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Meet the (Meta)Press: Jack Shafer

Slate's "Press Box" columnist on his job, the Times, and not moving with the pack.

By Jesse Oxfeld - June 10, 2003

Slate magazine, the online journal backed by Microsoft and founded by Michael Kinsley, is known for its counterintuitive takes—smart, deft analyses that usually tell you what you don't expect to hear. All that counterintuition can sometimes get formulaic—you grow to expect the opposite of what you'd expect—but one of the mag's most successfully unpredictable features is its "Press Box" column, which debuted at the very end of 1999. Jack Shafer, then Slate's deputy editor and now an editor at large, has written the column since its inception, first with occasional other contributors and, for the last year, alone. A seasoned press critic, his work is counterintuitive in the very best sense: He finds interesting stories, and develops interesting viewpoints, and he's often the one guy not caught up in the same angle on the same scandal every other media writer is busy espousing. At the beginning of the recent New York Times scandals, for example, Shafer was one of the few not to gang up on Howell Raines. "He didn't catch Jayson Blair," acknowledged the dek on his piece. "You didn't either." One tempest later, when people seemed to accept Rick Bragg's everyone-does-it defense, Shafer was unmoved: "Reconstituting a 'you are there' story from somebody else's notes and conducting a touch-and-go landing to claim the dateline violates not only Times policy, but any sober person's elemental sense of intellectual honesty." He was eerily prescient last week, when on Tuesday evening he posted "Dead Man Editing," which predicted that the growing controversies at the Times would cost Raines his job. In the brief interlude between his prophesy and its fulfillment Thursday morning, Shafer spoke to mediabistro.com about his job, the Times, and why Raines was sure to go. (No photograph of Shafer was available from him, his bureau chief, or Slate's publicity people. So pictured above is a, um, slate.)

Birthdate: October 1951
Hometown: Kalamazoo, Michigan
Lives now: Arlington, Virginia
Reads for work: "I start off very early in the morning with Post Raisin Bran, a banana, and 2 percent milk, with 2 cups of half-caf coffee, my Washington Post and my New York Times. I cruise the L.A. Times and Romenesko before going to work. At work, I reliably pick up my copy of The Wall Street Journal and, throughout the course of the morning, paw through whatever new magazines we have received and see what's cooking on the MSNBC and CNN websites. And I'm hitting Google News all day long, because I really enjoy how so much overseas news bubbles to the top of their list."
Reads for fun: "I usually have a couple of books going at any given time." Currently: Moneyball, by Michael Lewis; Boswell's Presumptuous Task, by Adam Sisman; The Conversations, by Michael Ondaatje.
First section of the Sunday Washington Post: Sports.

You've been at Slate since it was founded. Walk me through your career until then.
Walking backwards, I have been at Slate for seven years now. I was the editor of San Francisco Weekly for a year before going to Slate. Before that, I was at Washington City Paper as editor for nine and a half years. And before that I spent about a year as a freelancer, and I was managing editor of a now-long-dead magazine called Inquiry between 1981 and 1984.

Have you written "Press Box" since the beginning?
When we started, I was writing a column called "Flame Posies," and frequently my topics would be the press. When Jacob Weisberg replaced Mike as editor, I left the position as deputy editor and became a full-time writer, so that's why the frequency of Press Box picked up about a year ago, when Jake took over. I've written on the press before, when I was at the City Paper, and for The New York Times Magazine and The Wall Street Journal's op-ed page and The New Republic and other places. I've been writing about the press for at least 15 years.

"Press Box," it seems, often doesn't cover the standard media-about-media stuff, what Howie Kurtz and everybody else is following at the moment. You often seem to be a little bit removed, or looking at things from a different angle. Is that something you're conscious of?
Howie routinely breaks news about the press, and I think that that is one of his many strong suits. But, yeah, I'm trying to get a different vantage point than the guys who cover the press as a daily beat, and I generally strive to write some thing original.

One example of you being original—and this changed recently—but, early on, when everyone was criticizing Howell Raines, you defended him. Where did that reaction come from, and the obvious question is did your monkeyfishing experience [a largely fabricated article that ran in Slate two years ago] play a role in that?
I think not. I think that if monkeyfishing hadn't happened, I would still have taken the same position. Go back and read my piece about Stephen Glass. The week that happened, back in 1998, editors stood up across America and said, "That could never happen at our publication," and what I wrote in Slate then was, "Goddamned if I didn't read those Stephen Glass pieces and think that they were astonishingly good." Reading them now, having been told that they are fabrications and pure fraud, I am embarrassed by the fact that I, who regarded myself as a sharp-eyed cynic, didn't see through them. So whatever sympathy I might have had for Howell Raines actually preceded the Jayson Blair episode. Even prior to the Jayson Blair blow-up, I was saying, "What are Howell Raines' crimes? He's become executive editor, he wants to make the paper the way he wants to make it, people who don't want to work that way are leaving, what's the big evil crime? An editor is not a contestant in a beauty contest." So I thought that a lot of the criticism then and still now comes from sort of personal animus for Howell Raines and for some of the political views that he expressed in his editorial page.

