Dear Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.:
Who are you kidding?
This is a real question, I’m afraid. It’s what people want to know: the people downstairs from you and the people outside—the rest of the press, the public, the readers. You do care what the readers think, or at least you said you do, with finger-wagging sincerity, on Nov. 10 on Charlie Rose: “It’s a big issue [wag] if our readers [wag] lose trust [wag] and respect [wag], and devalue [wag] the journalism [wag, wag] they’re getting in the pages [wag] of the paper.”
Charlie: “And has that been put at risk?”
You: [sweeping wag] “And the answer is no.”
With respect, Sir, it has been put at risk. The New York Times is not as trusted and respected as it was a year ago—or even seven weeks ago. Morale is not, as you told Charlie Rose, “doing just great.”
The thing is, it’s hard to tell whether you believe what you’re saying, or just want us to believe it.
It’s hard to decide which would be worse. You are the publisher of The New York Times. Your stock price is on the skids. Your newsroom is having its second meltdown in three years. Your great First Amendment showdown ended in a crushing legal defeat for the profession and a public-relations debacle for The Times.
Yet there you sat, in front of the cameras: contrite, in theory, but without a visible shred of humility. Morale? Great. Judith Miller? “There is a lot that Judy and The Times can feel very proud of about her years there.” Her weapons-of-mass-destruction coverage? “We’ve dealt with that issue.” The Philadelphia Inquirer’s scoop on the fact that Ms. Miller was getting out of jail? “That silly thing.”
That silly thing was news—the clean, central news break of Judith Miller’s entire 85-day jail sentence. According to the box your great-grandfather put on page one, it’s what The Times is in the business of printing. And you were scoffing at the competition.
Sure, you scoffed at The Observer, too. This paper’s coverage was not accurate, you told Mr. Rose—“but that’s all right, I’ll live with this pain”—and then you declined, though a spokesperson, to specify what the inaccuracies had been.
Honestly, The Inquirer bit was more jarring. Here’s what you’re supposed to say when you get scooped: “Congratulations.” You don’t deny, and you certainly don’t condescend.
Social graces matter. You accused your own reporters of quoting you out of context in the paper’s Miller coverage, in an interview on your paper’s Op Ed page—though your quote certainly appeared to have been in context. You sniped at Time magazine for cutting a deal to surrender notes to the prosecutor—though Ms. Miller ended up cutting a deal of her own.
On Charlie Rose, you wouldn’t even admit to that sniping. “Actually,” you said, “all I said was that I was disappointed.”
You said a bit more than that. You said, in a statement responding to Time’s decision to cooperate: “We faced similar pressures in 1978 when both our reporter Myron Farber and the Times Company were held in contempt of court for refusing to provide the names of confidential sources. Mr. Farber served 40 days in jail and we were forced to pay significant fines.”
Let’s parse this: You accused Time of being unwilling to suffer jail and fines for a worthy journalistic principle.
“Our focus,” you continued, “is now on our own reporter, Judith Miller, and in supporting her during this difficult time.”
So—was Time wrong to relent under the same pressures The Times has faced? Was The Times wrong to stand by Myron Farber? Judith Miller?
It was clever to maneuver out of the charge you’d leveled at Time. But you didn’t get your job because you were clever. You got it because you were born into the right family at the right time.
Sorry for being so blunt about it. But to honestly accept that fact is a big part of doing your current job. You’ve still got a chance to avoid going down as the worst Times publisher since George F. Spinney got out 109 years ago.
That was when your great-grandfather, Adolph Ochs, came in, taking over a paper with a circulation of 9,000. It’s stayed in the family ever since—through your grandfather, your uncle, your father and you—and the circulation has gone up more than a hundredfold, and it has become the flagship of American print journalism. So there’s something to be said for nepotism, isn’t there?
But only as long as you understand your position as the scion-publisher of a family paper. From the ground upward, The New York Times is an institution staffed by meritorious meritocrats, their noses shiny from years pressed to the grindstone. In theory, and often in practice, they advance by striving and laboring, climbing up a pile of accomplishments and awards—until they’ve clambered to the foot of the Sulzberger throne.
There, where the meritocratic and aristocratic systems meet, a roiling layer of Borgia-grade intrigue threatens. At that altitude, there are more worthy people than there are worthy jobs for them to fill. Ambition goes unrewarded. Knives come out.
