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October 28, 2003

The Siegal Report, a Triumph of Self Reflection at the New York Times

For people interested in journalism, the Times internal investigation after Jayson Blair is not only a fascinating read, it's a serious act of self-reflection at the top. And that's rare.

(Note: for the case of the missing link, now closed, go here.)

Gerald Boyd, former Managing Editor of the New York Times and a victim of events after Jayson Blair, has been doing some public speaking lately. He is a well respected figure in the press. Before the Associated Press Managing Editors conference, he recommended that everyone read and refect on the Siegal Report, the work of an extraordinary committee headed by Assistant Managing Editor Allan M. Siegal (a newsroom fixture and, happily, an NYU grad).

The Siegal group had been handed a serious task: find out what went wrong at our newspaper, such that we suffered Jayson Blair and lost our two top editors. Good story, yes? The team had a broad mandate from the publisher and senior management, who later wrote a cover letter endorsing the report. So did Bill Keller, the new Executive Editor.

Three outsiders—accomplished and independent-minded people—joined 22 journalists who do different things at the New York Times. (Washington bureau chief, metro reporter, education editor, business columnist, head of the copy desk.) The outcome was a piece of writing, analagous to the final report of a NASA crash investigation team. Except that it was drafted by journalists with good crap detectors who know how to write. The system of controls is what crashed at the New York Times, but very quickly that subject expanded into the culture of control under executive editor Howell Raines and his managing editor, Gerald Boyd.

Amazing it was to learn that this is exactly what the Siegal Report is about—what had gone wrong in the culture of control at the Times, under Raines and crew but also further back. The stock taking in the document goes beyond Blair and Raines to the history of newsroom management by a group of top editors known inside the building as The Masthead. (And The Masthead would be a fit title for the movie, if the report were ever filmed.)

The various teams looking at pieces of the puzzle did not back down. They said it several times: today we need different values than the ones that prevailed when Jayson Blair got his chance to ruin us. We need a different culture of control. And in particular, there are calls for truth, justice and democracy in the document.

Truth? They call for that? Yes, because among other things the report speaks of deceptive practices in the use of datelines and bylines that were tantamount to lying to readers, or close enough. “Our use of bylines and datelines is inconsistent and occasionally dissembling,” the report flatly states.

Justice? Yes, because it is argued that profoundly unjust practices in the culture of control allowed a Jayson Blair to exist. And it is further charged that a monoculture prevailed in which only your contribution to tomorrow’s news edge really counted with The Masthead.

Democracy? Yes, because the report has several suggestions for driving authority downward, sharing information, widening the feedback loop, protecting free speech internally, equalizing opportunity, and ending cronyism, a term that appears in the document.

All this has huge consequences for journalism at the New York Times, which also means interest everywhere. Many of the complaints voiced in the report are issues in other newsrooms— and if the Times can tackle them in public, why not the Dallas Morning News or Cape Cod Times? But even if it had no consequences and got shelved, this document would matter.

The Siegal Report has a compelling narrative, despite multiple authors giving overlapping accounts. Were I to summarze, I’d go with Masthead becomes the Kremlin, Kremlin falls, Glasnost arrives, things are never the same. In my view, that is triumph of self-reflection at the Times. And for a journalism professor, this is a document with instant historical significance, certain to be studied and written about as the years roll on.

Besides linking arguments about justice internally to excellence achieved in the news columns, the Siegal Report takes important stands in favor of openness and public accountability at America’s most powerful newspaper. Only one of these, the Public Editor (ombudsman) position, has received broad attention. (See PressThink’s view, with links.)

OKAY: so just what is in the Siegal report? Among the observations, insights and recommendations are these nine points:

The New York Times
Report of the Committee on
Safeguarding the Integrity of Our Journalism
(The Siegal Committee Report)
Released July 30, 2003

Major Points, with commentary.

1. Glasnost. At every level, the Times newsroom needs a new atmosphere of “civility, openness to dissent and appreciation of reasoned pushback from subordinates,” summarized in the document as: “speaking truth to power.’” Many Times journalists “had been afraid to speak out.” They were “intimidated by the authoritarian style of top editors” and by a culture that “discouraged and neglected candid communication.” Now it is time to “break through the silo mentality” that crept up on us. “Vigorous journalistic debate should be encouraged at all levels.”

Clearly, this had not been the case in the culture of control, the rules of which were handed on from top editors to others in The Masthead’s circle. But were these rules posted? No. Don’t argue with The Masthead because you won’t get ahead is a pretty stark lesson to go unwritten, and yet this was part of the culture too. Like the Kremlin, you had to study a series of indirect signs to know the course they were plotting.

2. Demystify Decisions. New perfomance measures and a yearly evaluation system for reporters and editors, plus more conversation between the managers and the managed, to “demystify” decision-making and “dispel a widespread sense of favoritism and cronyism.”

The Public Editor position (the case against which had held for over 30 years at the Times) is a demystifier-in-chief, with a lot of freedom to explain things… if they have a good explanation. Thus, demystifying and increased accountability are connected, just as the shadowy sense around The Masthead’s decision-making means a loss of accountablity to leaders. This proved fatal to Raines.

