Bad times for the Times


  • Letters
  • Sunday, 08 Jun 2003

By Johan Fernandez

The most influential newspaper in the United States, The New York Times, which has been rocked by journalistic fraud by its reporter Jayson Blair came in for more shocks this week when its top two editors suddenly resigned over the scandal. 

The paper’s executive editor, Howell Raines, and its managing editor, Gerald M. Boyd, left on Thursday, a move that surprised many and triggered shockwaves through the newspaper world as only on May 14, the paper’s publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr had said he would not accept the resignation of the two even if they offered to do so. 

Sulzberger’s statement caused a furore since the paper had always taken a moral high ground on national and international matters, calling for accountability and even resignation in some cases, yet chose to have a totally different standard when it involved its own senior executives. 

The resignations in a way bring some form of closure to events that damaged the reputation and credibility of the paper, though its rivals feel that the problems at the Times are much bigger.  

On May 11, the paper carried a four-page report on Blair’s plagiarism and reports he did, inventing details and quotations when covering cases, including high-profile events, like the sniper shooting in Washington and American soldiers returning from Iraq. 

Besides Blair, another Times journalist Rick Bragg, who has since resigned, brought disrepute to the paper when he was said to have put his byline to reports of a freelance writer.  

Despite the outcry, the editors initially did not seem to accept blame for what happened, and the chorus of discontent from within the organisation grew, resulting in the resignations. 

What a turnaround it has been for Raines and Boyd, who in their 20 months at the Times led the coverage of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the collapse of Enron and the Columbia space shuttle disaster. 

Fourteen months ago, the duo appeared to be at the peak of their careers, when the paper won a record seven Pulitzer Prizes, six of which were for the coverage of the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 

Raines, who joined the Times in 1979, was described as a tough-minded and gifted political reporter from Birmingham, Alabama, while Boyd rose from White House correspondent to managing editor, the highest-ranking black editor in the paper’s history. Before becoming executive editor, he was editor of the editorial page. 

The Times in a report tracing the careers of these two journalists said that the pair were five days into their jobs when the Sept 11 attacks occurred, transforming them from editors in transition to leaders at a critical moment in the newspaper’s history. 

In an editorial on Friday, the paper said: “Under his (Raines) tenure and, perhaps under the tenure of every Times editorial page editor in history, there were occasions when the editorial board called for a public or corporate official to resign. Sometimes, the men and women were of distinguished prior achievements, and sometimes the storms that came down on their heads were not primarily of their own making. 

“But a leader’s fight to reclaim control of a job gone sour can sap energy away from the institution he or she is trying to lead. The welfare of a great institution is always more important than the careers of people who run it. Mr Raines and Mr Boyd understood that, and that was the reason they chose to leave.” 

The resignations made front page in all leading newspapers with the mass circulation Daily News describing the paper as: Times is Paper of Wreckage and the New York Post page one headline read simply: Paper of Wreckage. 

There is no love lost between the rivals and columnists and editorials questioned the paper's coverage of events including Operation Iraqi Freedom with a columnist saying that the Times made a huge effort to report negative news, no matter how positive things looked on the ground. 

There is great rivalry among the papers and a lot depends on which side of the political divide the papers are, whether pro- Republican or pro-Democrat. The next few weeks will be open season as rival columnists take shots at each other. 

It is really amazing the Blair episode can happen in the Times right under the noses of the top editors. 

Blair's plagiarism and fabrication of reports and interviews went on for months before he was detected. It showed how easy it was, as most people don’t bother complaining if facts or statements are not accurate. What’s more surprising, they accept as normal for journalists to, in Malaysian slang, goreng stories.  

Media commentators and analysts have said that plagiarism and fabricating of reports may be more widespread and there may be more Blairs running around in other newspapers. 

Malaysia has had more than its fair share of bad publicity in the foreign media that sometimes it makes you wonder whether some of these reports were true or just a figment of the writer's imagination.  

After Jayson Blair and The New York Times, anything is possible. 

 

 

THEY may be thousands of kilometres away from home but Malaysians in New York are still a caring lot. 

Two months ago, Malaysian Lim Liaw Wan, 53, of Flushing, Queens, fell ill and was admitted to New York Hospital where she underwent surgery. 

Lim, of Malacca, who came to the United States three years ago, worked as a babysitter, at the time she fell ill. 

With no income and no one to turn to for help, Lim, who was discharged recently, was in dire straits wondering how she was going to meet the post-operation treatment and care and another operation scheduled later. 

Malaysians living in Flushing learned of her predicament and passed the hat around raising more than US$1,800 (RM6,840). 

Malaysian Consul-General A. Ahmad Shahizan was invited to present a cheque for the amount to Lim at a simple ceremony at a restaurant in Flushing. 

One of those who helped raise the funds, Sunny Teoh, said that Lim wanted to return to Malaysia once she recovered. 

“The money we raised was for her living expenses and is also to go towards her ticket back home,” he said. 

Shahizan commended the group for helping a fellow Malaysian in need. 

He said it was heartening to note that the caring spirit existed even though they were far from home. 

Shahizan said Malaysians here also recently raised about RM14,000 for victims of the war in Iraq. The money has been sent to Wisma Putra. 

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