Jewish World Review June 11, 2003 / 11 Sivan, 5763

Tresa McBee

Tresa McBee
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The Times shake-up: Get over yourself | I was content to stay away, but the comparison to a presidential death dragged me in. Memo to newspaper folks: The Jayson Blair Incident doesn't resonate as much with the rest of the world as it does with you.

So the president thing seems rather over the top — even in Editor & Publisher, an industry magazine. In an article amusingly entitled, "Lessons from the Blair affair: Editors should examine management style," William L. Winter, president and executive director of the American Press Institute, compared the resignations of the top two editors at The New York Times to the death of a president. "In our journalistic house, the Times is the foundation," Winter said. "And it has really been shaken."

Others share his solemnity. Robert Rivard, San Antonio Express-News editor, declared that the resignations of Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd are "a tragedy for everyone in the newspaper world. This touches all of us — it's a crisis."

Geez. I realize I toil at a small paper in a small state far removed from the greatness of the big guys, but: Really? Because The New York Times' public problem reveals a lot about blind eyes; really bad communication; an odd inattention to absent travel expense reports; the nasty consequences when management by fear and ego mix with poor interpersonal skills; and a pervasive arrogance. But a crisis? Get over yourself.

Yes, it is odious that gleeful deceiver Blair lied. Repeatedly. He's one of the reasons I noticed so much squinty-eyed suspicion when I started in this business. Unprincipled weasels like Blair make it that much harder for those of us who carefully quote and refuse to include comments we aren't sure we captured correctly. Who write descriptions from on-the-spot observations, not based on passages from other reporters' writing. Who don't pretend to be in another city without leaving the one we live in.

But the utter devastation from certain corners that a liar — no! — would pop up at The New York Times — say it isn't so! — is preposterous in its shock. Many reporters regularly read papers they admire, many aspire to join those newsrooms, but most of us conduct the interviews, make the phone calls, write the copy right where we work without once wondering what's up at The New York Times. We have jobs.

The appearance of a deliberate duper at a large, high-profile newspaper will obviously attract a lot of industry attention, but Jayson Blairs are everywhere.

Every day brings new accounting and business-practice scandals amid the latest alleged untruth tellers. Did Martha give false statements to the feds? Did Sammy know about the cork? Did Hillary actually believe Bill was merely counseling a young intern?

Sure, we see consequences. Sometimes. Blair, is, for now, blacklisted, and his editors are out. But honest-to-goodness, we-can-feel-it change, the kind that invigorates with its infusion of excitement and energy and dedication usually remains elusive, draining productivity across corporate America.

Offering his take on the effect of The New York Times' shake-up — a view that could be applied across professions — Peter Bhatia, editor of The Oregonian and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, told Editor & Publisher, "We all understand better now that when we are in leadership positions, the institution and the health of the institution is more important than the [top] people."

Only now? What took so long? And while we're contemplating, could it be that an institution's health rests with those within it?

Such an on-high disconnect — so this is what we should be doing?! — creates chasms into which the Jayson Blairs fall, undetected by those who should notice and take action. Little surprise that few rallied around Howell Raines in his last days.

The Blairs among us should be held as examples of what not to do. Just tone down the incredulity while doing so. Those of us who paid attention will appreciate it.

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JWR contributor Tresa McBee is a columnist for the Northwest Arkansas Times. Comment by clicking here.

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