Where do I begin? In a week when it became increasingly obvious that the President, the Vice President, the Defense Secretary, the Secretary of State and virtually all their underlings had deliberately misled Congress, the United Nations, the American people and the people of the world about the reasons the United States and Britain invaded Iraq, and when the Federal Communications Commission delivered a potentially crippling blow to media-based democracy and ideological diversity, the biggest story in America is the resignation of the two top editors of the New York Times.
It’s not as if the departure of Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd from the newspaper of record is not significant. Obviously, it is. But as with any media frenzy, one has to ask whose agendas are being served by the obsessive overkill.
After wading through the hundreds of thousands of words that have been devoted to Times analysis since Jayson Blair became the black face du jour (joining the company of the other entertainers, athletes, liars and criminals so frequently chosen to represent black America on the cover of Time and Newsweek), I’d summarize the accepted storyline as follows.
(1) Howell Raines was a guilt-ridden Southern liberal who cut the psychopathic Blair break after break because Raines’s commitment to affirmative action was so strong it overrode his news judgment.
(2) Because Raines was also an insular tyrant who brooked no criticism–“Caligula,” in the words of one staffer–the dysfunctional aspects of the Times newsroom could not be corrected. Hence Blair’s obvious fabrications went uncorrected while many of the paper’s most talented reporters departed for less traumatic pastures.
(3) Rick Bragg’s dishonest reporting method was of a piece with Raines’s indulgence of Blair. Like Blair, Bragg was a member of Raines’s coterie. This meant he could get away with almost anything as long as no one complained too publicly or too powerfully. When Bragg decided to go down in flames by smearing all his colleagues as just as lazy and dishonest as he was–and Raines did not defend his own newsroom against this calumny–the peasants moved into open revolt.
(4) The existence of Jim Romenesko’s Media News site and Howard Kurtz’s Washington Post column–together with frequent web-only updates by Newsweek‘s Seth Mnookin–allowed Times reporters to give voice to their anger and frustration with such speed and force that the Sulzbergers could no longer ignore it. Raines and Boyd had a constituency of one, and they eventually lost it. End of story.
All of the above is fairly accurate, but only in the broad strokes. Just as important are the plots that the agreed-upon narrative decides to ignore, exploit or assimilate. Take for instance the problem alleged to lie at its center: affirmative action.
It’s a rather tortured path to argue, as a few people have, that the myriad indulgences visited upon Jayson Blair were unrelated to the Times‘s aggressive pursuit of “diversity” in its newsroom. The Times is justly proud of this pursuit, and Raines himself admitted that he, “as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave [Blair] one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the sniper team.”
To be an honest defender of affirmative action, one must face up to its failures. As Rick Hertzberg observed in The New Yorker, “Affirmative action is strong medicine, and, as with any strong medicine, no great distance separates the therapeutic dose from the toxic one. It demands close monitoring of its institutional side effects.” One of its frequent side effects is the creation of a culture of resentment among those who do not fall into any of its categories. If The Nation, in the name of diversity, gave my column to a less qualified woman or minority writer, I’d be pretty goddamn resentful. This kind of affirmative-action fallout is predictable and probably unavoidable.