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Gary Younge
Reporter's plagiarism claims scalp of editor as New York Times becomes the news

The editor of America's most venerated newspaper, the New York Times, resigned yesterday after one of the most embarrassing journalistic scandals in American history prompted severe criticism of his managerial competence and abrasive style.

In a hastily arranged and highly emotional ceremony in the paper's third-floor newsroom, during which some reporters sobbed, Howell Raines, 60, announced his resignation, picked up his straw hat from the office he had just vacated and left the building with his wife. Mr Raines' parting words to his former staff were: "Remember, when a great story breaks out, go like hell."

The paper's managing editor, Gerald Boyd, 52, who was appointed by Mr Raines, also resigned.

The paper's publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, told the staff: "Given the events of the last month...Howell and Gerald concluded that it was best for the Times that they step down. This is a day that breaks my heart."

He thanked the pair "for putting the interest of this newspaper, a newspaper we all love, above their own". Mr Raines' predecessor, Joseph Lelyveld, will take over while a replacement is found.

The paper's top two editors are the most senior casualties to date of a scandal that erupted five weeks ago when the Times discovered that Jayson Blair, a 27-year-old reporter, had "committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud".

An internal investigation of Blair's work revealed a litany of plagiarism, deception and inaccuracies relating to 36 of the 73 articles he had written between October 2002 and April this year.

Blair's resignation on May 1 was followed by a front-page story and a humiliating correction inside detailing his fabrications in more than 14,000 words on four broadsheet pages. Blair would later boast that he had "fooled some of the most brilliant people in journalism".

In a journalistic culture that worships at the altar of objectivity and prides itself on accuracy and accountability one cannot overestimate how deep a blow the Blair ordeal was for the Times or how widespread the ramifications of it would be.

In a world where factcheckers are commonplace and corrections columns have been in place for decades, this was regarded not as an individual aberration but as a systemic failure. The scandal has caused other newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and the Buffalo News, to call staff meetings to examine their working practices.

The investigation made it clear what Blair had done; the more difficult question was how had he been able to get away with it for so long.

Many fingers pointed at Howell Raines. The mood in some parts of the paper after the debacle was a mixture of sombre and seditious. Some reporters and editors argued that Mr Raines' bullish management style, crusading editorial approach and desire to promote youth and energy over age and experience had all contributed to Blair's promotion and the paper's failure to prevent his fraud.

A few days later Mr Sulzberger held a staff meeting at the Astor Plaza Theatre, near the Times offices, so employees could question Mr Raines and Mr Boyd in person. One of the paper's writers, Joyce Purnick, described it as a "raw, emotional and candid session". "I believe that at a deep level you guys have lost the confidence of many parts of the newsroom," said Joe Sexton, a deputy editor of the metro section, which covers the New York area. "I do not feel a sense of trust and reassurance that judgments are properly made...People feel less led than bullied."

Questions were also asked about the paper's affirmative action policies.

Blair is black and some journalists argued that he had been overpromoted because of the paper's desire to elevate reporters from ethnic minorities.

Mr Raines entertained the suggestion: "You have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave him one chance too many," he said. "When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes."

The meeting offered Mr Raines, not known for being self-effacing, a rare opportunity for contrition. He took it. "I'm here to listen to your anger, wherever it's directed," he told his staff. "To tell you that I know that our institution has been damaged, that I accept my responsibility for that and I intend to fix it...I was guilty of a failure of vigilance that, since I sit in this chair where the buck stops, I should have prevented."

But if the meeting provided the opportunity for a postmortem examination, Mr Raines also saw it as a chance to acknowledge concerns about his editorship after almost two years in the chair.

He took up the post, with the official title of executive editor, in early September 2001 - a week before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre. The paper's coverage of the attacks was lauded and won six Pulitzer prizes.

But his management style, at times insensitive and autocratic, alienated many. Several senior national correspondents left - one, Kevin Sack, went on to win a Pulitzer for the Los Angeles Times. Mr Raines wanted to make it clear that he was aware of the criticism.

"You view me as inaccessible and arrogant," he said. "I heard that you were convinced there's a star system that singles out my favourites for elevation. Fear is a problem to such an extent, I was told, that editors are scared to bring me bad news."

A business reporter, Alex Berenson, asked him if he had considered resigning. Mr Raines said no, or at least not unless he was asked to by Mr Sulzberger, who was sitting next to him. He would not accept the resignation even if it were offered, Mr Sulzberger said.

Quite what happened in the intervening three weeks to change their minds is not clear.

An internal review of reporting practices and management checks and balances was ordered but the paper started to implode under the weight of internal rancour and frustration.

More scandals and scalps followed. Last week one of Mr Raines' favourites, the Pulitzer-winner Rick Bragg, resigned days after the editor suspended him with pay. Bragg admitted that an unpaid assistant had done virtually all of the reporting for a story on oyster fishers in Florida for which he took full credit. Bragg said such practices were commonplace; his colleagues publicly disagreed. Other freelancers who had worked for the paper said they too had been denied bylines.

It also became apparent that the main source on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programme for the paper's bioterrorism expert, Judith Miller, had been the Pentagon's favoured Iraqi, Ahmad Chalabi. That in turn suggested that the Pentagon and Mr Chalabi had used the paper to help create the justification for war.

Mr Raines spent the past few days trying to win over some of his sternest critics within the paper, arguing his case over dinner and in private.

"Everyone is kind of stunned," said one reporter. "These are two guys who put their whole life into the paper and they certainly didn't set out to do anything bad.

"My first reaction was maybe this would allow people to move on, but none of it's good really."

Whether the resignations will quell the controversy remains to be seen. "I think the focus now becomes Arthur Sulzberger," said the New York magazine critic Michael Wolff. "And, in fact, I think that's the root of what's happened here. It's all about survival of the publisher at this point."

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