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Editor caught up in Blair storm

May 17, 2003|TIM RUTTEN

Like weather patterns, scandals sometimes generate their own energy, and the forces driving the New York Times' Jayson Blair affair now have converged in a perfect storm of controversy.

Ironically, one of those forces involves this week's unsuccessful attempts to get ahead of the scandal. Nothing attempted by the paper's ruling troika -- Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd -- has availed. Some of what they've tried, particularly Wednesday's acrimonious staff meeting, helped transform the situation in many minds from the "Blair affair" to "the Raines problem."

Most people who rise to positions of prominence collect a few enemies along the way. Some collect a lot, and some -- Bill Clinton, for example -- find themselves with enemies whose antagonism is positively obsessional. Raines, who as the Times' editorial page editor carried on a strenuous -- some would say strident -- campaign against the former president, has amassed his own cadre of energetic rhetorical stalkers.

The right-wing commentators, many of whom have cast Raines as their great Satan since his appointment as executive editor nearly two years ago, are having their predictable field day with this situation. The wretched Blair is too small a target for paid chatterers who fancy themselves guardians of enduring values and analysts of grand strategies. To the brawlers in this weight class, on the other hand, tossing punches at the New York Times executive editor is the equivalent of working out on a heavy bag.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 17, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Missing words -- In Tim Rutten's Regarding Media column in Calendar today, New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines, discussing whether he favored reporter Jayson Blair, is quoted as saying, "When I look in the truth of that, the answer is yes." The complete quote should be: "When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes."

Less expected has been the quickness of many left-wing and liberal columnists and commentators to focus their criticisms on Raines. Some of this has to do with lingering resentment over his treatment of Clinton; a considerable amount of it springs from a desire to shift attention from the 27-year-old Blair, who is African American and was hired and promoted as part of the Times' effort to increase its staff's diversity. With a Supreme Court ruling looming in the University of Michigan admissions case and another divisive struggle shaping up over the University of California system's minority admissions, Blair is a worse-than-problematic figure for many liberals.

Nobody who believes that greater diversity in universities and the workplace is not simply a moral imperative but also a tangible economic asset wants to see this contemptible con man turned into the affirmative action debate's Willie Horton.

Equally damaging is the anger felt by many on the Times staff not only over the Blair affair, but also over the entire tenor of Raines' 20-month administration.

At Wednesday's staff meeting, according to the Times' published account, Raines conceded that his shortcomings had contributed to the climate in which Blair's fraud went undetected for so long. "You view me as inaccessible and arrogant," Raines told his staff. "I heard you were convinced there's a star system that singles out my favorites for elevation.... Fear is a problem to such extent, I was told, that editors are scared to bring me bad news."

Thursday, in a joint memo to the staff signed by Sulzberger, Raines and Boyd, staff members were thanked for an "extraordinarily candid meeting.... We will not tolerate an atmosphere where people feel afraid or disenfranchised. We accept our responsibility for creating that environment. We apologize and commit ourselves to fixing it."

As abject as the memo was, it made no mention of the most damning personal admission Raines made Wednesday when discussing what role Blair's race may have played in securing a relatively inexperienced and undistinguished reporter such unusual tolerance and solicitude from his paper's most senior editors:

"I believe in aggressively providing hiring and career opportunities for minorities," he said. "Does that mean I personally favored Jayson? Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave him one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the [Washington] sniper team. When I look in the truth of that, the answer is yes."

All of this leaves Sulzberger, Raines and Boyd in poor condition to weather the additional blows this stormy scandal is likely to deliver. Throughout the week, reports circulated that other Times reporters now have come under suspicion. Thursday night, a spokeswoman for the paper confirmed to Newsweek's online edition that complaints had been received. If additional Times reporters are found to have committed misconduct -- and if any of them are among Raines' now well-identified favorites -- the consequences will be severe.

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