Have You Read? Book takes a look at newspaper’s scandals
“Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media” by Seth Mnookin
Say the name Jayson Blair and I guarantee almost every response will have some familiarity with the disgraced former reporter who tarnished the New York Times with plagiarism and fabrication in his stories.
In his book, “Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media,” author Seth Mnookin uses his connections as a former media reporter for Newsweek to interview countless employees and former staff members of the New York Times regarding the turmoil of the past years, and that caused by Blair.
The book devotes several chapters to the saga of Blair, a young African-American reporter who was assigned to several large cases, such as the East Coast sniper case, and either got away with plagiarism, fabrication or both.
But the main character, and central focus, of the book is the rise and fall of Howell Raines, the controversial managing editor of the Times who took over days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but was later shamed out of the office after the Blair catastrophe.
It’s an interesting read for anyone who has read the New York Times and is intrigued by how such an influential newsroom operates. It also offers a dazzling description of the struggle to be the first to cover, dig up and analyze stories in a highly competitive market.
Although at times Mnookin seems to revere the paper and put it on a pedestal, his greatest strength is extensive research and access to those with information or perspective on the publication. He begins his 260-page investigation with an introduction into the history of the newspaper, which is considered industry-wide as the national newspaper of public record. He also does a good job describing a typical day for typical tenacious, underpaid reporters. Then he describes the main members of the Sulzberger family, the owners of the Times, and their individual motivations and accomplishments.
From that point the book reads like a tragedy: How the bold ambitions of one man (Raines) reaped rewards for himself and the paper before it chewed him up and spit him out of the profession. Along the way Mnookin describes the story lines behind coverage on the Sept. 11 attacks, Augusta National Golf Club and its refusal to admit women, the sniper killings and the unprecedented examination by a team of talented Times reporters on the Blair mishap.
Not missed are the divisive tensions in the newsroom caused by Raines, who wished to reinvent the paper along with publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. Then there is the difficult topic of top Times officials wanting to promote minorities in the newsroom, which was one factor that led to Blair’s ascension and rapid fall from grace.
Mnookin wrote the book with minimal comment from Raines, who refused participation. Instead, Mnookin relied heavily on a piece authored by Raines titled, “My Times,” which appeared in “The Atlantic” in May 2004.
In short, “Hard News” is a fascinating read for anyone curious about the media industry. Near the end of his investigation, Mnookin tells how publications can avoid such pitfalls of serial wrongdoers acting as truthful reporters but acknowledges the lack of adequate response by slow-footed newspapers.
It also has useful tools in back pages including “A Note on Sources,” bibliography and index.
– William Ferchland is a staff writer for the Tribune.
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