The shame of the Gray Lady: top editors forced to quit in New York's newspaper scandal

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The normally serene world of The New York Times, the dominant newspaper of record in the United States, and perhaps the world, for more than a century, has been plunged into shame and turmoil with the resignation of its two most senior editors in the wake of a plagiarism scandal that led to a staff revolt without precedent in the paper's history.

Ever since the sensational misdeeds of the young reporter Jayson Blair were revealed last month, the position of Howell Raines, executive editor since 2001 had seemed precarious in the extreme. But his demise yesterday, together with Gerald Boyd, the paper's managing, or deputy, editor was still a numbing shock.

Normally, changes in the editorial chair at the "Gray Lady of West 43rd Street" change proceed with the dignity and careful planning of the British monarchy in its better days. This time, however, gravitas has been engulfed in sensation and scandal worthy of a tabloid front page. For the time being Mr Raines's predecessor, Joseph Lelyveld, will return to the helm, but only on an interim basis.

Staff learnt of the resignations at a 20 minute meeting yesterday - one month after the Times stunned the journalistic community and its readers by admitting Mr Blair had committed serial sins in his writing over a five-month span, peppering his articles with material "lifted" from other sources, with faked quotes and even datelines of places he had never actually visited. An initial investigation found fraud, plagiarism and inaccuracies in 36 of 73 articles Blair wrote between October and April.

The reporter, 27, resigned on 1 May after the newspaper declared him guilty of having "committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud."

Attempts by Mr Raines, a former London bureau chief, and Mr Boyd, to right the ship were set back last week when one the paper's most respected writers, Richard Bragg, left the paper while he was being investigated for using material from an uncredited freelance in a feature he wrote last summer.

"Howell and Gerald have tendered their resignations, and I have accepted them with sadness based on what we believe is best for the Times," said Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times and chairman of company, said.

"While the past few weeks have been difficult, we remain steadfast in our commitment to our employees, our readers and our advertisers to produce the best newspaper we can by adhering to the highest standards of integrity and journalism," Mr Sulzberger went on.

Mr Raines, who was comment page editor before taking on the executive editorship, had been the target of whispered grumbling in the staff ranks even before the Jayson Blair scandal erupted. He was accused of favouritism, advancing writers he liked and freezing out others. Several of the paper's best-known writers defected from the title during his short tenure. But the mood at the paper last night was anything but exultant, as the shock what had happened sank in.

"This is a very sad day for The New York Times," said Lena Williams, a reporter there and spokeswoman for the main jouranlists' union. "It is a low point in our 152-year history. This is not something that you will find anyone in the Times dancing in the aisles over." At yesterday's staff gathering, there were tears in the eyes of Mr Raines' friends and foes.

The Blair scandal intensified as it became clear top editors had ignored scores of red flags about his performance over a long period, eventually assigning him to cover one of last year's most important stories: the sniper attacks in the suburbs of Washington DC.

Both Mr Raines and Mr Boyd attempted to calm nerves after Mr Blair's misdeeds became public, with a meeting with staff in a cinema adjacent to Times headquarters.

At that time, Mr Raines said he did not intend to step down and Mr Sulzberger said he would not accept his resignation even if it was offered.

Standing before staff again yesterday, Mr Sulzberger could only say: "This is a day that breaks my heart". But in a reference to the fraught and unhappy climate the outgoing editor had created, the publisher promised to work to create "a work environment that is commensurate with the quality of our journalism."

Inevitably, the fact that Mr Blair was black, and a protégé of Mr Boyd who is also black, has led some to blame the debacle on the Times' affirmative action policies. Indeed, at the tumultous 14 May meeting, Mr Raines confessed his own southern background and his long association with the civil rights movement, might have something to with the lenient treatment that the errant reporter had been accorded.

But an excessive sensitivity to skin colour was a contributory factor at best to the downfall. In retrospect, the suppressed rancour and resentment that boiled over three weeks ago, made the position of both untenable.

The immediate future of the Times is one of convalescence, a period in Mr Lelyveld will try to restore lost tranquillity and old certainties. But at 66, he can only be a stop-gap solution. The most obvious candidate for the succession is Bill Keller, the much admired former Moscow and Johannesburg correspondent who, as managing editor, was an unsucccessful contender for the top job in 2001.

But the scars will not quickly heal. As if to rub salt into the wound, Mr Blair himself noted archly in an e-mail yesterday that he was "sorry to see that more people have fallen after me." The transformation of the Times from guardian of journalistic probity to butt of the late night talk show hosts, has been even more painful.

The irony is that a paper convulsed by an egregious case of plagiarism is beyond doubt - in terms of the stories it reports if not the precise language - the most plagiarised and trusted single news source on earth.

The New York Times may be mocked for its pomposity and self importance - mirrored in the four full pages it devoted to the failings of Mr Blair. But its front page sets the serious agenda for broadcast and cable TV news, and shapes much of the foreign reporting of US affairs.

The paper's editorials are among the most liberal in the US press. The Times has been no friend of the Bush administration; indeed it is almost always a supporter of the Democratic candidate in national elections. For the past few weeks, jealous journalistic rivals and conservative political critics have revelled in schadenfreude, that the overmighty Times has been taken down a peg or two. But impartial observers will be wishing it a speedy recovery.

THE NEW YORK TIMES - THE FACTS

* Founded in 1851, The New York Times is the most celebrated newspaper in America, winning seven Pulitzer prizes last year. It also has the largest daily circulation; more than 1.1 million and 1.7 million on Sundays.

* The company publishes The New York Times, The Boston Globe and 22 other newspapers. It wholly owns The International Herald Tribune and operates eight television stations and two New York City radio stations.

* It employs about 1,000 reporters and more than 40 foreign correspondents.

* It has three editions; New York, national and North-east.

* It also operates news, photo and graphics services as well as news and feature syndicates.

THE PEOPLE MAKING HEADLINES AT 'THE TIMES'

HOWELL RAINES

A tough talking Pulitzer prize winner from Alabama, Raines, 60, took on the job of executive editor just days before the 11 September attacks. His autocratic management style caused tears and tantrums in the office but got results. In April last year, the newspaper received a record seven Pulitzer prizes - including five for its coverage of the attacks and another for reports on the war in Afghanistan. Raines had been editor of the editorial page for eight years and previously led the newspaper's bureaux in Washington and London, when he was named executive editor to replace Joe Lelyfeld, who was retiring. He won a Pulitzer prize for feature writing in 1992 for a memoir he wrote for the New York Times magazine about a childhood friendship with his family's black housekeeper.

ARTHUR O SULZBERGER JR.

Known as "Punch Junior", the heir of the controlling family, one of his first steps on taking control was to introduce colour photos to a newspaper known as the "Grey Lady". He also brought in sections catering to young readers, giving him a reputation as a brash upstart and pitting him at one time against Lance Primis, the company president. Some observers believe Sulzberger could be next to go.

GERALD BOYD

Joined the newspaper in 1983 from the St Louis Post-Dispatch, where he had founded the St Louis Association of Black Journalists and served as its first president. On The New York Times he quickly became a member of its 1984 political team, and then a White House correspondent. Made deputy managing editor for news in 1997 and managing editor in 2001.

JAYSON BLAIR

Resigned on 1 May after he was found to have "committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud". In one case he was revealed to have lifted material from an interview with the family of a US soldier who died in the Gulf from a story in the San Antonio News, written by one of Blair's former college friends. He also claimed to be writing from locations he had not visited.

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