Analysis: Times deepens dilemma by misreading credibility crisis

Because it lacked a clear internal message, say experts, the paper's public retelling of its reporter's errors did nothing to control the drama.

Because it lacked a clear internal message, say experts, the paper's public retelling of its reporter's errors did nothing to control the drama.

It started as a small story, an item of consequence only to that rarefied population that follows the high-powered microscope the media likes to turn on itself. But three weeks after it had begun, the Jayson Blair scandal and its fallout had claimed the jobs of two New York Times reporters, one a Pulitzer Prize-winner, turned a legendary workplace upside down and called into question the credibility of one of the world's most prestigious news organizations. How one writer's astounding disregard for journalistic standards spiraled out of control is a case for future crisis-management studies. But, with the scandal fresh, crisis experts for the most part agree that the Blair episode was in part mishandled, despite The Times' best PR efforts, which centered on an early, comprehensive statement and were followed by vows to fix the system that allowed them - a strategy that resembled a classic crisis-response plan. Limitations of openness As such, The Times story is not the same old one of a company boarding up the windows while the wolves howl outside. Instead, it suggests the limitations of the crisis communications doctrine of openness and transparency, especially when that doctrine is applied too zealously and isn't paired with sharp attention to internal matters. "Ninety-nine percent of companies that don't handle crises well take a bunker mentality, and they hide and don't say anything," says Ed Moed, managing partner at PepperCom. "The Times disclosed everything and went six steps further. They wanted to show themselves as so pure and so open and so trustworthy that I think they released too much information. And it backfired on them." Less than two weeks after reports surfaced that Blair, a 27-year-old who had exploded through the paper's elite ranks, had plagiarized a story published in another newspaper, The Times responded in great detail in its own pages - in more than 14,000 words of detail. The May 11 package not only revisited many corrections made over the years to Blair's stories, but it created a dramatic arc, fashioning heroes and villains amid newsroom tensions as it told the tale of Blair's soaring stock among superiors despite his spotty track record. The work of five Times reporters, supposedly working without management's interference, the story's attention to workplace details was as minute as its themes - hubris, self-destruction - were breathtaking. It was clearly designed to be a total airing of the situation, the kind that should have left little for other reporters to chew on. Instead, it was a mere opening chapter in the crisis, and, to PepperCom's Moed, the point when the crisis actually began to gain momentum. After such a detailed package, the Blair story was no longer just for media insiders. It became a national news story, landing on the cover of Newsweek and finding its way into the late-show monologues. "Part of the problem is they thought it was a bigger blip on the radar than most people cared about at that point," Moed says. "That's why they made it bigger than it actually was and, internally, they made it bigger and the witch-hunt started and all the other things snowballed from there." The crisis was given a big push by an endless series of leaks hinting that the work of other reporters in executive editor Howell Raines' "star system" were being investigated. The crisis' second wind, which resulted in the resignation of Pulitzer-winning Rick Bragg, a national correspondent working out of New Orleans and a reported Raines favorite, blew out of The Times newsroom itself. "Most of the negative press came from self-inflicted wounds; a lot of it came from disenchanted sources, other reporters," says Michael Kempner, president and CEO of The MWW Group. "It's clear to me they did not reach out quickly enough and properly with their internal audiences. They went external first and internal second, when they might have wanted to do it the other way around." Moed agrees. "They didn't put their house in order before they went out and released too much," he says. The week after The Times' Blair story, the paper's management called a staff meeting in a theater near its Manhattan headquarters. Reporters, including The Times' own media writer, were forbidden to attend, but that didn't stanch the flow of stories depicting sharp division within the paper's chain of command. These accounts and subsequent reporting on the strife centered on the theme of Raines' unpopularity, one that reaches back at least to a profile in The New Yorker last year. Bragg, who like Raines is an Alabama native who worked his way up through the newspaper's ranks, turned out to be the first casualty. Bragg was suspended when it came to light that he used the reporting of a freelance writer without crediting him. On May 28, he resigned. "Poisonous" atmosphere Some observers opined that it was unfair to lump Bragg, who many thought was guilty of a minor infraction at worst, in with Blair, whose body of work in The Times was by all accounts founded on lies. Yet the resulting resignation was the same. Bragg has since criticized the atmosphere that led to his demise, calling it "poisonous" in an interview with Newsday. Observing The Times from the outside, crisis experts don't disagree. Says Moed, "It looks like they created a Gestapo-like witch-hunt." A crisis at a media outlet, however, especially one so intently watched as The Times, poses particular PR problems. "In other companies, you might get a similar number of leaks, but no one would care," says Kempner. "The fact is, its competitors are reveling in the pain of The Times. So, whatever information they can get, they're happy to publish it." "The media has a voracious interest in the media," says Brigitte Trafford, VP of corporate communications for Dow Jones. She wouldn't comment directly on The Times episode, but says that leaks are just something one deals with in an environment teeming with people who know how to get a story out. "Reporters have friends who are reporters and know how to get stories from newsrooms," she says. "You're not going to stop it. All you can do is make sure your internal and external messages are consistent." After Bragg's resignation, news directly about The Times died down. And there is little sense that the newspaper, often referred to as "the paper of record," will suffer any long-term damage with readers or advertisers as a result. Indeed, other media outlets have been grappling with the scandal's implications for their own news operations and, overall, increased scrutiny has been brought to the corrections pages. "It provides an opportunity for segments of the media to look at their standards and practices," says Tom Barritt, global director/SVP for global issues and the crisis management network at Ketchum. "For the average reader, it may provide a reason to question the practices of journalism in general." The next step for The Times, crisis experts agree, is outlining how it will avoid a repeat of the Blair incident. "They have to publicly bring some closure to the issues they've raised," says Barritt. "If they don't, people will try to go back and see how they've been addressed and test the waters to see if there are still some potential problems there." Kempner says he expects more internal fallout. "Because of major morale problems at The New York Times, I'd be surprised if competitors aren't aggressively courting their star reporters right now," he says. "I'd be surprised if you didn't see reporters jump ship and go to other prestigious publications, which again fuels the story." Perhaps the largest questions, however, are whether any more of Raines' stars will fall and whether the executive editor himself will go down. Having a senior company official resign during such an intense crisis is common, Moed says. "The trust is just gone. It's easier to start afresh."

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