- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Executive Editor Raines accepts blame, but won’t resign

The New York Times’ top editor yesterday told employees that he accepted responsibility for harm to the paper’s credibility caused by a reporter’s plagiarism and fabrication and promised to repair the damage.

Times Executive Editor Howell Raines also said at a tense two-hour forum that he would not resign, despite his role in the scandal caused by reporter Jayson Blair, several participants told outside reporters on the condition of anonymity.

In addition, Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. told the assembled journalists at a movie house off Times Square that he would not accept such a resignation, even if offered.

According to a New York Times statement released after the meeting, Mr. Raines told his assembled staff that “The first thing I’m going to tell you is that I’m here to listen to your anger, wherever it’s directed.”

He also told Times staff members “that I know that our institution has been damaged, that I accept my responsibility for that, and I intend to fix it.”

The “Jayson Blair matter” may have taken a criminal turn, however. The Times itself reported yesterday that U.S. Attorney James B. Comey in Manhattan had requested “information” about Mr. Blair, who resigned from the paper May 1 amid accusations of plagiarism and fabrications.

Possible charges were not revealed, though a Times spokeswoman said the inquiry was to determine if Mr. Blair’s “reporting conduct violated the law.”

Mr. Blair’s stories about the Washington sniper case last fall contained falsified details about both the suspect’s confessions and questionable law enforcement practices, though one legal analyst doubts this means the reporter would be charged with obstruction of justice.

“Obstruction is most likely not at issue. It would be very difficult to prove the reporter tried to influence the investigation or the witnesses. I don’t think you could show his intent,” said Stephen Saltzburg, a professor at the George Washington University School of Law.

“Still, I find it odd that the U.S. attorney would jump on this,” Mr. Saltzburg continued. “There may be a defamation suit against Mr. Blair, but that is not generally considered a criminal act.”

Realistic charges, he said, could include “wire or mail fraud if the reporter used telephone, computer or mail to ask for compensation for filing stories that weren’t true.”

Meanwhile, the Times has been on earnest damage control.

In a pre-meeting memo to his employees, Mr. Raines, who helped Mr. Blair’s rapid advance at the Times, promised a “spirit of candor and openness … in our painful but illuminating process of full disclosure to our staff and readers.”

Indeed, the paper published Sunday a lengthy explanation of its undoing in an effort to stave off negative coverage in print and broadcast, in line with ethical guidelines from the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

At yesterday’s meeting, Mr. Sulzberger and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd also “apologized for the mistakes they made and the pain caused by their oversights,” according to the Times statement.

The ASNE recommends that a newspaper “should report matters regarding itself or its personnel with the same vigor and candor as it would other institutions or individuals.”

The New York Post, meanwhile, also queried a literary agent about Mr. Blair’s chances of turning his travails into a best seller.

“I think the book would be worth around seven figures,” said Robert Gottlieb, a literary agent at Trident Media. “A story like that goes right to the core of the Times editorial management.”

Contact Jennifer Harper at [email protected]washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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