Your job is to subdue the ill will, by standing for a higher purpose. Not the First Amendment—that’s both too broad and too thin for you. Larry Flynt can represent the First Amendment. You are a Sulzberger. You stand for The New York Times.
On TV, you talked about that. “It is my job,” you said, “to ensure that when the time comes for the next generation of leaders to take over The New York Times newspaper and company, that they are handed as strong and powerful an institution as I was handed in my time.”
It’s now been seven weeks since Judith Miller gave up her confidential source and got out of jail. It’s been two and a half weeks since her source was indicted for perjury, with the help of her testimony. It’s been one week since Ms. Miller became an ex-employee of The New York Times.
And you still show no sign of being able to explain, clarify, or justify how these events followed on one another. When Charlie Rose pressed you on the basic question of why the paper had split with Ms. Miller, you switched seats with him and batted his question out of the way: “It shouldn’t really be the point of this conversation. What’s important here is not the employer relationship—employee relationship with a single journalist.”
But that is what’s important here. One day, you were telling us that Judith Miller was a champion for all that matters in journalism. Then you were telling us that Judith Miller couldn’t work for you anymore. What happened?
“When a New York Times reporter becomes the story, becomes so entwined with the story, it’s very hard to continue as an independent journalist,” you said, echoing Ms. Miller’s own explanation of her departure. “And Judy is just simply too much aligned now with the story.”
But Ms. Miller had long since been aligned with the story—and with other stories before that. The Times allowed her to write about the investigation of Steven Hatfill in the anthrax attacks of 2001, even though she had received an anthrax hoax letter herself, and Mr. Hatfill’s most vocal foe accused him of being behind those mailings.
The problem with Judith Miller and The Times, as you related it, was an external one: After this latest round of events, she could not “be viewed as an objective reporter.” She didn’t do wrong; she looked wrong. That perception was so strong, you said, she could not even come back “to write restaurant reviews,” for fear she could be charged with political bias.
Cuteness aside, you somehow managed, in an hour of answering questions, not to state an opinion on whether Judith Miller did something wrong. Here you were on the subject of whether Ms. Miller had been truthful: “If you’re asking whether the bonds of trust between Judy and her editors were strained, the answer has—is yes, they were strained …. And trust—I’m not going get into that.”
Are you not allowed to get into that, under the terms of her leaving?
Asked whether there are any restrictions on what the parties to Ms. Miller’s retirement may say about it, a Times spokesperson replied, via e-mail, “We consider such matters confidential, personnel issues.”
When you can’t answer questions about why you don’t answer questions, you aren’t doing a very good job of setting yourself up as a champion of free inquiry. Or of the journalistic transparency that has become the supposed watchword of your regime at The Times, since Jayson Blair et al.
The story of what went wrong with Judith Miller is a key part of the story of what went wrong with The Times’ coverage of Iraqi W.M.D., which is a key part of the story of what went wrong—or what was wrong—with the Bush administration’s case for war. And that’s the story that everyone is trying to get right now.
Except you. Here’s what you said about your paper’s W.M.D. coverage: “We owned those errors in a very long and very detailed editors’ note. And that was then over.” Pause. “In our judgment, that was over. Was it over for many of our readers? No, of course not, I recognize that. Again [sad furrow of brow] look at the political times we are in.”
The suggestion, here and earlier, is that the W.M.D. problem at The Times should have ended over a year ago for all your readers but the ones who have a political ax to grind with Judith Miller. That’s facile, ad hominem even. And I think you’ll find more readers than that who think it’s not yet over.
That’s serious, remember?
“It’s a big issue [wag] if our readers [wag] lose trust [wag] and respect [wag].”
In the short term, there are circulation gains to comfort you that that isn’t happening. That’s what you pointed out to Charlie Rose, before you tried to get him to sign up for TimesSelect.
The question is whether those sales will become harder when people keep asking questions.
The Times, you said, is an editors’ paper, not a reporters’ paper. Was the Judith Miller dilemma that Miss Run Amok was assigning herself? Turning her column inches into a little reporters’-paper-within-a-paper? Or what editors were responsible for those stories?
Have you read that 2004 editors’ note lately? It’s not long, and it’s not detailed. And the people The Times singles out in the column are all sources. Not editors’ particular mistakes, and not reporters’ particular mistakes.
The note confessed that the W.M.D. articles “depended at least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on ‘regime change’ in Iraq, people whose credibility has come under increasing public debate in recent weeks.”
