Life After Judy  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2005

Life After Judy   

The New York Times needs to confront tough questions about itself.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Now comes the hard part.

The Judith Miller endgame was painful and inevitable. Now the New York Times has to ask itself some tough questions.

The Times, of course, is something special, a true national treasure in many ways. The depth and breadth of its report is impressive, day after day. It has a special relationship with its readers, many of whom couldn't imagine life without it.

My wife, Ellen, spends a lot of time in Basalt, Colorado. There's no Times home delivery there. One of the key moments each day is making the pilgrimage to the 7-Eleven to pick up a copy.

Yet the last five years have been rocky ones for the Times.

The Wen Ho Lee fiasco. The Howell Raines of Terror. The Jayson Blair affair. The botched WMD coverage. And, most recently, the Judith Miller circus.

That's a lot of train wrecks in a short period of time. And an awful lot of trauma for one very proud newspaper staff.

Not long ago a journalism savant I respect a great deal made a very interesting point. He said he thought that USA Today had absorbed the painful lessons of the Jack Kelley scandal and implemented necessary changes. He wasn't sure the Times had been as successful in learning from its mistakes.

So now it's up to Executive Editor Bill Keller to put the pieces back together. His handling of the Miller affair wasn't what you would call nimble. But he's a top-flight journalist and a respected figure in the newsroom (if not the world's most gregarious guy).

One common thread runs through the Times' debacles: breakdowns in the editing process. Putting safeguards in place and applying them stringently will be key.

It's also important that the Times levels with its readers, consistently. While it did publish that extraordinary (and merciless) reconstruction of the Jayson Blair saga and belatedly weighed in on the Miller episode, it took far too long to address the WMD problems, and didn't address them all that well when it finally did.

As for Times Publisher (and Times Co. Chairman) Arthur Sulzberger Jr., two of the major messes the Raines selection and the paper's awkward Miller "entanglement" (to borrow a Bill Kellerism)--are on him.

One thing's for sure. The Times is going to be one closely scrutinized news outlet for quite some time.

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