In a tense and rare staff meeting of the New York Times, the paper’s hard-charging executive editor, Howell Raines, said he did not plan to resign in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal.
Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., whose family has controlled the Times for more than a century, told the staff he would refuse Raines’ resignation.
During a question-and-answer session at a packed movie theater near the Times’ Gotham headquarters, business reporter Alex Berenson asked Raines if he had considered resigning, according to an attendee.
“Howell said no. This job was his mission and he was going to stay as long as he could, or until Arthur said otherwise,” the attendee said.
Afterwards, Sulzberger, who was sitting in a director’s chair next to Raines, leaned forward and added, “If Howell offered me his resignation, I would refuse it.”
The publisher’s vote of confidence came at an extraordinary town-hall-style meeting, arranged on short notice, to address Times staffers’ grievances over the Blair fiasco.
Blair, 27, resigned last week after it was revealed he had plagiarized a story from the San Antonio Express-News. On Sunday, in a remarkable four-page story, the Times revealed that Blair did not speak to many of the people he quoted in his stories, nor did he travel to the places in his datelines.
On Monday, Raines announced a series of meetings with newsroom staff, which were to begin Tuesday, to discuss the issue. But faced with an increasingly discontented newsroom, Raines and Sulzberger called for an emergency all-hands meeting, which lasted a little over two hours.
Raines opened with remarks acknowledging how the Blair scandal had “crystallized” questions and criticisms of his own management and editorial leadership, an attendee said.
“He said Jayson Blair had let these other grievances bubble up: favoritism, top-down management and a climate of fear,” a Times source said.
According to a statement released by the Times, Raines told his staff, “I’ve received a lot of advice on what to say to you today. … So the first thing I am going to tell you is that I’m here to listen to your anger, wherever it’s directed. To tell you that I know that our institution has been damaged, that I accept my responsibility for that and I intend to fix it.”
Raines seeks input
The stakes were high for Raines, who spent Wednesday morning conferring with colleagues and staff about what he should say and how he should say it, in the face of observers in and outside the paper who believe his job as the top Times editor may be on the line.
Staff reaction was somewhat muted. “This is a kind of turning point in Howell’s career, because all of his instincts are playing offense and now he’s going to have to spend years playing defense,” said one Times staffer.
Investigation in works
Separately, the Times has said the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York had requested information from the paper in order to determine whether Blair had violated any laws through his fraudulent reporting.
The Times said it had not requested the investigation, nor had it complied with U.S. Attorney James Comey’s request.
No subpoenas have been issued.
While reporters’ fabrications have led to legal tangles before — a story by Stephen Glass for Rolling Stone about the antidrug program D.A.R.E. led to years of lawsuits — these tend to be suits for civil defamation; criminal charges are not often filed.
Comey’s office does not discuss its ongoing investigations as a matter of policy and so has not confirmed whether it is looking into Blair.
Still, Harvey Silverglate, a Boston-based criminal attorney who once represented au pair Louise Woodward, said prosecutors likely would probe whether Blair had defrauded his employer through his deceptions while collecting his paycheck.
This sort of prosecution, while rare, could be pursued, whether the Times sought the charges or not, Silverglate said.