The biggest job facing Bill Keller, newly appointed New York Times executive editor, is how to restore a missing, indefinable, intangible attribute that once shone like a halo above the paper’s masthead.
That attribute was the Times’ mystique, something beyond newsprint, stories, editorials, headlines and circulation figures. It was not that one believed everything the Times reported or that one even agreed with its editorials.
On the contrary, the Times was hated by many who read it each day, who read it thoroughly including sports, financial pages, and letters to the editor and read it because they “knew” they had to. I know; I was one of those Times junkies with a long love-hate relationship as with no other daily newspaper. With Howell Raines as executive editor, a new ingredient was added to the love-hate relationship: contempt.
The Raines-Jayson Blair scandal opened up on an almost daily basis the inside workings of the Times to public and professional scrutiny: exposes, crawling apologies, Charlie Rose’s tasteless Raines interview, the publisher’s lofty statement that he wouldn’t accept Mr. Raines’ resignation if offered and then did accept the “resignation.” It all reminded me of the chapter on the British Crown in Walter Bagehot’s “The English Constitution,” in which he wrote:
“When there is a select committee on the Queen, the charm of royalty will be gone. Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.”
As never before, daylight has been allowed to shine on the Times. There is even a Times select committee that investigated and reported what happened. But not even the select committee’s recommendation for an ombudsman will restore the “magic.” Few people knew how the Times worked. Now they knew, perhaps more than they ever wanted to know.
The responsibility for the disappearance of the mystique lies heavily on the shoulders of the publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., who erred grievously in his appointment of Mr. Raines as executive editor. Why? Because he appointed a man who had been editor of the editorial page to a post where his left-liberal ideology, more emotional than rational, could now be translated daily into what presumably was objective news reporting. A man of deep and stirring convictions fortified by a self-ascribed monopoly of rectitude, Mr. Raines could now decide what was news and what wasn’t. Since Mr. Raines’ editorial page politics delighted Mr. Sulzberger, why not give Mr. Raines the news pages as a reward?
Such a sequence of appointments had more or less worked before: Max Frankel had gone from editorial page editor to executive editor with nothing during his reign remotely resembling the Raines crash. But Mr. Frankel had had one life-transforming experience. A hedgehog, he had been the paper’s Moscow correspondent during the Khrushchev years and had learned one big thing. But with the Raines appointment, the Times editorial page, headquartered on the 10th floor, had been transferred, thanks to the left-liberal publisher, to the third-floor newsroom.
Not even the Sulzberger appointment of David Brooks as an Op-Ed columnist will easily restore the mystique that once explained the editorial power of the Times. But Mr. Brooks at the Times shows that at long last someone knows something has been terribly wrong for the last two years and that Maureen Dowd is definitely not the answer.
If only Mr. Sulzberger had listened to Joe Lelyveld, the previous executive editor, and appointed Mr. Keller two years ago as his successor, the Times mystique might still be intact. There would have been no need to recall Mr. Lelyveld to his old post to restore order in the city room, Mr. Sulzberger’s concession to reality.
There is a subdivision of American journalistic studies which I call Timesology. Few daily newspapers have had so many books published about them as has the Times. Harrison Salisbury’ “Without Fear or Favor”; “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times” by Susan Tifft and Alex S. Jones”; Meyer Berger, “The Story of The New York Times 1851-1951,” “Iphigene,” by Susan W. Dryfoos; “My Life and The Times,” by Turner Catledge; “The Kingdom and the Power,” by Gay Talese; “A Day in the Life of the New York Times,” by Ruth Adler; “The Day the Presses Stopped,” by David Rudenstine; “The Paper’s Papers,” by Richard F. Shepard; “The Times of My Life: And My Life with The Times,” by Max Frankel and the devastating expose, “Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty, the New York Times’ man in Moscow,” by S.J. Taylor.
The Times survived them as it did the newspaper strikes. It even surmounted the lying reportage of Herbert L. Matthews, he who as the Times’ Rome correspondent first wrote admiringly about Benito Mussolini and then found a new hero, Fidel Castro, whom he helped create as Cuba’s Maximum Leader. The Times has apologized for Duranty. It has yet to apologize for Matthews.
There he been internal crises at the Times over the years: the existence in the 1930s of a Communist Party cell that even published an anonymous “shop” paper.
In the mid-‘50s came a Senate committee expose of CP members on the news and copy desks. Then in the ‘60s came the ouster of Clifton Daniel as managing editor in favor of Abe Rosenthal. And Mr. Rosenthal’s defeat at the hands of James Reston when Mr. Rosenthal wanted his man as Washington bureau chief.