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Wall St. Shrugs Off Flap at N.Y. Times

Company's shares not affected by reporting scandal. Experts say news industry insiders are more concerned than the public.

May 17, 2003|Thomas S. Mulligan and Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — So far, the reporting scandal that the New York Times has called a low point in its 152-year history is provoking mostly yawns on Wall Street.

Shares of parent New York Times Co. have barely budged, and experts foresee no damage to advertising or circulation at the nation's third-largest newspaper.

"Absolutely no impact," said analyst Edward J. Atorino of Blaylock & Partners in New York. As far as the stock market is concerned, he said, "The only thing that will tarnish the brand is if you miss the [earnings] numbers."

That isn't just the view of the financial community. Marketing consultants and opinion specialists contacted this week agreed that the flap at the New York Times worries news industry insiders more than the public, partly because the public doesn't have a high opinion of the news media's credibility to begin with.

On the other hand, the scandal is still unfolding. Further damaging revelations about the newspaper's reporting or an intensification of a preliminary federal inquiry could lead to a management shake-up or other serious fallout, experts said.

The New York Times acknowledged Friday that it has investigated the work of other reporters besides Jayson Blair, the subject of last Sunday's extraordinary, four-page self-examination headlined, "Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception."

Blair, 27, quit the paper this month after evidence surfaced that he had fabricated quotations and scenes, plagiarized material from other newspapers, filed stories from his Brooklyn home while pretending to be covering distant events, and made dozens of factual errors.

"Our Jayson Blair coverage has brought forth a variety of suggestions and tips regarding journalistic improprieties," New York Times corporate spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said in a statement Friday. "We have telephoned several of our reporters to pursue those tips. Those phone calls have produced no information that appears to warrant action at this time. But we continue to investigate whatever suggestions we received."

Absent any explosive new information, the New York Times as a brand name probably won't suffer much lasting damage, experts said.

"Once people take a position on a brand, it takes a lot to move them," said Steven Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluations of Manhasset, N.Y.

Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Executive Editor Howell Raines may have limited the potential damage by ordering Sunday's lengthy postmortem and by taking responsibility in statements, said John H. Antil, a marketing professor at the University of Delaware.

"I don't think they'll lose a subscription, not a one," Antil said.

As for Wall Street, New York Times Co.'s stock slipped 59 cents to $46.35 in New York Stock Exchange trading Friday, but the shares were still up 7 cents from where they started the week.

Meanwhile, several legal experts offered a variety of views on what may have prompted the U.S. attorney's office in New York to take a preliminary look at the Blair case. Neither the Times nor U.S. attorney's representatives would comment on the matter, which was announced this week by the newspaper.

Some suggest that prosecutors may be looking into whether Blair obstructed justice in the Washington, D.C., sniper case by writing stories that contained significant inaccuracies and were hotly denied by law enforcement officials.

"There may be some claim against Blair for obstruction of justice," said Marvin Garbus, a prominent 1st Amendment lawyer in New York. "If you release information or give the other side information that is not to be released ... then you may make a prosecution more difficult or impossible."

A U.S. attorney's office representative in another jurisdiction, however, suggested there may be no federal action needed to punish Blair.

"This guy has been destroyed publicly, and everybody knows that what he did was terrible," the official said. "In this case, that may be enough."

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