Trying times for the Times
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 9, 2004) – For lifetime readers of the New York Times, the Jayson Blair scandal, in which a young reporter plagiarized and filed dozens of stories made up out of thin air, came as part shock, part betrayal. For the New York Times, it rocked the institution to its core.

The Atlantic Monthly

For Times executive editor Howell Raines, it cost him his job. But Raines has decided not to go quietly into that good night. In “My Times,” the lengthy cover story of the May issue of the Atlantic, Raines opens up the floodgates, settles scores, and falls far short of offering any sort of apology for presiding over the worst scandal to taint the Times in the paper’s entire history.

Raines’s piece doesn’t simply address the Blair affair. In fact, discussion of Blair is only a small part of the piece. Rather, his essay is a brutally candid dissection of what Raines portrays as a culture of complacency at the paper of record, where he portrays a Newspaper Guild – the reporter’s union – that instills mediocrity rather than meritocracy and where resistance to change is inbred.

Raines tells us that if we were to get a job at the Times, we would be shocked to learn “that the level of talent is not higher than it is.” He portrays Times lifers as people who have a love-hate relationship with their employer. They “glory in their association with the institution,” he writes, “yet they despise their dependence on the money, security, cachet, and illusion of power that make leaving almost impossible.”

In that sense, it doesn’t sound very different from most workplaces.

Curiously, and in any case, Raines only addresses in passing what may have been his most expensive mistake. Under his reign as editorial page editor, the Times’s brutal hammering of President Bill Clinton for the nonsense that was the Whitewater affair seriously weakened Clinton’s ability to govern in his second term. It doesn’t take a political scientist to see that if Clinton hadn’t left office under the cloud of Whitewater and Lewinsky – the cloud of a right-wing conspiracy that was in large part seeded by the Times itself – Al Gore would have had a better shot at defeating George W. Bush. And no one will argue that had that happened, the world would be a much different place today.

The New Yorker

What could be more American than the shopping mall? Perhaps the very symbol of American consumerism – and by extension, the very icon of 20th century “culture” – the enclosed mall represents everything that is quintessential, for better or worse, about our land.

Which is why it comes as something of a pleasant surprise to a mall-hater to learn that the shopping mall was invented 50 years ago by a Viennese immigrant named Victor Gruen, whose socialist leanings were expressed architecturally through the enclosed shopping mall’s emphasis on a totally planned and controlled environment.

It’s worth digging out the March 15 issue of the New Yorker to read “The Terrazzo Jungle,” Malcolm Gladwell’s profile of Gruen and the science of shopping malls. As it turns out, Gruen’s original idea for malls was for more than just retail centers. He envisioned malls as just one element in planned developments that would include housing, schools, hospitals, and recreational centers – modern versions of Vienna’s famed Ringstrasse.

Of course as we know, Gruen’s socialist plan got hijacked by capitalism, and eventually Gruen grew “powerfully disillusioned” with what he wrought. “Victor Gruen invented the shopping mall in order to make America more like Vienna,” writes Gladwell. Instead, “He ended up making Vienna more like America.”

The Jerusalem Report

Opponents of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon might want to think twice before allowing themselves too much joy over the possible indictment he faces on bribery charges stemming from the so-called Greek Island Affair. As outlined in “The Prime Minister as Lame Duck” by Leslie Susser in the April 19 issue of the biweekly Jerusalem Report, such an indictment would come on the heels of Sharon’s boldest moves toward ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the near term, Sharon plans an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. He will forge ahead in spite of intense opposition to such a withdrawal in his own cabinet and under the threat of the collapse of his ruling coalition. Sharon’s plan is to replace his right wing with 19 members of the Israeli Labor Party, thus garnering political support for the move while ruling from the center in a government of national unity.

If an indictment does come down, however, Susser says Sharon “would almost certainly suspend himself or resign,” thus spelling the doom of his plan and chaos in the government. And it’s very unlikely that Sharon’s probable replacement, Binyamin Netanyahu, would be as inclined nor as able as the former warrior-general to pursue such a far-reaching step toward ending Israeli rule of territory mostly populated by Palestinian Arabs.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 10, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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