Arthur II: On the Rocks

Haven't read enough yet about Pinch Sulzberger? Then be sure to catch this week's New Yorker, in which you'll get 10,000 Ken Auletta words on the Ochs scion who has visited upon the world's greatest newspaper both Howell Raines and Judith Miller.

A sort of scaled down analogue to Seth Mnookin's Hard News — which, catalyzed by the Jayson Blair fiasco, looked at Howell Raines's entire career as executive editor — Auletta's piece, catalyzed by the Judith Miller fiasco, looks at Arthur Jr.'s entire career as publisher. The basic theme: He remains the boy king who hasn't — and perhaps won't — grow into his throne. While Auletta acknowledges that the only people who could oust Pinch from his job are his family, and there's no reason to think they're turning on him, there's also a certain self-fulfillment factor. When Boswell-to-the-moguls Auletta spends 10,000 words on how some people think you're not up to the job, all of the sudden it starts to seem to more people like you're not up to the job.

But, then again, this piece makes plenty of people look bad.

• Let's start with Floyd Abrams, the Noted First Amendment Attorney, who seems to be the one who, together with Sulzberger, crafted Miller's disastrous legal strategy in response to Patrick Fitzgerald's subpoena. As we've noted before, the only reporters who faced jail over the subpoenas — Miller and Time's Matt Copper — were those represented by Abrams. When Cooper made his deal, he was no longer represented by Abrams, and, as this piece underscores, it was Robert Bennett, Miller's personal lawyer, who struck her get-out-of-jail deal.

• Then there's Bill Keller. We're on records as enjoying Keller's seemingly heartfelt staff memos, his ongoing willingness to acknowledge things that went wrong and to take blame as appropriate. But we also have to wonder at what point his candor stops being charming and starts being worrisome. When you read something like this, Keller suddenly seems less like a guy with an admirable willingness to admit his mistakes and more like a guy who was too lackadaisical to make the right decisions:

Keller was also having second thoughts about the legal case. The doubts started, he says, in the fall of 2004, when it became clear that the Washington Post did not see Fitzgerald's investigation as a First Amendment issue, and that the Post's longtime national-security reporter, Walter Pincus, was going to cooperate. Keller described Pincus as "a guy who lives and dies on anonymous sources, and who I could not see doing something to ruin his credibility with people who tell him stuff — that gave me pause. But I breezed past it." A second pause came after the Court of Appeals ruled against the Times. He said, "At that point, I should have gone into the room and said, 'Listen, guys, the lawyers aren't very optimistic. There is even some potential danger that the Supreme Court would seize on this case for an opportunity to make things even worse" for the press. "I never made that pitch," he said. The reason? "An object in motion," he said, "tends to stay in motion."

Well, yes. But simple inertia isn't a particularly good reason to spend millions of dollars in legal fees, and to force the Supreme Court to create a precedent damaging to press freedoms.

• It's also fun — but not particularly good for either man — to watch Keller and Howell Raines, who originally was given the executive-editor position over Keller, snipe at each other:

Within weeks, Sulzberger had become convinced that Raines could not rescue himself or the situation, and Raines was fired. For Keller, the Raines era was harmful in a less obvious way, and he remains bitter about it. Keller, who is fifty-six, speaks slowly and deliberately, but his candor can be as jarring as Sulzberger's humor. The business and news sides of newspapers, he told me last month, always have "an ambient level of suspicion" toward each other. The business side has trouble applying "traditional business metrics to what we do," he said. "On the business side, there is a tendency to suspect that the newsroom is hiding something behind a lot of smoke and mirrors. This is a perception Howell fed. Of all the things Howell bequeathed to me, somewhere high on that list — maybe higher than Judy Miller — is his claim that the newsroom had become fat and complacent. That plays into what business sides of newspapers tend to believe. I think that was wrong. I think the reason he made that case was cynical.... I don't think he really believed it. I think he thought it would make him popular with the business side." Keller also said he did not believe that Sulzberger chose Raines for that reason. But he added, "Howell campaigned for the job with the political skills we admire in Karl Rove."

Raines, in an e-mail response, said, "It was well known throughout the paper that I believed the Times needed to improve its journalism and its business practices. It still does - witness the declining stock price. Any reasonable person who read my editorial page could see that I did not pander to business or economic interests, inside or outside the paper. Bill knows that the cynicism, if any, ran the other way. Joe Lelyveld tried to cast me as a candidate of the business side in hopes of improving Bill's standing in the newsroom. My own view is that an editor in today's environment who doesn't understand the economics of the newspaper business is under-informed."

• But, then, Auletta manages to make even himself look bad. The whole piece catalogues all the ways in which Sulzberger has screwed up both as a publisher and as chairman of the Times Company, and it quotes lots of people discussing those fuckups. ("You get a bad king every once in a while," says The Kingdom and the Power author Gay Talese. He made things harder for Miller in the Plame case, according to Bennett, her lawyer. An anonymous top Times business exec says, "It's just a matter of time until we start losing money.") Then, suddenly, the final paragraph begins, "There also seems to be a growing sense that the Times must unite around its publisher." Um, what? Not in the article we've just been reading.

And there's this fun little disclaimer: "A disclosure: My wife, a literary agent, represents both Keller and Miller." You mean represents, says, the book for which Miller has been rumored to be expecting a big advance? The one that, according to a school of thought, led her to extend her time in jail, so she'd have a better — and more marketable — story? Ah, the tangled webs.

• Meantime — and speaking of tangled webs — our old pal Seth Mnookin, with whom one of us once worked, and who once threatened to sue that same one of us for copyright infringement, covers much of this in the new Vanity Fair, out last week. That piece is finally online now, and it also portrays Pinch as a boy king who hasn't grown fully grown into his job. (To wit: Sulzberger's admission that he wouldn't let former Times Co. president and CEO Russ Lewis talk to the reporters writing about the Miller case because "I don't know what the fuck he's going to tell you.") This one focuses more on the process by which Miller went from (sort of) hero to goat, and the mechanics that led to the damning side-by-side accounts (one by a team of reporters, one by Miller) of her Plame saga, but it's within the context of the same tale.

Unsuprisingly, Mnookin's piece does not end with the Auletta's final, oddly positive spin.

The Inheritance [NYer]
Unreliable Sources [VF]