As a competitor, we've been circumspect about the recent struggles of the New York Times. But the resignation of its top two editors yesterday is big enough news that it represents a chance to discuss journalism standards in general.
We don't pretend to know enough about the internal culture at the Times to dissect its management problems. Executive Editor Howell Raines and his chief deputy, Gerald Boyd, had by all accounts lost the trust of the Times newsroom, and perhaps also of the ownership, in the form of retired publisher Arthur Sulzberger, father of the current publisher who appointed Mr. Raines.
As readers of the Times, however, our view is that what we have been seeing on its front page in recent years is less straightforward reporting and more advocacy journalism. In this sense, the scandal over Jayson Blair's fabrications is symptomatic of a broader credibility problem that won't vanish merely because Mr. Raines does.
The Times has hardly been alone in this trend, as more and more newspaper and TV "reporting" resembles the kind of commentary that those of us who write these columns do overtly every day. Far be it from us to object to a strong point of view. But at the Times its editorial-page views have been increasingly indistinguishable from the attitude that infuses many of its page-one stories.
We made this point last year after the Times spun an op-ed we published by Brent Scowcroft, and one elsewhere by Henry Kissinger, into a Republican revolt against President Bush's Iraq policy. That revolt turned out to be nonexistent, and Mr. Kissinger's views in particular were badly distorted (as the Times more or less admitted later).
The Times has also blended news and commentary in the cause of gaining rich women a locker at Augusta National Golf Club--to the point of spiking (before an uproar) two columns that took a different view. In recent weeks we've seen similar ideological "news" crusades over Richard Perle's alleged ethics woes, and the child tax credit. We had to wade deep into news stories to discover that the alleged scandal was about giving tax "cuts" to people who have no tax liability.
It's a free country, and perhaps the Times has decided it wants its reporters to explain the world in this partisan tendentious way. This is the tradition in Europe, where newspapers and their staffs are understood to be right (Le Figaro) or left (Le Monde), and it was once true of American papers too. If the Times wants to return to those days, its editors would do better to come out and admit their bias. The confusion--for readers and especially for impressionable young reporters like Jayson Blair--comes when a newspaper preaches one standard of fairness and objectivity but practices another.
On this journalistic score, a blow for fairer reporting was struck recently at the Los Angeles Times. Editor John Carroll pointedly rebuked a reporter for a story about the link between abortion and breast cancer for loading up adjectives and phrases that portrayed abortion opponents in a negative light. He wrote in a staff memo that he was "concerned about the perception--and the occasional reality--that the Times is a liberal, 'politically correct' newspaper." This is the kind of adult supervision that editors are supposed to provide, and that readers once expected.
As the Jayson Blair saga unfolded, the depressing comment we've often heard has been something like "what else is new. Don't newspapers do that all the time?" Well, no, they don't. The best news that could come from the turmoil at the Times would be a revival of old-fashioned, non-spinning, reporting standards.