June 17, 2003

Pinch Me! The Times is Dreaming

Michael Wolff, in the current issue of New York magazine, maps the Jayson Blair iceberg and finds that the defining mass hidden beneath its plagiarizing tip and now-calved Raines-Boyd management duo is the cold ambition of publisher Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger Jr.

Denied an interview by Sulzberger ("Because I hate New York Magazine."), Wolff crafts an intriguing argument that Young Arthur, determined to further move the Times company beyond print into broader media, nurtured the enabling environment that gave rise to Raines and Boyd and, through them, to Blair.

Wolff quotes Sulzberger saying that he is "agnostic about the method of distribution," meaning, of course, that the brand, not the medium, is the message. Writes Wolff: "It is the strategic view - market share, competitive positioning, franchise extension, category dominance - rather than the newsroom view, that more and more informs the direction of this international information franchise."

Wolff is drawing a dark picture of convergence, one in which, from a newspaper's perspective, good journalism is not a civic goal as much as it is a corporate tool.

The Timesmen and Timeswomen, says Wolff, perhaps deluded by the perp-walk departure of Raines and Boy or taken in by the stoicism of Sulzberger's stuffed moose, fail to understand the scope of Sulzberger's strategy - and the impact it could have on the Times as a journalistic enterprise. He writes:

"There's a denial mechanism among people in the Times newsroom that allows them to believe that while Arthur may be out to change the direction of the Times Company, that entity is somehow different and remote from the paper itself.

"And yet such change, such redirection, such a kind of corporate shift in tone and emphasis and priorities and sense of the product itself, is, finally, what Raines and Boyd are being held to account for.

"The sense in the newsroom now is that the good Times has prevailed over this other, bad Times. That this has been a heroic victory by the true owners of the newsroom to preserve what must be preserved. This is part of the frequent journalist delusion - that journalists themselves have power."

To me, the Jayson Blair incident exposes the battle over values now being fought in our nation's newsrooms and in their parent company boardrooms. The base tenets of journalism - honesty, pursuit of truth, responsibility to community (which, by the way, are also platform agnostic) - are under attack by a more flexible set of "principles" that allow degrees of honesty, shades of truth and moments of irresponsibility in pursuit of audience.

Wolff argues that Sulzberger, with his ambition to push the Times into a "larger, polymorphous media world," endorsed an atmosphere that valued a "certain plasticity" of ethical standards.

"Where," Wolff writes, "it may, in fact, be more efficient if Rick Bragg, the star reporter, can have (like television news stars) assistants to do his work. Where a reporter who can do a quick TV hit is worth more than one who can't. Where you allow stylish writers stylish excesses. Where Jayson Blair, and his clever scene-making - if not necessarily his deceit - are to be encouraged."

 New York magazine Pinch, Power, and the Paper

Posted by Tim Porter at June 17, 2003 09:46 AM

right on...

Posted by: kpaul on June 17, 2003 08:12 PM

Thanks Tim....interesting new perspective for me on the state of the Times.

Posted by: d rabin on June 18, 2003 11:04 AM
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