They call it the "Gray Lady". But a more apt adjective for the pallor of America's most famous daily newspaper, The New York Times, would be ashen as it struggles to contain the furore surrounding the firing of a young reporter accused of writing scores of fraudulent articles over several months.
The newspaper has been engaged in an extended and unprecedented orgy of self-flagellation since revealing on Sunday that one of its writers, Jayson Blair, 27, had filed stories, most of them in the past five months, that were replete with journalistic sleights of hand. He plagiarised from other newspapers, invented interviews with people he never spoke to and said he was in locations he never visited.
At the head of the storm is the paper's executive editor, Howell Raines, who has been the target of widespread dissent within the paper's ranks of reporters since taking over 20 months ago. Critics say he is dictatorial and prone to nurture favourites. The charge now is that he and other senior editors failed to heed countless warnings about Mr Blair's work and his record of honesty.
Anger among the paper's journalists boiled over in a remarkable town hall-style meeting held at a cinema behind the paper's 43rd Street headquarters in Manhattan late on Wednesday. When a reporter asked Mr Raines whether he intended to resign he said that he would not. The newspaper's publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jnr, interjected that he would refuse a resignation from Mr Raines even it was proffered.
"I've received a lot of advice on what to say," Mr Raines said, according to a statement issued by the Times. "The best came from reporters who told me to speak to you from my heart. So the first thing I'm going to tell you is that I'm here to listen to your anger. To tell you that I know that our institution has been damaged, that I accept my responsibility for that, and I intend to fix it."
Most striking has been the extent to which the newspaper has been willing not just to admit its errors but to strip itself naked for the beating it knew it would get from its critics and rivals. Sunday's article gave every possible detail of the newspaper's mistakes. It started on the front page and extended over four pages inside the first section.
Yesterday, readers were given another almost comical indicator of the paper's desire now to appear utterly upstanding. It carried a full report of the meeting in its national pages, written by Jacques Steinberg. But it added this explanatory note: "The Times meeting was closed to news coverage. As a result, Mr Steinberg, the Times media writer, did not attend it."
Applause was given at the meeting to the metropolitan editor, John Lampman, who wrote an e-mail memo to colleagues in April 2002 on Mr Blair. "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now," it said. A few months later Mr Raines approved elevating Mr Blair to the team covering the story of the sniper attacks around Washington, DC. Mr Raines said at the meeting he never saw the memo at the time.
Articles filed by Mr Blair during the sniper case incurred the wrath of officials involved. A United States Attorney alleged serious errors in a piece suggesting that an interrogation of the chief suspect, John Muhammad, had been cut short when he was about to confess. A prosecutor involved even called a news conference to argue that a second article had simply been "dead wrong".
There are claims that Mr Raines and Gerald Boyd, the managing editor, were lenient because Mr Blair is an African American. Mr Boyd is also black. Mr Raines issued something of a mea culpa, saying he was interested in cultivating racial diversity. "Does this mean I personally favoured Jayson? Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave him one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the sniper team. When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes."
The District Attorney's Office in Manhattan has asked the Times for information on Mr Blair, apparently with a view to filing federal charges against him. There was no information on what the nature of those charges might be.
Mr Blair, who is reportedly in hospital, said on Tuesday: "I remain truly sorry for my lapses in journalistic integrity."
Despite the support shown to him by Mr Sulzberger, the future of Mr Raines may now be in doubt. Widely seen as autocratic, he has suffered a stream of high-profile defections since taking over. Several senior editors have either left the paper or taken different assignments. Nine national reporters have also either left the paper or moved position.Reuse content