That amounted to the defense Ms. Miller would offer Times reporters a year later, when they asked about her W.M.D. reporting: “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong.”
For a reporter to shrug off the job of evaluating sources is bad enough. It was the most important story in the run-up to a war. Where were the editors?
No, it wasn’t over with the editors’ letter. You acknowledged as much when you went a little bit further with Charlie Rose.
“We didn’t bring the degree of editorial skepticism we should have brought to that story,” you told him.
So there’s something. Who were the editors? Who accepted the stories, anonymous and motivated Iraqis and all? Who pushed them onto the front page, and under whose authority was it that “follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried,” as the note recounted? On whose watch was The Times “taken in”? Why was it that the paper “never followed up on the veracity of [one] source or the attempts to verify his claims”?
It’s not the political times we are in that leave people asking for more. It’s the plain inadequacy of what you’ve given them. The editors’ note itself admitted it: “We consider the story of Iraq’s weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business. And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight.”
That was last year. This is last week: “flawed, own it, move on.” And this: “This pales by comparison to what it was like during the Jayson Blair—it’s not even on the same scale.”
What was that about morale, again? At least with Jayson Blair, the staff could blame him for conning the paper, and blame the executive editor for being in charge while it happened. In Ms. Miller’s case, nobody can agree on who got conned or figure out where the blame should go. But they know the trouble predates the current executive editor.
That is, they know the trouble belongs to you. The solution has to come from you, too. This is the thing that family newspaper dynasties are good for—undemocratic and unfair though they may be. The great papers are family papers because families are supposed to cherish their property.
So the job of a Sulzberger is to protect the goodwill and the long-term reputation of the paper—the sort of slow-developing assets that money-counters disdain. That was what Adolph Ochs invested in when he bought the failing New-York Times: a name and a vision. You are where you are because he believed in newspapering. The Miller story is a big one. And the job of a newspaper is to report it.
Caitlin Flanagan, the über-anti-feminist and creator of shit storms, whose 2004 move from a staff-writer position at The Atlantic to The New Yorker attracted a flurry of attention, seemed to have disappeared in recent months. Then her name popped up after a long hiatus in the November and December 2005 issues of … The Atlantic.
For the legions of lovers and haters of Ms. Flanagan’s incendiary Atlantic work, the two dispatches presented a question: After a year-plus sojourn penning mild, family-friendly New Yorker pieces, had firebrand Flanagan rushed back into the Atlantic’s moist embrace?
“Oh, no! You’d never, never, never leave the New Yorker,” said Ms. Flanagan, speaking by phone in her cotton-candy voice from Los Angeles, Calif. “I’m still a staff writer at The New Yorker. But I have a very intensely close kind of writer-editor relationship with Ben Schwarz, who’s the national editor and the literary editor [at The Atlantic]. I talked about it with David [Remnick] at The New Yorker and he was really great about it, so I have the freedom to do that.”
Ms. Flanagan said that she renewed her New Yorker contract, with its new freelancing provision, when her initial one-year term came up (she could not recall when that was, even approximately, saying that she’s “not good with dates”; a New Yorker spokesperson said it was this past spring). She and Mr. Schwarz are “outlaws, in a way,” she said; both are interested in the kinds of books you find “in the bin at Wal-Mart, or at the top of the table at Costco.”
“My thing about Ben is, he really believes that the preoccupations of the feminine mind are absolutely as interesting and as worth writing and thinking about as are politics and history,” said Ms. Flanagan. “So I’ve really felt I could take these things that really interest me … from sex and marriages to white wedding dresses to clutter and housekeeping, all those kinds of things, and that he would take me and my ideas as seriously as if I were writing about Iraq. So I really missed that.”
Ms. Flanagan said she has one of her “big, multiple-book theory pieces” on the way, “on a very … how should I put it? A very scandalous, scandalizing, shocking, sexy, I’m gonna get killed, subject, for The Atlantic, that’s coming out in the January/February issue.” Her next piece for The New Yorker is about Mary Poppins.
At the time Ms. Flanagan accepted her New Yorker gig back in February 2004, she told The Observer: “If it were possible to splice the DNA of Mary McCarthy and Erma Bombeck without the world exploding, that’s what I’m going for. I’m interested in the kind of keen social observation and—at times—caustically precise criticism of McCarthy, but my subject is domestic life.”
