a child drug addict was exposed as a fraud.
Newsweek’s error, Mr. Graham told staffers, would be mentioned high up when other people wrote about the magazine. Still, he said, with time, the reference would drop from the first paragraph to the last; Newsweek’s reputation would heal. Unlike Ms. Cooke, Mr. Graham said, Newsweek’s reporters hadn’t knowingly done wrong.
“He wasn’t minimizing the mistake that was made,” the staffer said. “He was distinguishing it from these other [scandals].”
The staffer added: “In some ways, he was saying it was like Janet Cooke: When you went out into the wider world, everyone was talking about it.”
But Newsweek, for its part, decided to tone down the talking. Following Mr. Graham’s address, the editors and staff hunkered down for their weekly cover decision. At a meeting the day before, according to two staffers who’d been present, the staff had contemplated preparing a cover package pegged to the Periscope controversy.
Another staffer, who wasn’t present at the meeting but had been briefed on the package, described the concept as an overview about “What’s Wrong With the Media?” While the planning was only preliminary and no pieces had been assigned, the editors had discussed potential elements of the package, including pieces by guest contributors, a piece on blogs and the media by Steven Levy, and a meditation on sourcing by Jonathan Alter.
The editors decided, however, to shelve the idea. Instead, they picked newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for the cover, fronting a package about the growing political influence of Latinos. The media package would be scaled down and put in the inside.
“Every week, we debate various options for the cover as the week progresses,” Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker said in an e-mail statement. “We had been talking for months about the possibility of doing a cover on Latino political power if Villaraigosa was elected mayor of Los Angeles, and on Wednesday after he won decisively it felt like a smart and timely call.”
Mr. Whitaker added the magazine’s story mix-and how much attention to give its own coverage-was based on the same news judgment that guides his staff each week.
“We made those decisions the way we always do: based on what we think will be of most interest to our readers,” he said.
The newsroom had been dreading the prospect of giving the media story more prominent play. “There was a thought,” said one staffer who wasn’t present at the cover meeting, “that if we put us on the cover, it would blow up again.”
The editors’ calculations were guided, in part, by a rapidly moving news cycle. Under prolonged scrutiny, the initial media-scandal concept-”Newsweek Item, Badly Sourced, Sparks Lethal Muslim Riots”-had been modified bit by bit: Had the item really caused the rioting, or was it merely a pretext? Had Newsweek really been unusually reckless and inflammatory compared to other outlets? Was the alleged desecration of the Koran by U.S. guards more egregious and unlikely than, say, setting attack dogs on naked Muslim prisoners?
Meanwhile, the White House had gone from denouncing Newsweek’s journalistic standards to defending itself from charges of disingenuousness-what was that about anonymous sourcing again?-and of bullying. By May 17, the press corps had turned openly skeptical, if not hostile, toward the administration: “With respect, who made you the editor of Newsweek?” ABC’s Terry Moran asked Presidential press secretary Scott McClellan. “Do you think it’s appropriate for you, at that podium, speaking with the authority of the President of the United States, to tell an American magazine what they should print?”
That transcript, posted the same day on the Drudge Report, helped convince Newsweek that the tide was turning, two Newsweek staffers said.
“We decided that getting into the whole media–White House thing was for other people to do,” Mr. Alter said. “It would be defensive for us to make these points-though I have to admit it was hard to resist, given how glaring the hypocrisy was.”
Mr. Alter also said that the introspective cover package was treated like any other news topic that was losing steam. “We’re always going to assess what a story will look like the following week, depending on how much news energy it would have,” Mr. Alter said. “The [Newsweek] story peaked on Monday. Very rarely do we do extensive coverage of a story that breaks early in the week.”
So Newsweek ended up with a scaled-down treatment of journalistic fallibility. Mr. Alter weighed in on the necessities and pitfalls of anonymous sourcing. Mr. Whitaker addressed the scandal in his editor’s note, and Mr. Smith wrote a 900-plus-word letter to the readers pledging to tighten up the standards for anonymous sourcing. Evan Thomas and Michael Isikoff-the latter of whom had written the initial item-reported on the Pentagon’s investigation of Guantánamo Bay log entries for evidence of Koran abuse.
Internally, the magazine had decided by the end of the week not to go down a Times-ian road of public soul-searching and investigation. Newsweek, said former assistant managing editor Sarah Crichton, “is not a blame-filled organization …. I’ve worked at places where, when something happens, people’s heads have to roll. At Newsweek, that’s not how it happens.”
“It would have been hard if, layered on top of everything we were going through with the public, we had been at each other’s throats,” Mr. Alter said.
Before the end of the workday on May 18, Mr. Smith sent an e-mail to the staff via spokesman Ken Weine, voicing his support for Mr. Whitaker’s response to the crisis. “After returning from my abbreviated trip to Asia,” he wrote, “I have had a chance to thoroughly review the handling of our story …. As Mark and I agreed early on, the only honorable course for Newsweek was to retract the story.”
Mr. Smith followed up with a second staff e-mail on May 21, when the issue closed, offering a preview of his letter to the readers. “I want you to take a close look at the last paragraph in particular,” he wrote. “It applies to the entire Newsweek staff.” In that letter, the chairman had written: “I can assure you that the talented and honorable people who publish Newsweek today are dedicated to making sure that what appears on every page in the magazine is as fair and accurate as it can possibly be.”