But then you turned, with "Dead Man Editing." Why?
The thing is that a general cannot command an army without the support of his troops. And I think what has happened is that Raines is very unpopular within his own newspaper and both of these crises—the Blair and Bragg episodes—have allowed the people who are most unhappy to give voice to their anger and their displeasure and put the editor of The New York Times in a defensive posture vis-à-vis his newsroom. And I think that's a very untenable place for an editor to be. So I am not calling upon him to resign. I don't think that Howell Raines has done anything that is fireable. But I think that an editor cannot produce a fine or great publication, as The New York Times needs to be, editing from a defensive crouch. And his latest moves—with the Siegal committee and then the one headed by Whitney and Rosenthal—you know, these are palliatives handed to the staff and distributed with his promise that he'll increase communication and attempt to be more amenable to the staff's views and feelings. And I don't think that is Howell Raines. He can't turn the Times newsroom into a 24/7 sensitivity session. That's just not him. So what I am predicting is that sooner or later he will realize he can't put out a great newspaper in the position that he is in, and he'll decide to do something else with his career.

You mentioned Rick Bragg—it's also interesting that, while you were one of the few defending Raines, you were also one of the first to come out about Bragg and say, "This is just ridiculous."
Yeah. Bragg has put a very flattering spin on his methods and sources, which I think the press is sort of letting him get away with. Did you look at his On the Media transcript? Bragg's still maintaining that he did nothing wrong to commit the dateline toe-touch—to claim a dateline, to basically assign the primary interviews of the piece to a non-Times employee who conducted interviews for 4 days in Apalachicola. I think that many of the ethical issues journalists visit day in and day out are hairsplitting and Talmudic and require an "on the other hand" and exceptions and explanations—but this is not one of them. After this interview, Seth Mnookin can't put his name on this piece just by covering Jesse Oxfeld's rent. [Note to Seth: Village rents being what they are, I'm open to offers.] Everyone would recognize that Jesse did this interview, and not Seth, and what's going on is wrong.

Another one you're sort of out there alone on is Judith Miller [the Times reporter whose reporting on the search for Iraqi WMD has been subjected to unusual pre-publication scrutiny by the Pentagon]. Why do you find that so important, and why do you think that nobody else, or few others, are getting on it?
I think that that will change. I think that I will have company on the Miller story sooner rather than later. As for why other people haven't written about it, I don't think they are as careful readers of Judith Miller as I am. Oddly, journalists I don't think write as carefully about other journalists or read them as closely as they probably should. What's your theory on why I'm out there alone on Miller? Am I wrong or am I just too early?

I think that the zone is flooded, as it were, with everything else going on at the Times, and that this doesn't fit the storyline right now.
Right. Howie Kurtz did do a piece, and he added a big chunk to the story when he wrote about the internal email between Miller and [Times Baghdad bureau chief John F.] Burns, and she was bragging that [Iraqi exile leader and Pentagon favorite Ahmad] Chalabi was one of her main sources and both a source for her and a source for the weapons of mass destruction investigators on the ground. So I wouldn't say that no one has written about it. I think a lot of the left press has written about Judith Miller, but you're right in noting that there hasn't been a lot of mainstream coverage.

So how much longer do you give Raines?
You know, as editor of The New York Times, he's probably analogous to someone with a terminal disease. He could go tomorrow, he could go next week, or he can go in a year. If he goes in 18 months, I will feel vindicated because the implication, of course, is that the modern-day New York Times editor has the job until he reaches mandatory retirement at age 65. I am not going to actually put a date to it, but I think that there is going to be another crisis—I mean, there is no newspaper in the world that hasn't has some sort of fraud committed on it by one of its staffers—and I think the next time this happens at The New York Times, once again, the issue will be that people will personalize it in the context of Howell Raines and he will feel the heat in a way that Ben Bradlee didn't feel when the Janet Cooke episode happened.

Do you think that, as some people have speculated, Arthur Jr. might be going anywhere?
It's hard when your family holds a controlling interest in your enterprise. It is often hard to remove family members from any business organization.

Hard, but not impossible. Wasn't it other Chandlers [the family that owned the Los Angeles Times] who finally got Otis [the last Chandler to run the paper] out of the job?
Yeah, but Otis had aged out of it. I don't think that he really wanted to do it by the time he left. He had had a long career there. And the family's animus toward him had nothing to do with the performance at the newspaper; everybody just wanted to cash in. The New York Times is, as Susan Tifft and Alex Jones put it, "the trust." The New York Times Company is not simply like the Tribune Company, committed to returning its 12 percent on investment. It is something greater than that. The New York Times wants to make money—and is unabashed about making money—but that is often very secondary to being the best newspaper in the country. And I think that that sentiment is still the sentiment of the family, and I think that Art Sulzberger Jr. is still with that program—making the paper the best. So the analogy of the Chandlers is very apt: The Chandlers wanted Otis to leave because they wanted more money. I don't think that any of the family owners of The New York Times are angling for another two or three percent return on investment.

Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.



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