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Tuesday, August 09, 2005
Seth Mnookin on Hard News

Seth MnookinThe New York Times likes to call itself “the newspaper of record.” But what happens when the newspaper of record becomes the subject of unwanted publicity? We recently spoke with media critic, author and upcoming 92nd Street Y guest Seth Mnookin about that very subject.

In his book, Hard News: Twenty-one Brutal Months at The New York Times and How They Changed the American Media, now out in paperback, ex-Newsweek reporter Mnookin examines the troubled New York Times editorship of Howell Raines, which included respected highs (coverage of 9/11) and lows that nearly crippled the paper (the Jayson Blair scandal, Augusta National, Rick Bragg’s ethical ambiguities and what amounted to a staff revolt by NYT reporters).

The Washington Post called Mnookin’s work on Hard News “something [...] that’s hard to do: He has written a book about journalism that is hard to put down,” and the book received blurbs from ex-Spy editor Kurt Andersen, Jeffrey Toobin, Sarah Vowell and the late Hunter S. Thompson. On Tuesday, August 16, Mnookin will be speaking about New Threats to Journalism in a Noontime Lecture at the Steinhardt Building on West 67th.

After the jump, Seth Mnookin talks about why reporters love their jobs and offers media criticism a-go-go.

In Hard News, you tell the story of the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times and of tensions that existed in the Times newsroom between reporters, Executive Editor Howell Raines, Managing Editor Gerald Boyd and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. in all sorts of permutations. At the same time, you’re very clear on the fact that Blair’s fabrications and plagiarisms were just one among a series of scandals that took place over the past few years. What do you think made the Times newsroom such fertile ground for controversy?

Two words: Howell Raines. Raines created an environment in which dissent was frowned upon and any criticism was interpreted as disloyalty. All the controversies I wrote about—the Times‘ coverage of the debate over Augusta National, the flood-the-zone-at-all-costs mentality—stemmed directly from Raines’s leadership. It’s what makes this a tragic story. The same qualities that helped make Raines’s leadership during 9/11 so brilliant helped doom him in the end.

As someone who has spoken extensively to New York Times reporters, what is your critique of the paper’s coverage of stories that they themselves are involved in, such as the Judith Miller case?

Well, I spent a lot of my book addressing how the Times handled—and covered—the Jayson Blair case, so my view on the Times‘ coverage of that particular story is laid out there. As far as the various stories involving Judith Miller—the WMD coverage, the Plame investigation—I’ve been following these as a news consumer instead of a reporter, so I haven’t done the kind of first-hand reporting I’d need to do to have an informed opinion. One quick thought, though: I know one of the things Bill Keller wanted to do when he took over the paper is curtail some of the endless introspection that had been a hallmark of the period surrounding the Blair debacle, and I think that likely impacted how the Times covered Miller’s troublesome WMD reporting. That said, there were plenty of ways in which the Times did cover that story quite extensively— through Dan Okrent’s column, for example.

There is a long tradition of writers writing about The New York Times, including Gay Talese’s The Kingdom and the Power, Arthur Gelb’s City Room and Edwin Diamond’s Behind the Times. How did the past body of, for lack of a better term, ”Times literature” influence the writing of Hard News?

You’re leaving out the crucial text on the paper: Alex Jones and Susan Tifft’s The Trust. Gelb’s book didn’t come out until I was pretty much done with mine, but Talese and Jones and Tifft both did such evocative, exhaustive and wonderful jobs that I ended up standing on their shoulders for support: There was no need for me to delve too deeply into the history of the paper before the story I was focusing on picked up, because that had all been beautifully covered already.

Leaving Hard News for a minute, it often seems as if newspaper journalists spend much of their time complaining about the occupation of journalism. Romenesko is full of journalist gossip and backbiting, ex-print journalists bash their old employers in blogs and newspapers in smaller markets are rapidly either consolidating (Las Vegas) or reducing paper size (Philadelphia). What do you feel is the primary cause behind reporters’ disenchantment with the newspapers they write for?

I need to disagree with you here. I think journalists, as a whole, are very aware of how lucky they are. I also think you’re confusing several different issues: it’s true that a very small minority of journalists bash old employers, either in a blog or in print. But that’s true of every industry… it’s just that you don’t read the listserves or the blogs or the message boards for the aeronautics engineers or the leather importers.

I don’t understand how that’s related to a dwindling audience for print journalism, which is a very different, and very troubling reality. (Also, as an aside, I’d argue with your description of Philadelphia and Las Vegas as small markets: Las Vegas is the fastest growing city in the country, and the Philadelphia metropolitan area is the fourth largest in the country… behind New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. But that’s another matter.)

Much of your book is spent criticizing Howell Raines’s approach to managing the New York Times during his tenure as executive editor. What do you feel was his biggest mistake?

Raines’s biggest mistake was underestimating the extent [to which] he needed support from below. The greatest asset of the Times is the collective brainpower of the hundreds of reporters and editors who work there. Raines made those people—people who were dedicating their lives to this institution—[feel] as if they didn’t matter.

Hard News has now found its way into college and journalism-school classrooms, where the book is used as part of coursework. For aspiring journalists, what do you think is the primary lesson to take home from the events you covered?

Follow the money. Wait, no: that was the lesson of All the President’s Men. (At least the big-screen version; we now know Deep Throat never said any such thing.) I don’t know, truthfully. As much as I’d like to come up with something pithy, I can’t. Buy the book and find out for yourself. That’s the lesson.

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