The result was something different, and “caustic” was never a big part of it. Ms. Flanagan has published, thus far, four New Yorker pieces. The kickoff was a personal essay about the cultural implications and early childhood trauma of watching her mother return to work. That was followed by three more stories, and while each was colorful and finely written, they were also kinda mushy—not at all like the provocative, borderline reactionary pieces that made her infamous at The Atlantic. (An Atlantic cover story about alpha-women exploiting their nannies in the name of careerism was one of the most controversial. Her first book is titled To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, and is due out in April.)
“I love The New Yorker, it’s just bringing me to a whole other kind of writing, and they’ve been really encouraging about exploring different ways for me to be as a writer,” Ms. Flanagan said. Her editor at the magazine is Dana Goodyear, who is also based in Los Angeles, and whom Ms. Flanagan described as a “true New Yorker editor.”
When asked if it was possible that The New Yorker couldn’t contain her outsized conservative social views, Ms. Flanagan said, “No, they’re really open-minded there.”
At one point, Ms. Flanagan said that it was her birthday and that life was just grand. Might The Observer inquire about her age?
“You may!” she said breathlessly. “I am 44. I couldn’t really remember last night, but I’m 44. And my children brought me breakfast in bed, and my husband is wrapping my presents and … he’s got something going on involving, I think, steak for dinner, and he never cooks except this one day a year, so it’s very exciting.”
Newsweek senior writer Charles Gasparino is leaving the magazine for the bright lights of CNBC’s morning financial-news show Squawk Box.
Mr. Gasparino begins his new gig covering Wall Street for the cable news channel on Dec. 12.
“I do a lot of TV, but it had to be the right deal,” Mr. Gasparino said in a phone interview Nov. 11.
He’ll be dedicated first to filing reports from 7 to 10 a.m., when Mark Haines is at the anchor desk, and then continue to report news throughout the day for the channel.
“I’m never going to give up print, but I don’t think you can be just a print reporter or a television reporter or a Web reporter these days,” he said. “You have to be a substantive journalist who can work in any medium.”
The aspiring media polymath is also working on a book about former New York Stock Exchange chairman Richard Grasso, for which the New York Post reported he’d received a $250,000 advance.
He said he also wants to write a regular column, perhaps for Newsweek.
Mr. Gasparino joined Newsweek in May 2004 after leaving The Wall Street Journal, where he covered Wall Street, pension funds and regulatory issues.
Yet another newspaper reporter is trading the thrill of daily deadlines for the longer-term joys of writing a book.
Hanna Rosin, a Washington Post staff writer, recently signed on with Harcourt to write a nonfiction book that is tentatively titled Oh. My. God. According to one publisher with knowledge of the project, the book sold for $300,000.
Becky Saletan, the editor in chief of Harcourt who bought the book, said there was at least one competing bid for the project at a “fair level,” but declined to comment on the specifics of the advance. Publication is anticipated for the fall of 2007.
Oh. My. God. is based on a June 2005 New Yorker article Ms. Rosin wrote about Patrick Henry College, an evangelical Christian school in Purcellville, Va., which is known for training young, religious political aspirants and feeding them into the Republican establishment.
“I think what is unusual about the book is both Hanna’s extraordinary access—the degree to which she’s been let into this microcosm—and the lack of snideness about the subject,” said Ms. Saletan. “She doesn’t take sides, she shows you what they are and lets you really get inside. She takes them quite seriously.”
Ms. Rosin spent several years as a religion reporter at The Post, and more recently covered politics and the 2004 Presidential campaign for the paper’s Style section. She wrote previously for New York and GQ, and was immortalized on the big screen by Chloë Sevigny, who played her (as a New Republic staffer) in the movie Shattered Glass. The Washingtonian recently reported on the brain drain of reporting talent from The Washington Post’s offices to The New Yorker (the article mentioned onetime Post staffers such as Steve Coll, Malcolm Gladwell, Jeffrey Goldberg, Michael Specter, Katherine Boo, Elsa Walsh and Jeffrey Frank, as well as David Remnick as examples), and suggestively described Ms. Rosin as “slouching toward The New Yorker.”
Ms. Rosin, who is on book leave from The Post, could not be reached for comment.
Magazines, Ms. Saletan said, are “an excellent place to look for future book projects, but not every magazine piece can sustain a book. In this case it seemed to me it very definitely was a book.”
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