“In this particular case,” Mr. Alter said, “scapegoating wasn’t merited, because we were victimized by a source-not by a bad apple in the ranks …. [T]his was not a case of gross malfeasance at the reporting or editing level. I think that made it easier for people not to turn on each other, because there really wasn’t anybody to blame.”
“There’s an ambient level of discontent in the newsroom,” Bill Keller said, “and that’s useful.”
Mr. Keller, the New York Times executive editor, was on the phone May 23, discussing his appointment of Sam Sifton to the post of Times culture editor-and how the move fit into his management theory.
Mr. Sifton, 38, had ascended to the top of the sprawling department after a months-long public bake-off in which he and Jim Schachter, the section’s deputies, had been vying to succeed term-limited culture chief Jonathan Landman. Mr. Sifton declined to discuss his promotion or his editorial agenda.
Mr. Landman’s job had been to implement The Times’ plans to revamp the culture pages: expanding breaking-news coverage, restructuring editorial portfolios, and overseeing high-profile hires that included film critic Manohla Dargis, Hollywood editor Michael Cieply and architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff. With those changes largely in place, The Times was seeking a more arts-focused boss to oversee the operations of the department, which includes some 100 reporters, editors and critics.
Under Mr. Landman, each deputy had supervised a separate collection of departments. Mr. Sifton’s bailiwick included coverage of art, theater, architecture and books, while Mr. Schachter oversaw The Times’ film, television and music reports.
“Lines of authority were strained at times,” one culture staffer said.
Culture staffers said that both editors commanded loyalty from their subordinates, and that Mr. Sifton’s supporters were perhaps more vocal in championing his campaign.
But Mr. Keller said that popularity hadn’t guided his selection. “In the end, it’s not a plebiscite,” he said.
The executive editor added that he hadn’t feared the decision would be divisive. “I think, in this case, whichever choice we made, the department would have been well run and people would have felt a lot of respect toward their leader,” Mr. Keller said. “So the concern that one faction or another might have been upset wasn’t a huge factor in this decision. It’s sort of something you want to know, in case you’re in danger of setting off a major insurrection, but that wasn’t really the factor here.”
Throughout the running, Mr. Sifton was reputed to be the initial front-runner, though as the decision neared a countervailing rumor circulated that The Times would go with the more news-centric Mr. Schachter.
Mr. Keller’s memo announcing the decision didn’t dwell on any thwarted aspirations. It was fulsome in its praise-describing the department as “the finest staff of culture journalists working anywhere” (take that, Cahiers du Cinema!)-and relentlessly upbeat about the extent of the “collaborative spirit” in the department.
“Sam and Jim and the amazing Jodi Kantor and their colleagues lifted one another up,” Mr. Keller wrote. The process, he added, “was a triumph of collegiality without compromise.”
“Lifted one another up”? “Collegiality”? Just how far is Mr. Keller planning to take this whole everybody-wins attitude?
“I like people with some spine,” Mr. Keller said. “It’s not really a matter of trying to populate the newsroom with peacemakers.”
Mr. Keller said he wasn’t aiming to smooth over rifts left over from the Howell Raines regime. “I certainly hope [my appointments] are not pacifiers,” he said. “I’ve always bristled a little at this notion that my job when I came in was to settle the place down.”
Suddenly, Anodyne Bill was starting to sound like a feisty Alabaman. “The last thing you want in a newspaper is for people to settle down,” Mr. Keller said. “You want them to be aggressive and competitive and anxious and even paranoid sometimes, a little neurotic-I mean, that’s the fun of the place.”
Talk about competitive metabolism!
Despite the handholding in the culture department, Mr. Keller said The Times wouldn’t be The Times if the newsroom didn’t grumble. Hence his praise for the constructive power of discontent.
“It comes from having people who tend to be hard to satisfy,” Mr. Keller said. “You just don’t want it to rise to the level where the institution is devouring itself.”
New York Times pundit standings, May 17-23:
1. Frank Rich, score 24.0 [rank last week: 1st]
2. Paul Krugman, 12.5 [2nd]
3. David Brooks, 7.5 [tie-7th]
4. Thomas L. Friedman, 7.0 [3rd]
5. Bob Herbert, 5.0 [6th]
6. Nicholas D. Kristof, 4.5 [4th]
7. (tie) Matt Miller, 0.0 [5th]
John Tierney, 0.0 [tie-7th]
The Times is right-class does matter! Frank Rich, lord of the rebuilt Sunday Op-Ed page, ran away with the Most E-Mailed title again this week. Mr. Rich’s musings on the Newsweek scandal trailed only the science story about the female orgasm on the 25 Most E-Mailed list. But his fellow pundits saw scores depressed across the board, their columns crowded off the list by stories from The Times’ giant series on class in America. John Tierney, despite writing about Darth Vader, held onto his untouchable caste status, joined by Maureen Dowd substitute Matt Miller at the scoreless bottom of the pecking order.
Correction: Last week’s essay on Radar magazine and the state of the magazine industry misrepresented Michael Wolff’s intentions for New York magazine. Mr. Wolff e-mailed to explain that while he had sought, with a group of investors, to buy New York, he had no intention of editing the magazine himself. “I would never want to be an editor,” Mr. Wolff wrote. “I don’t have the skills, temperament, or interest.” Tom Scocca regrets the error.