By: Joe Strupp
When Philip Taubman took over as Washington bureau chief for The New York Times in August 2003, the Jayson Blair scandal was still rippling, the Iraq war was in the first wave of post-invasion insurgent disruption, and a CIA operative named Valerie Plame was just becoming famous, or infamous.
In the three and half years that followed, Taubman found himself having to deal with those issues, and others, as he steered the Times D.C. bureau – arguably the most scrutinized newspaper bureau in the country – through some of the most difficult challenges it had ever seen. Now he is taking another top post, and about to be replaced in D.C. by former Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet.
Taubman praises Times executives for keeping his staff at about the same level for the past three and a half years, and even adding a few positions. Although he admits there has been about a 30% turnover rate under his management, he says being able to keep the same number of people has kept the bureau in competition.
“I was in the fortunate position to be able to bring in new talent,” he said. “There has been a fair amount of turnover, more than I would have expected. But I believe we have been very competitive and broken a lot of stories.”
When asked what the biggest misconception is about the bureau, he says, “that it is a mean place to work, that there are rivalries and backstabbing. That is just dead wrong.” He adds that, “that has been true for years as a misconception of the New York Times. It is a very demanding place to work, as it should be.”
Not since the days of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers has the Washington office gone through a rollercoaster ride of investigative stories, internal difficulties and competitive pressures like those of recent years. Even Executive Editor Bill Keller, in a memo to staff last week, referred to the bureau’s “toxic storms.” From the Plame affair, and its involvement of embattled former reporter Judith Miller, to the murder of popular bureau reporter David Rosenbaum to direct attacks by the Bush Administration, Taubman’s tenure has been anything but calm.
“That was part of the challenge when I came down here,” Taubman, 58, said about the post-Blair atmosphere and the other brewing issues at the time. “One of the first things that was necessary was to regain equilibrium. The distraction of the Blair affair had preoccupied the bureau and we had to focus on the job of covering Washington. To move on beyond the traumas of the Blair affair. That is something that a bureau chief would not normally have to do.”
Taubman, who will give up his post next month and turn to covering national security issues as an associate editor, had spent several previous stints in Washington prior to his current assignment. Six years as reporter from 1979 to 1985, then four more years as deputy bureau chief from 1989 to 1993. But he says the atmosphere was markedly different when he returned as bureau chief three years ago.
“The minute I set foot here, I could feel how intense the news was,” he recalls about his first days in 2003. “Even compared to some of the most intense years of the cold war, there was more news being generated. It was the response to 9/11, the United States government was responding aggressively to that.”
Aggressively, he said, meant its ongoing crackdown on national security-related issues, which led to two of the Times biggest scoops during his tenure, the 2005 revelation about domestic wiretapping and the 2006 disclosure of the secret bank-monitoring program. The wiretapping story led to a Pulitzer Prize and the bank monitoring story is likely to be in line for that award this year.
But those stories also drew the ire of the Bush White House, which met with Keller, Taubman and other Times officials twice in an effort to keep each story from running. In the case of the wiretapping story, the article did hold for more than a year. When it was published, the paper received criticism both from those who opposed its publication, and those who opposed its delay.
“The attacks on the paper, the chilly attitude of the Bush administration are factors in the life of the New York Times Washington bureau,” he said. “We have continued to do what we came here to do. The noise that sometimes surrounds the New York Times has never stopped us from doing that.”
Still, Taubman said the White House approach to the press is among the most antagonistic he has seen in his various tours of duty in D.C. “It has been a very chilly atmosphere in Washington between the news media and the government, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I would prefer it to a chummy atmosphere,” he said. “But the relationship between the news media and the Bush Administration has verged at times on antagonistic. Adversarial comes with the territory. But when you come across an administration that is as suspicious as this one is of the press, it is not healthy for either the press or the government.
“The number one job of a Washington bureau chief is to produce a smart and aggressive news report, break stories and analyze what is going on here,” he added. “That has always been the challenge here and I had to do that and operate in a climate in which relations with the government were very frosty.”
Taubman also noted that, during his time at the helm, the “volume and velocity of news has accelerated dramatically since the early days, which were pretty intense.” He adds that “the nature of what we are writing about has changed. The congress has changed hands, the president is fighting a war that is unpopular and so the nature of the news has changed. We have been dealing with a very active news-generating Democratic congress.”
But Taubman is quick to credit his staff with bringing the bureau back from some problematic beginnings and weathering the many storms, inside and outside the newsroom. “Most of the credit goes to the reporters,” he said.
Taubman also commented on the legendary image of the bureau as being at odds with the Times’ main office, both in story space and attention. “In the history of the New York Times there were periods that the bureau and the main office have been at war, but it has not happened on my watch,” he said. “Relations between the Washington bureau and New York have been as good as they have ever been. There are inherently going to be institutional frictions at times, but they have been minimal.”
He gives Managing Editor Jill Abramson, a former Washington bureau chief, much of the credit for the smooth working environment between the two offices. He also says that Keller and other top editors have treated the bureau as an important part of the overall paper, not just some “off-campus” location.
Asked if he had any advice for Baquet, who takes over in early March, Taubman said the former editor of the Los Angeles Times and a 10-year New York Times veteran, did not need his advice. “Dean is a great editor and a talented journalist,” Taubman said. “He”ll have his own way of running the bureau. The priority for any bureau chief is to keep an active posture where you are out getting the news — you just have to be on your toes.”