Man Without Qualities

Saturday, May 17, 2003

Relationships Past Their Prime

Most of the mainstream media coverage of the the Jayson Blair crisis implicitly seems to treat Arthur ("Pinch") Sulzberger as having the last word and a secure position at the New York Times. (Washington Post sample: Raines said: "My plan is to have this job and perform it with every fiber in my body as long as this man next to me," Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., allowed it. At that point, Sulzberger declared: "If he were to offer his resignation, I would not accept it.") From a working journalist’s standpoint that may be correct enough. But ultimately it isn't true at all. Pinch must be badly burned by his handling of affirmative action within the Times, which has recently had a shrinking circulation. No interested person should think that the most important Times meeting regarding Jayson Blair was the one in the theater behind the Times headquarters with the newsroom staff as the audience and Howell and Pinch and Gerald gavotting on stage. No. The meeting that counts will be - or has already been - the much smaller meeting of Times shareholders. Some of those family shareholders had deep reservations about elevating Pinch to his leadership of the Times in the first place, and the current disaster is very much the kind of possibility they were reported to have had in mind at that time. So it is passing strange to the Man Without Qualities that Alex Jones, a former Times reporter and author, with Susan Tifft, of The Trust, a history of the Sulzberger family, would share with the Financial Times the opinion that "I think this family would be very reluctant to second-guess Arthur." True, a summary decapitation is unlikely - although there seems to be some serious speculation brewing about the more immediate consequences to African-American Gerald Boyd. But Mr. Sulzberger's medium term prospects are not exactly rosy at the moment.

All of which makes especially curious the tone of an op-ed item by Samuel G. Freedman appearing in today's New York Times, an item that contemplates all that had gone wrong in the special relationship between blacks and Jews. Mr. Freedman predictably dwells on such matters as continuing fallout from the Crown Heights disaster and affirmative action, especially the Michigan case now pending before the Supreme Court. He seems to view the support of affirmative action found in some parts of the Jewish community as a sign that Jewish Americans no longer need to depend much on "merit" - and can therefore relax their historical support of the concept. The prominent expression of this peculiar view (at least peculiar to my eyes) in the Times during this time of the Jayson Blair crisis creates an intriguing resonance with some thoughts of Ann Coulter:

Suppose the owner of a big company sends his kid to learn the business and tells low-level managers to treat him just like anyone else. The managers curry favor with the boss by reporting that his son is doing great and is a natural genius for this business. So the kid keeps getting praised and promoted, until one day he is actually put in charge of something he has no ability to run. That is cruel. And it's the story of Pinch Sulzberger, isn't it?

Given "Pinch's" particular history and capacities and the evident current exposure of Gerald Boyd, it is not difficult to find added significance in many of Mr. Freedman's words, such as his suggestion that the black-Jewish era, in many ways, is over. It can be studied and celebrated. But for reasons of demography and politics and the mere passage of time, it should be retired to the realm of history or mythology.

Why here? Why now?

The implied reason for the appearance of Mr. Freedman's essay is that a federal jury found Lemrick Nelson guilty of violating Yankel Rosenbaum's civil rights in the course of killing him. Mr. Freedman says of the verdict: One can feel satisfaction that justice was finally done ... Really? Mr. Freedman is "satisfied" even though another article in the same edition of the Times purports to "answer" a lingering question about the mixed verdict: How could the jury have found Mr. Nelson guilty on Wednesday of violating Mr. Rosenbaum's civil rights by stabbing him during the 1991 racial disturbance in Brooklyn, but not guilty of causing the death itself? It seems that the jury forewoman "explained" that the murder exoneration was caused by "everybody" on the jury knowing that Mr. Rosenbaum's family had sued the hospital in which he had actually died for negligence in the death even though [t]he jury was not allowed to hear testimony about the hospital's mistreatment of Mr. Rosenbaum because the judge had deemed it legally irrelevant.

The Times quotes the forewoman as cheerfully explaining: "How can you sue Kings County Hospital for negligence and at the same time tell people this guy stabbed him to death? How could you blame two persons for the same death?"

Now, in addition to contemplating the jury's reported reliance on excluded evidence not even introduced at trial, one might also note that no sensible, unbiased person could doubt that a murder victim can also be the victim of subsequent medical malpractice. Mr. Rosenbaum bled to death from the slice left in his body by Mr. Nelson's knife - that some doctor at Kings County Hospital may have been subsequently negligent (although that has not been proved, even in the pending civil case) treating the wound doesn't mean Mr. Nelson didn't cause the death or commit murder. The Times is very matter-of-fact in its coverage, and also reports:

The forewoman, an administrator and part-time anatomy instructor who lives in Brooklyn, said that she wanted to clear up another misconception. The jurors, she said, did not believe that Mr. Nelson had directly violated Mr. Rosenbaum's rights, because they did not think he had stabbed the man because of his religion (he was Jewish) or because he was using the public street, the two main prongs of the federal civil rights law. ... The forewoman said that she used to work at Kings County Hospital and knew about the doctors' mistake through her job, but she said she did not share this information with the other jurors. Although the forewoman's account seems to imply that the jurors violated their oath, Yale Kamisar, a law professor and expert in criminal procedure at the University of San Diego, said there was little chance the verdict could be overturned.

It is on these facts that Mr. Freedman's op-ed item expresses his "satisfaction" - without so much as even mentioning the jury's exoneration of Mr. Nelson on the murder count or the report that the jurors did not believe that Mr. Nelson had directly violated Mr. Rosenbaum's rights.

Yes, strange it all was. Passing strange.

Somehow I just don't have the feeling that race relations at the New York Times have reached an equilibrium state just yet.

UPDATE: David Warsh does a nice job explaining just how vunerable Pinch may be - link thanks to Kausfiles, also coming to understand that the problems at the Times likely come from Pinch.

Can scales cling to the eyes of the family shareholders indefinitely?

FURTHER UPDATE: And now Times columnist Bill Herbert seems to say that the Times newsroom is still hostile towards and biased against African Americans, who he says are still grossly under represented there, anyway.

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