This Week's Must Read
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Fri May 16, 2014

A 'New York Times' Shake-Up, But Not The One You're Thinking Of

Originally published on Mon May 19, 2014 10:51 am

It's not all that often that the New York Times goes from printing the biggest stories of the day to actually being the biggest story of the day. But that's exactly what happened this week when the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. replaced Jill Abramson as the executive editor.

The Times has dealt with big problems before. I'm thinking of course about about Jayson Blair. Seth Mnookin's book, Hard News, is the definitive account of that saga. It's the story of an old line institution that allowed a snake to slip through unnoticed.

Blair, as you might remember, was a young Times reporter who was caught plagiarizing and fabricating stories for many months. But Mnookin's theory is that Blair might not have lasted so long if not for Howell Raines, the executive editor at the time.

Raines is a great character. He was southern, charismatic and self-assured. He was an enthusiastic fisherman, who wore a white Panama hat to work. And when he was in charge it was all about him. Raines "loved seeing his name in boldfaced type... he loved making grand entrances at cocktail parties and book soirees, holding court in a corner in a seersucker suit." Mnookin describes how "Raines created a culture in which ... Blair was allowed to thrive." The young reporter understood what his executive editor wanted: "Drama! glamour! style! narrative!... So what if the details of Blair's sniper coverage weren't quite right? His stories were gripping."

The scandal enveloped the whole paper, forced Raines to resign, and sparked a chaotic frenzy in the company that Mnookin compares to Lord of the Flies. In the end a team of Times reporters was assigned to look into the Blair situation. They spent weeks digging up all his old stories and checking them and published a sweeping front-page expose.

In this week's Times shakeup the facts haven't all emerged. We don't know exactly what happened with Jill Abramson, or how her successor Dean Baquet will do things differently. But it's clear that the Times is in soul-searching mode once again.

Kevin Roose is a former New York Times staffer. He now writes for New York Magazine and he's also the author of the book, Young Money.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

When The New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was fired this week, it reminded Kevin Roose of another shakeup at the paper. Roose is a New York Magazine columnist and former Times staffer. And he tells us about it for this week's Must Read.

KEVIN ROOSE: The Times has dealt with big problems before. I'm talking, of course, about Jayson Blair. And the definitive account of that saga is a book called "Hard News" by Seth Mnookin. It's the story of an old-line institution that allowed a snake to slip through unnoticed.

Blair, as you might remember, was a young Times reporter who was caught plagiarizing and fabricating stories for many months. But Mnookin's theory is that Blair might not have lasted so long if not for Howell Rains, the executive editor at the time. Raines is a great character - Southern, charismatic, self-assured in his white Panama hat. And when he was in charge, it was all about him.

Mnookin writes that Raines loved seeing his name in boldfaced type. He loved making grand entrances at cocktail parties, holding court in a seersucker suit. Mnookin describes how Raines created a culture in which Blair was allowed to thrive. The young reporter understood what his executive editor wanted: drama, glamour, style, narrative. So what if the details of Blair's coverage weren't quite right? His stories were gripping.

The scandal enveloped the whole paper, forced Raines to resign, and sparked a chaotic frenzy in the company that Mnookin compares to "Lord of the Flies." In the end, a team of Times reporters were assigned to look into the Blair situation. They checked his old stories and published a sweeping front-page expose.

BLOCK: In this week's Times shakeup the facts haven't all emerged. We don't know exactly what happened with Jill Abramson or how her successor Dean Baquet will do things differently. But it's clear that The Times is in soul searching mode once again.

That's Kevin Roose recommending the book "Hard News" by Seth Mnookin. Roose's latest book is called "Young Money." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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