3. Diversify Diversity. A recommitment to “diversity of all backgrounds and varieties,” which presumably could include ideology, class, region and other, more imaginative categories as well as race, enthnicity and gender. The report says: “The definition of ‘diversity’ should be expanded to encompass the intersection of who we are and what we do,” which is an elegant and useful idea. “Not just race, religion, age, sexuality and gender, but also subtler issues like where—or whether—people went to college, what they did before arriving at The Times, and whether they plan to have children.” Why diversify the staff and enlarge the definition of diversity itself? “Not as an expression of civic virtue,” or a righting of past wrongs, but a means for “improving our reach into the society we cover.” A diverse staff gives you a diverse reach.

4. Public Accountability. “We recommend a dramatic demonstration of our openness,” the Siegal report says. A new imperative should be known at the Times: “to become conspicuously accountable to readers and the public.” Why? “So that we may never again discover that readers, or the subjects of our coverage, did not think it worthwhile to alert us to error.” The Public Editor (ombudsman) position and another new job, Standards Editor, (Allan Siegal got that one) emerged from this recommendation. But an understanding of how the Web can deliver better accountablity—“fact check your ass,” as Jeff Jarvis likes to say—did not emerge.

I would underline—especially for non-journalists—that for journalists at the Times and elsewhere, the most shocking and damning revelation in the Blair case was not the misdeeds of a rogue reporter, or the lapses in editing and oversight. It was that ordinary people who knew of Blair’s lies “did not think it worthwhile to alert us to error,” in part because they expected the press to get it wrong. This stunned a lot of people in journalism. The implications of that are kinda staggering. On the other hand, the opportunities for insight are great too. And the future text for those insights is the Siegal report.

5. Transparency. Again and again in the report there are calls for more transparency, internally and to the public. Thus, a new Career Development Editor “should oversee a transparent, fair and consistent system for promotions and assignments.” Date and byline policies should be clear and understandable to readers. “We should show we have nothing to hide.” Senior editors have to “bring order and transparency to the Times’s often makeshift and opaque actions.”

What’s fascinating about this one is: who knows more about transparency—and its opposites—in powerful institutions, than the talented and driven reporting staff of the Times? They have a big light to shine on things. They know when things get opaque. Transparency at the Times is bringing journalism home, in a way.

6. Democratize the Newsroom. “Decision-making authority should be devolved downward” after many years of the opposite: evolving upward. Top editors “should work toward returning substantial responsibility for coverage to the desk and section heads and below.” There should be a “right to appeal” editors’ decisions.

7.) Create a Learning Culture at the Times. Among the recommended measures: refresher courses in ethics, media law updates, more in-house skills training, a mentoring program, and send more people to professional development centers like the Poynter Institute.

It’s hard to grasp this demand unless we understand what the Siegal report means in labeling the Times “a destination paper.” Once you have made it to W. 43rd Street, you cannot go any higher in journalism. It’s a short step from “cannot go any higher” in journalism to: need not learn any more about journalism. After all, you have completed your journey and arrived at the summit, the New York Times. You must know your stuff. So for the Siegal report to endorse a learning culture is a major change in professional psychology.

The report admits this: “The Times has not placed a premium on training. Those who want it say they receive little recognition for it and fear being perceived as less than capable for being asked.” It notes the perception among the staff that “training is remedial,” which, it says, should not be the case. How it came to be the case is somewhere in that phrase, a “destination” newspaper. But then we also have to marvel at the sight of knowledge workers (journalists are prime examples of that) who somehow think that adding to their intellectual capital is… remedial. Newsroom culture taught them so. Seems to me there is a Harvard Business School case study in that or a very long hmmmm for Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.

8.) Rein in Anonymous Sources. The Siegal report found that key editors were following different rules about proper use of confidential sources. But no one could say where the rules came from. It turned out they really didn’t exist. There was no well codified Times policy, just the claim to be following one. “Anonymous pejorative quotations should never appear, but they do.” The same holds for “anonymous flattery.” (Here is David Shaw of the LA Times, writing this week on too many unnamed sources as a ripe problem in journalism.)

9.) Come On, Treat Your People With More Dignity. The upheaval at the Times exposed the bitterness among journalists who felt their true contributions had been ignored or they themselves had been “put out to pasture.” The culture of favoritism and the cult of toughness combined to create a feeling that if you had a life outside the news cycle you were not a real journalist. “Being on call 24/7 does not mean working all the time,” the report states. “The best journalism is practiced by people who do other things.” You cannot ramp up if you’re on overdrive all the time. Journalists who have family responsibilties should not be seen as less committed if they can’t drop everything and rush to the latest story. In between the lines this is a family values brief.

Have commentary on points 1-9? Hit the Comments button.

I wrote a big picture piece in Columbia Journalism Review about the “changing terms of authority” in journalism today, taking the Siegal report as one text and this weblog as another.

See this illuminating interview with Allan Siegal about the report.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 28, 2003 6:36 PM