Sulzberger on Blair, Miller, Getting a Job at the ‘Times’

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By: Sonya Moore

Students attending the Spring National College Media Convention got a rare chance for a close brush with a famed newspaper publisher when Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. addressed the crowd of students and their advisers Thursday, opening the three-day weekend event at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City.

After an introduction from CMA President Kathy Lawrence, Sulzberger defended one of his star reporters, Judith Miller; discussed the Jayson Blair scandal; and offered advice on getting a job at The New York Times.

“We look for people who worked their way up the journalism food chain,” said Sulzberger, chairman and publisher of the Times, mentioning his own experiences working at The Raleigh (N.C.) Times and the Associated Press, an experience that he called “invaluable.”

Commenting that he knew the question was coming, he pulled out notes written on canary yellow paper, saying that before leaving for the hotel he had asked an assistant managing editor at the paper how to get a job at the Times — adding “if you’re not part of the family.” When the laughter subsided, Sulzberger listed internship programs and intermediate reporter programs available to students, but described them as being “small and rather difficult to get into.”

Asked about what changes came to the Times after incidents involving “a certain reporter who caused some strife,” Sulzberger made the crowd laugh once again by saying, “You probably haven’t heard about this …” According to Sulzberger, after Jayson Blair there was a lot of “internal turmoil,” and he said it “changed my role in that immediate period.” And now “almost everything in the management structure at The New York Times newsroom has changed,” Sulzberger stated confidently. “Department heads are now having meetings. Department heads are now meeting themselves.”

When asked if Blair ruined chances for young reporters, Sulzberger replied, “Jayson Blair was an individual. He made individual choices … we should have caught it sooner; that’s our failure.” Though it has been burned, the Times would not shy from hiring aggressively: “We will still take risks on people. We will still trust people. We will still work hard to bring in younger journalists to cover our world.”

At one point, a college reporter asked Sulzberger a pointed question about one of his newspaper’s star writers, Judith Miller, who has been widely criticized for misleading coverage of alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq last year. The publisher defended Miller, saying he had known her “for decades,” adding that she “has fabulous sources.”

Then he added: “Were her sources wrong? Absolutely. Her sources were wrong. And you know something? The administration was wrong. And when you’re covering it from the inside like that you’re going to get things wrong sometimes. So I don’t blame Judy Miller for the lack of finding weapons of mass destruction.” This produced a few laughs from audience members. “I blame the administration for believing its own story line,” he continued, “to such a point that they weren’t prepared to question the authenticity of what they were told.”

On the question of media cross ownership and FCC regulation, Sulzberger said, “Speaking as chairman of that company, I cannot wait for the FCC to change its rules. I would love to be able to pair our Wilmington [N.C.] newspaper with a TV station.” While such a move would make good economic and journalistic sense, Sulzberger admits that on the flip side it could possibly limit the amount of voices available in the marketplace of ideas. But if the rules change, he would act on them, “because you play with the rules you’ve got.”

Sulzberger also talked about the Internet as a news medium that’s changed the speed at which news has to be reported. While Sulzberger commented that it created the “fascinating dilemma” of trying to figure out how to keep up with the technology, at the same time he marveled that “the amount of garbage on the Internet is astounding.” He blames much of this on the fact that there is often no editing and that editors are critical.

In response to the last question of the day about future plans, Sulzberger quipped, “My master plan is to buy out Rupert Murdoch.” Over the loud laughter from the crowd he added, “That’s not likely to happen.”

After speaking, Sulzberger was swarmed by young people who wanted to speak to him, shake his hand or just catch a quick picture. He told E&P that the questions asked by the students were fabulous and thoughtful. “I was delighted by this experience,” he said, though he worries that young Internet-era journalists “don’t always recognize how powerful and important editing is.” Restating the point he made earlier in his discussion on the Internet he said that “great journalism depends on two things: great reporting and great editing.”

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