Romenesko shuns spotlight even though his column fanned the flames leading to top execs' resignations
Webloggers kick Trent Lott out of his job! Weblogger Salam Pax gives the best on-the-scene reports from Iraq! Webloggers take down the top management at The New York Times! Well, two out of three ain't bad. The last one is a bit of a stretch, if you try to piece together the Net's role in the undoing of Times Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd.
It's true that the happenings at staff meetings and e-mail memos were leaked to Romenesko by obviously disgruntled NYT'ers fuming over Jayson Blair. And a series of catty e-mails between Times reporters John Burns and Judith Miller was leaked to the Washington Post. And when reporter Rick Bragg defended his use of an uncredited freelancer in an article in the Washington Post, NYT staffers attacked his comments on Romenesko's forum. Certainly bloggers kept the turmoil roasting on high heat, but the blogosphere has flamb?ed The Times for errors in fact and judgment for years.
No matter. The Los Angeles Times handed out awards to the Internet over the weekend, with media guru Tim Rutten equating the Net's speed of coverage to embedded reporters in Iraq. Rutten lays out his case well, but only goes so far as saying that "it was the new world of Web sites, blogs, online editions and e-mails -- not Raines -- that set the pace of his exit." His headline writer begged to differ, with the egregious: "Information Superhighway Carried Raines to His Exit." The Internet did it!
Ex-NYT contributor and Raines critic Andrew Sullivan quickly called Rutten's conclusion a "money quote," and then went into full gloat over the bloggers' ability to keep The Times in check long before the mainstream media paid attention. Fair enough. But then he gets out the scorecard: "First Lott. Then Raines. And you ain't seen nothing yet."
The L.A. Times also took the time to profile Jim Romenesko, whose top media dish site has been at the center of this and many past storms. The hyperbole? "The [NYT] brouhaha has been to Romenesko what the first Persian Gulf War was to CNN, a defining moment," wrote Elizabeth Jensen. But Romenesko told her, "I just post the stories."
When I asked him if he thought Raines and Boyd would still be employed if not for his site and the Net, he answered, "I suspect yes."
A window on The Times
Most everyone agrees that the Net's wide open nature, and accessibility for angry NY Times staffers, helped keep the pressure on the execs. But Sarah Baxter at the Sunday Times of London goes too far on a story titled, "Editor falls to bloggers' rapid poison." Baxter says the Net is "challenging [The New York Times'] pre-eminence as a provider of news and opinion in America," and that the saga "became a power struggle over Raines between the new media and the old." But the most questionable line of her piece is this one: "A Web site run by Jim Romenesko of the Poynter Institute, a respected journalism school, became the forum where staff vented their anger about the goings-on at the paper."
Sounds nice, but staffers never vented their anger about management on Romenesko, other than leaking a lot of memos. "There were staffers writing about Bragg's Washington Post comments, and staffers writing about accusations lodged on my letters page by other people," Romenesko told me. "I've never portrayed them as rants against the paper."
Romenesko says he has no evidence that bloggers took down Raines, and doesn't consider his site a blog. "I started mediagossip.com before the term Weblog was in use," he said. "I see a Weblog as a site that includes commentary, rants, etc. with links. My feeling has always been: There's enough hot air out there; I'll just summarize the stories and provide the links."
Times staff that did utilize Romenesko's forum to return fire on Bragg also disputed the charge about staff rants online. "I don't think disgruntled staffers used the Internet to vent -- people with major axes to grind against the company used it for that purpose, as did commentators from other publications," Jennifer Steinhauer, City Hall bureau chief for The Times, told me. David Firestone, a Times reporter, and Karen Cetinkaya, the photo editor, concurred that there was no sniping from staffers on Romenesko.
Cetinkaya came to the defense of management in her online letter, and said "perusing [Romenesko] gave the impression that a full-scale revolt was underway inside The Times and that simply wasn't anywhere near the truth. Like I said in my letter, many of us chose to remain silent for the good of the paper, because we never believed it would come to this. Also, because I found myself getting so worked up about the things I was reading....I made a decision to stop visiting the site altogether about two or three weeks ago."
But most journalists -- if not the public -- couldn't keep their eyes off the train wreck and continued to follow Romenesko during the scandal. "I agree that the Internet provided a remarkable window for the outside world to watch (and speculate on) what was happening at The Times," Firestone told me. "I disagree with the blogger triumphalism we're seeing that suggests that the Web helped bring down The Times management."
The bigger picture
While the British Times' Baxter quotes Slate blogger Mickey Kaus, her partial quote is lacking context (a la the Guardian's shortened quote of Paul Wolfowitz): "If this had happened 10 years ago, when the Internet didn't exist, Raines would still be running the place." Kaus actually goes on to deny the bloggers' claims: "The Times staff would be just as unhappy, but they'd be unable to instantaneously organize and vent their displeasure on Romenesko and elsewhere. It was this suddenly transparent internal opposition, more than the constant pummeling from bloggers, that brought Raines down."
And on that point -- the added transparency and speed of Net news -- the NYTers would agree. Net expert Howard Rheingold, who penned "Smart Mobs," says that it would be tough for Times management to put the genie back in the bottle now.
"Every desktop computer and mobile device, if it is connected to the Internet, can become a worldwide printing press, place of assembly, organizing instrument," he e-mailed me. "But it would be a mistake to say that this power is automatically an equalizer. Circumstances and human intentions are crucially important in how the technology influences events."
Slate's Pressbox columnist Jack Shafer took a very clear-eyed view of the scandal. "Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg played the biggest role in the Raines downfall because their yammering kept the story in the news, which went directly to Romenesko, where it throbbed like the heart of a monster," he e-mailed me. "The Web has become like the telephone, a ubiquitous communication device, and it's very hard to tease out the role it may have played in Raines' downfall. I'm sure phone conversations had a lot to do with the Raines affair, but nobody is running around insisting that the phone done him in."
Only The Times upper management knows exactly what brought the Raines and Boyd resignations -- outside of the obvious, their mishandling of the Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg fiascos. In this case, an open online forum and the speed of e-mail brought a lot of light onto the notoriously closed-door Times. And the blogosphere can always take credit for fanning the flames. But can bloggers chalk up Raines and Boyd on their collective hitlists? Not exactly.