Press Box

Joe Lelyveld Must Go!

He’s failed to deliver calm, civility, and normalcy to the New York Times.

Lelyveld: He’s had his chance

Back in his old job as executive editor of the New York Times for four days now and exactly what has Joseph Lelyveld done to restore the newspaper to greatness? Not much, you’ll agree, if you’ve been reading the paper. For example, see on Page One today the laudatory story about a female-only prom in California for Muslim high-school girls, the usual lefty celebration of multiculti America the Times loves to cram down its readers throats. In the Arts pages, a picture of two men kissing. In public. Everywhere you look in the paper you find signs of Howell Raines’ guilty white Southern liberalism and overt agenda-setting in the guise of journalism.

Since his second coming, who has Lelyveld hired? Nobody. Fired? Again, nobody. Transferred to Siberia? You guessed it. What a pushover he is! All the assistant managing editors installed by Howell Raines and his section heads continue about their business as if nothing has happened. It’s Stalinism without Stalin. So far, the three editions of the Times produced by Lelyveld are indistinguishable from the paper Raines edited for 19 months. For this we hounded him from the top job in journalism?

Today’s Times demand a decisive, take-charge guy, not a “free-to-be, you-and-me” hand-holder like Lelyveld who thinks his job is to give the newsroom a therapeutic hour once a week. The first sign that Lelyveld didn’t get it came in the soothing speech he gave to the staff upon his June 6 return. Baseball metaphors, he said, would replace football metaphors in the newsroom. Raines’ idea of a take-charge guy was ‘Bama football hell-beater Bear Bryant. Lelyveld’s is Yankees manager Joe Torre who, given the finest baseball talent money can buy, loves nothing more than to share a good cry with his players about prostate surgery.

Raines displayed good sense in avoiding the snake pit that is the newsroom. Lelyveld, on the other hand, insists on maintaining a pestering presence, glad-handing his writers and editors like a politician running for re-election. He’s no natural at this, taking social awkwardness to a new level. Whenever he talks to staffers, he stands sideways toward them, sneaking furtive looks and avoiding eye contact as best he can. Joe! You’re the most powerful man in journalism again!

If Lelyveld isn’t the dupe I think he is, he’s a miserable peacekeeper who doesn’t appreciate that the rank-and-file insurrection on 43rd Street that destabilized Raines must be put down before it destroys him, too. The rebellious Washington bureau, which stabbed Raines in the back when publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. visited last week on a fact-finding mission, must also be dealt a punishing blow. The malcontents and everybody hired or promoted by Raines must be sent to obits. If the obit desk can’t accommodate them all, put them to work on rewriting “Portraits of Grief“—in longhand, if necessary.

Lelyveld’s greatest weaknesses—aside from his willingness to “listen” and “relate”—is that he’s a lame duck. It’s not his paper and it’s not not his paper. He’s a lot like the current Iraq viceroy, Paul Bremer, powerless to change things but responsible for everything that happens. And if he isn’t Bremer, he’s Michael Jordan, returning to the game when it’s obvious that his knees are shot. Or if not Jordan, he’s Gorbachev, determined to restructure a fundamentally flawed organization and doomed to be swept away in a forthcoming coup.

Perhaps—just perhaps—I misjudge Joseph Lelyveld. Maybe he’s lulling the newsroom into thinking he’s a weakling and they can do whatever they want. Indeed, signs suggest that Lelyveld, 66, may have no intention on giving up his “interim” editorship of the Times while Sulzberger canvasses the journalistic universe for a permanent one. For one thing, Lelyveld has brought back his old secretary. For another, he’s said to have reserved lunch in the Times executive dining room for this coming Thursday and has purchased a monthly parking pass in a nearby garage for his car. Will he barricade himself inside his office and refuse to leave, like former executive editor A.M. Rosenthal did back in the mid-’80s? Was Lelyveld hinting at an extended tenure when he told the newsroom that it must not “look back but to look forward”? He hasn’t denied it. Will Sulzberger dare remove the most uniformly respected person in the newsroom against his will?

Could it be that the upheavals of the last month were no accidents? Consider: Lelyveld played a very big role in the hiring and promoting and stroking of Jayson Blair and Raines’ alleged friend Rick Bragg. Did Lelyveld set the timer on his two controls when he left the paper in 2001? What other explanation do we have for the loudmouth antics of Blair and Bragg after they were caught in their perfidy? If Blair and Bragg had kept their mouths shut out of loyalty to Raines, would the crisis have crescendoed in Raines’ resignation? I doubt it very much.

Putting conspiracy theory aside for a moment, let’s entertain the argument presented by Lelyveld supporters who say four days hasn’t been sufficient time to institute the changes that would rehabilitate the Times. Maybe that was true when news cycles pulsed at a monthly interval and dispatches were delivered by tramp steamer from overseas, but the furious oscillations of today’s news cycle make mockery of such lame excuses. Lelyveld has failed, failed miserably, and must go.


With Lelyveld gone, who should get the gig? E-mail your suggestions to