The two top editors of the New York Times resigned yesterday, felled by a newsroom scandal that was magnified to crisis and public humiliation by five weeks of relentless coverage in print and broadcast media.
Howell Raines, the executive editor, and Gerald M. Boyd, the managing editor, left the paper before noon. Times officials quickly announced that Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor, had come out of retirement to serve as a single, interim leader.
“Howell and Gerald have tendered their resignations, and I have accepted them with sadness based on what we believe is best for the Times,” said Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. yesterday.
“Now our task is to go back and do what we’re here to do — publishing this great newspaper,” he later told employees. “Our readers deserve no less.”
The sentiment was echoed by Mr. Raines himself, who stood before an emotional staff yesterday morning before putting on his straw hat and walking out into a drizzling rain, leaving the Times building for the last time as its top editor.
“Remember, when a great story breaks out, go like hell,” he told them.
Meanwhile, New York magazine media critic Michael Wolff said New York Times Co. Chairman and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. could himself come under scrutiny.
“I think that the focus now becomes on Arthur Sulzberger, and in fact I think that’s the root of what’s happened here. It’s all about the survival of the publisher at this point,” Mr. Wolff said.
“As in any kind of crisis like this you start to push people in front of the traffic. I think Raines and Boyd are taking the fall,” he said.
The resignations may signal a new era, however.
Mr. Raines had been with the Times for 25 years and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Mr. Boyd worked for the Times for 20 years. Both became entangled and eventually blamed for revelations that Times national reporter Jayson Blair, 27, had plagiarized and fabricated stories unabated while under their tutelage.
Though Mr. Blair resigned May 1 and the Times conducted its own internal investigations and printed straightforward, lengthy explanations, the nation’s paper of record was made a symbol of journalistic follies with saturation coverage of its woes, despite winning a remarkable seven Pulitzer Prizes last year for its coverage, closely supervised by Mr. Raines, of September 11 and its aftermath.
Some 1,530 newspaper and magazine articles appeared in just over a month on the Blair topic, and an uncountable number of radio and TV broadcast segments. The sometimes savage accounts included speculation, anonymous sources, catty commentary and the occasional discussion of journalistic ethics, management practices, allegations of newsroom racism and press credibility.
“It is a sober day for journalism. The Times’ perceived arrogance had created a substantial pack of journalistic wolves, ready to pounce if the great paper ever stumbled,” William Winter, director of the American Press Institute, an association of newspaper publishers, said yesterday.
“But any journalist out there who is smirking at this moment over the tragedy of the Times ought to be ashamed,” Mr. Winter said. “It is a tragedy not only for an amazing journalistic institution, but for the Times’ writers and editors, who have been stained by the ongoing revelations in their newsroom, and for the profession as a whole, now certainly viewed even more skeptically by a public that seems happy to witness the fall of the powerful.”
The fall itself has been very public and very personal for Mr. Raines, 60, who assumed his executive position just days before the September 11 attacks, and had just taken a bride. Even his new wife’s name was drawn into some of the more conspiratorial accounts of the scandal.
The Alabama native’s 21-month tenure, his demanding style and brusque pursuit of results was a mixed blessing at the Times, irking some and inspiring others.
“Howell Raines is an enormously gifted journalist, but not a gifted leader,” Tom Rosensteil of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a media watchdog group, said yesterday.
“The Sulzberger family discovered the scandal was not just about Jayson Blair. Howell Raines was partially responsible for it and his leadership was impaired,” Mr. Rosensteil said. “He refused to recognize that his effort to raise the metabolism of the Times had undermined its values.”
The resignations, Mr. Rosensteil said, “were a necessary step to get this thing behind them.”
The Times provided no further information yesterday about the status of Mr. Raines or Mr. Boyd, or the length of interim leadership. Early speculation on a successor to Mr. Raines was brisk, with the names of Bill Keller, a finalist when Mr. Raines was chosen; Marty Baron of the Boston Globe, Paul Stieger of the Wall Street Journal, and David Remnick surfacing as contenders.
“Can a great newspaper — and a great newsroom — have a collective nervous breakdown?” asked London’s Guardian yesterday. “The New York Times, in its threshing emotions and heedless hatreds, seems to be saying: Yes, yes, yes … It is showing us all how to make a mountain out of a dunghill.”
“The fact that so many errors and fabrications and acts of plagiarism happened because of this one reporter, I think was the, if I can make a grim analogy, this is the equivalent of a little rip opening up in the wing of the space shuttle,” said CNN’s Jeff Greenfield yesterday. “One little crack, and then all of a sudden, the whole thing kind of fell apart on them.”