Someone who attended one of my talks on my recent book Endtimes? Crisis and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009 told me that on his way to my talk, he ran into a friend who had decided not to attend and who said: "Why should I listen to an English professor talk about the New York Times? What can he know?" Since I am asked versions of this question all the time -- even by readers of my book and subsequent articles -- let me answer the question, "How could I write such a book from my perch in Ithaca, New York?"
I have had a relationship with the New York Times dating back to my childhood in the 1940s. Beginning with the numbers on the sports and stock pages, my father used the Times to teach me the joy of reading a daily newspaper and to interest me in national and international affairs.
As a lifelong reader of the Times, I was interested in how the Times was evolving in the face of the rising influence of the Internet and the changing business model in which advertisers were taking less space if any in the print paper.
I was concerned with the various crises that occurred during the period on which I was focused. Major ones which I discuss in my book include: 1) reporting without enough evidence that Wen Ho Lee was an atomic spy; 2) Jayson Blair's bogus stories which set off a chain of events ending in the replacement of Howell Raines as Executive Editor; 3) most importantly, claiming -- in large part through articles by Judith Miller -- that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and thus giving cover for moderates to support the Iraq invasion; in fact Hussein was like the person who has a "Beware The Dog Sign" but has no dog; 4) failure to report domestic spying before the 2004 election, although the Times had the information; 5) and misreporting the Duke lacrosse episode and wrongly accusing team members of rape.
I was interested, too, in how the Times was functioning in a contentious political environment where no news source is considered authoritative, and where the hard right -- and less frequently, the hard left -- impugns the motives not only of elected officials, but also of the media.
I also wanted to bring the history of the Times up to date and link the period 1999-2009 to the past. I begin that process with an historical overview in Chapter One (Actually, before publication, I brought Endtimes? up-to-date through 2011).
After writing Broadway Boogie Woogie: Damon Runyon and the Making of New York City Culture, where I had discussed the influence of newspapers in the first half of the 20th century, in summer 2004 I thought -- with something of my usual Don Quixote optimism -- that I could write a book on the Times. It was not long before I realized that this might be pure folly because I lacked access to Times's decision-makers and I understood neither the complexities of the Times's transformation to the Internet nor the business model. So I set out to correct these large gaps in my preparation, relying on colleagues and my students to get me at least partially competent in understanding digital media.
Nor did I realize how difficult it would be to write about something quickly evolving and rapidly changing since in the past, in such books as critical discussions of Joyce, Conrad, and Stevens, and Reconfiguring Modernism: Explorations on the Relationship between Modern Art and Modern Literature and Imagining the Holocaust, I had written about published books, finished paintings, and released films.
I began the book at a tumultuous time in 2004 when the aforementioned Jayson Blair forgeries had triggered a series of events leading to the resignation of the Executive Editor Howell Raines and the appointment of Bill Keller as his successor.
Once it was known in the Times building that I had interviewed a few of the principals involved in that transition, and that I, although an outsider to the journalistic world, had the necessary preparation in terms of research and knowledge to write a book on the NY Times, others wanted to have their say. So one interview led to another. For example, when Raines knew I was talking to some of those instrumental in deposing him, he agreed to speak to me and invited me to his farm where we spoke for several hours.
A few people within the Times establishment vouched for my authenticity after speaking to me. One very senior person was especially helpful and answered every email within hours. The first Public Editor, Dan Okrent--who was my very first interview--helped get me the first of my two interviews with then Executive Editor Bill Keller shortly after he assumed that position. Most of those I wanted to interview among past and present figures agreed. I had help from Toby Usnik, who was Executive Director of Public Relations, for the Times, and Jonathan Landman, both of whom vouched for the fact--as did others I interviewed--that I had done the research and had the preparation to complete my project.
Part of what makes my book special is that I had these extended interviews with the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., all the living Executive Editors, other past luminaries, and many of the masthead figures and section editors as well as some reporters during the period I cover. The key was establishing that I as an outsider--an English Professor from upstate New York--knew what I was talking about and had done my homework.
All my interviews were not only exclusive one-on-one with the interviewees but were also taped and transcribed. Even experienced people soon seem to forget that they are being recorded, although I agreed to a request by a handful of interviewees to turn off the tape recorder when they wished. But only very rarely was I asked to do so. I invited an undergraduate along to almost every interview--taking a different one to New York almost every time I did a set of interviews-- and the student had the experience of being part of the process and asking her or his own questions.
Yes, I had a few bumps in the interviewing process. Violating the New York Times Ethics policy, one former senior person invited me and my student to lunch and then stuck me with the bill, 80 per cent of which was his food and wine. Another exploded in an arrogant tantrum.
Jill Abramson, now Executive Editor, insisted that I submit questions in advance and chastised me when I went off topic. As a distinguished journalist, would she have put up with this when interviewing someone?
I am often asked where I think the Times is today, and I have written about this on occasion for Huffington. The Times is still the worst newspaper--in the digital age, we should say newsgatherer-- in the world except for all the others, to borrow what Churchill said about democracy. In terms of staff size and coverage of international, domestic, and cultural news, the Times is the last newsgatherer standing. With its 25 or so foreign news bureaus, it is really the sole purveyor of in depth and extensive foreign news in the US. The Times excels at investigative reporting as well as analyses not only on its op-ed site and pages--but also in discussions by senior domestic and foreign reporters. Especially on the visual arts but also on music, film, and theatre, its cultural site and pages are excellent.
Once the vaunted paper of record, the Times has become in its print and digital version a hybrid magazine-newsgatherer. With a severe downturn in advertising revenue, its stock price at less than fifth of its high and its having paid no dividends in years, the New York Times Company is is flailing around for a business model, trying to sell everything from laminated pages and products with the Times logo to wine and cruises.
While I find much to praise in its value-added journalism--how to eat, organize your finances, raise your children, take care of your parents, plant your garden, choose your cosmetics. I worry that the current Times tries at times to be all things to all people, covering everything from video games to hip hop. Its Thursday and Sunday Styles section often oscillate between what I call Timeslite and Timestrash, and we find both at times in other places from the travel section to the business section to the Sunday Magazine and even the Sunday Review.
For the most part, the Times consistently sustains journalism at a higher level than its competitors. It remains to been seen whether the Times will find a business model to survive in anything like its present form.
Author of the recently published Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009 (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. He can be reached at email@example.com Follow Daniel R. Schwarz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/danRSchwarz
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more