While sending Judy Miller off on a slow boat to Sag Harbor (where she intends to "chill out" and see what Pat Fitzgerald has in store for her and her neocon pals), Bill Keller has suddenly developed an "I" infection. His most recent Miller mess memo to his staff was jam-packed with the pronoun, making it seem to all the world like he was the one calling the shots. And when he mentioned others involved in the decision-making process, it was fellow editors Jill Abramson and John Geddes.
Notably absent was any mention of the real shot-caller during the Miller debacle, Arthur Sulzberger. Is Keller trying to save his ass by helping his boss cover his?
For most of the Judy Miller saga, Sulzberger has been front and center -- guiding the paper's legal and editorial strategy, visiting Miller in jail, whisking her off to the Ritz-Carlton for a post-release massage, manicure, steak dinner, and "one-third of a martini in a gorgeous glass," and receiving Judy's dewy-eyed thanks after her first grand jury appearance.
But now that the Scooter has hit the fan, Pinch is suddenly MIA.
Except around the water coolers at West 43rd, where discussion of Sulzberger's future is, as one Times source put it to me, "Topic A, B, C, and D."
"Reading Keller's memo on Friday," a Times staffer told me, "a lot of us thought that at the end there would be a P.S. -- 'P.S.: We fired Judy Miller this afternoon.' But there is no way that Keller could write that on his own, because if that's going to come, it will have to come from Sulzberger. And he's her protector. Still."
Indeed, in his column on Sunday, public editor Barney Calame quotes Sulzberger as saying of Miller: "She and I have acknowledged that there are new limits on what she can do next." Limits? What kind of limits? No more massages or martinis? No more editorials comparing her to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks? (Speaking of editorials, where is the one offering the paper's latest take on Judy? We had 15 depicting her as Judy of Arc; how about one admitting that maybe that picture was a little out of focus? Why isn't Sulzberger "regularly urging" Gail Collins to devote some space to that?)
What does someone have to do to get fired at the New York Times?
More and more, it's looking like the biggest problem at the Times is not a Judy Miller problem -- it's an Arthur Sulzberger problem. As Jonathan Darman reported in Newsweek, "'Judy took advantage of her relationship with the publisher,' said one Times staffer who asked not to be identified because he feared losing his job. 'The publisher should pay the price.' (A Times spokesman declined to comment.)"
Sulzberger is the constant. Judy was allowed to be Miss Run Amok under Howell Raines and Joe Lelyveld and Bill Keller because Sulzberger had, as Judy put it, "metaphorically and literally" put his arms around her -- including, as Gabriel Sherman reports, meeting with her Monday in New York.
Which is why ridding the Times of Judy Miller will not, by itself, bring closure to this latest scandal. And neither will ridding the Times of Bill Keller, because those at the paper know full well that he was acting as a loyal lieutenant.
It will only happen with the ouster of Sulzberger.
How likely is this? Extremely unlikely. "It would be unprecedented," a source familiar with the workings of the newspaper told me, "for the family, which has total control of the company, to abandon a fellow family member. That said, there is deep concern, everyone is worried about it and talking about it, and Arthur has to deal with it. The family's concern is so deep because the scandal affects the position of the Times as the preeminent news organization in the world -- which is the thing the family cares about more than anything. They are not about money, they are about the preeminence of the New York Times, and anything that jeopardizes that is very troubling to them."
The trust that was created in 1997 to preserve family control of the Times has, as its primary objective (as disclosed in a 2000 New York Times Company proxy statement): "to maintain the editorial independence and integrity of the New York Times and to continue it as an independent newspaper, entirely fearless, free of ulterior influence and unselfishly devoted to the public welfare." This is a lofty principle visibly betrayed by recent scandals.
And while the Sulzberger family may not care about money, the shareholders do -- and they control more than 80 percent of the New York Times Company's Class A stock. The family remains in control because it holds almost all the Class B voting stock, which allows them to elect 70 percent of the company's board.
This structure insulates an incompetent CEO -- but only up to a point. And the shareholders can't be happy with the latest quarterly results. The company's market cap, which was $6 billion in November 2004, dropped below $4 billion last week, its earnings fell by more than half in the last quarter, and there have been widespread layoffs (200 staff positions eliminated in the first half of this year, with an additional 500 cuts announced in September). And now Sulzberger's ham-fisted meddling in the newsroom has put the paper's greatest asset -- its reputation -- at grave risk. (It led to, among other things, Times reporters not being able to freely report on Plamegate until Miller was out of legal jeopardy, which deprived its readers of the kind of headline-grabbing reporting in this morning's paper.)
For now, steps are being considered to stop the paper's financial free fall and reassure Wall Street. "If there is a fall guy," a Times business insider told me, "it's going to be Scott Heekin-Canedy, who has been president and general manager of the paper for a year and half, and is in charge of everything from circulation to advertising. You know they are in trouble when they are handing down edicts to the business staff like the one they just put out saying their performance needs to be 'results oriented' instead of 'effort oriented.'" Yes, maybe they can try to match the "results oriented" performance of the editorial side.
In the end, no matter how many cosmetic changes they make on the business side -- and how many scapegoats they sacrifice -- it's what's happening on the editorial side that will determine whether the paper thrives or sinks. And Sulzberger's fate is central to this. A fate that rests with his family. I ran into his sister, Karen Sulzberger, and her husband, the writer Eric Lax (who is on the Times family trust board), over the weekend at a book party for Michael York. "We are watching from the sidelines," Karen Sulzberger said.
Fair enough. But at some point, some family member may decide to get off the sidelines and take action. A key player to watch on the Times board is Michael Golden, a Sulzberger cousin and the publisher of the International Herald Tribune, now entirely owned by the New York Times.
"Golden," a former Times editor told me, "was passed over as publisher of the Times for Young Arthur, then was sent to Paris to become publisher of the International Herald Tribune right after the Jayson Blair thing, which a lot of people read as a signal that there was now another publisher/CEO in training, just in case."
There are other names being bandied about, including Golden's cousin, Lynn Dolnick, a Ph.D. in molecular biology and associate director at Washington's National Zoo who joined the board this year. And then there are the various accomplished spouses of family members. The last time the board went outside the Ochs-Sulzberger bloodline was in the '60s, when it named as publisher Orvil Dreyfoos, husband of Arthur Hays Sulzberger's daughter Marian (quiz to follow in the morning).
Ever since I started covering the Miller story back in July, the most often repeated phrase I've heard from inside the Times has been, "We're waiting for the other shoe to drop." And with the Miller-as-heroine myth in tatters, another shoe has definitely dropped. Unfortunately for the battle-weary denizens of the Times -- and for the rest of us -- this story appears to have more "other shoes" than Imelda Marcos -- many of them yet to drop. Will one of them have Arthur Sulzberger's name on its heel?