Lifting the veil
Future Sacramento Bee ombudsman Tony Marcano talks about his final days at a troubled New York Times
The Sacramento Bee recently reported that Sanders LaMont will be retiring from his post next month as ombudsman, the columnist who handles reader complaints. But what’s more interesting to the media-savvy is that he’s being replaced by an assistant metro editor from The New York Times named Tony Marcano. If you haven’t heard Marcano’s name before, you’re probably not as obsessed as many journalists are with the story of Jayson Blair, the former Times reporter who plagiarized, fabricated and otherwise diddled with the facts on some of the most important stories of the year in the pages of one of the most important papers in the world.
In a New York Observer article, Marcano referred to himself as “a casual friend” of Blair’s and said he’d often seen the young reporter drunk in a bar near the Times’ office. In a phone interview from New York, Marcano said that leaving his post in the wake of Blair’s resignation would lead some to question his timing.
“People might think that I’m fleeing,” said Marcano, who’s been with the Times for eight years. But Marcano’s decision to leave preceded Blair’s spectacular downfall, and Marcano claimed to be as surprised as anyone was when news of Blair’s transgressions broke. He was visiting Sacramento at the time.
“I wasn’t aware of it,” he said, “until the whole world was.”
Marcano said he never received any hint from Blair that the young journalist was falsifying reports and pulling details from other newspapers. Blair had made reference to various “personal problems” but apparently had gotten them under control, avoiding the bar for weeks at a time and nursing glasses of cranberry juice or water when he did show up. He could be erratic, said Marcano, but the editor had seen a lot of erratic reporters in his time. And though the pressure of being a reporter at the Times could overwhelm a journalist, especially when the staff was whittled thin by breaking stories like the war in Iraq and the terrorism attacks of 9/11, Marcano believed that ultimately, the pressures Blair placed on himself in his personal life are what caused his fall.
Marcano, who kept covering the news of the city with a trimmed staff while large teams of reporters traveled to Iraq or were pulled away to cover the tragedy of 9/11, also worked under great pressure, but he rejects the idea that such pressures drove him away. His choice to abandon such a powerful, high-profile paper for The Sacramento Bee “does raise a lot of questions,” he admitted, and so, his job as an ombudsman has, in effect, already begun. He is already acting as a liaison and an advocate between those who write the news and those who read it.
In the article in The Sacramento Bee that announced his coming, Marcano said that as an ombudsman, he wanted to “lift the veil that pervades the business and shed a little light on how we do things.”
From New York, Marcano said that there was no ombudsman’s post available at the Times, so he had to leave if he wanted to write about the issues that interest him. An ombudsman’s post will allow him to share how reporters and editors make the decisions they do and how stories are chosen. It also will give him a forum for examining why people have lost faith in the press.
“People don’t know how we operate,” he said, suggesting that readers actually envision little meetings of liberals all trying to dream up ways to make life worse for conservatives.
“It doesn’t jive with reality,” he said.
The Blair affair has eroded trust in the media further, and Marcano is watching as those at the Times try to deal with the backlash.
There’s no mass exodus, Marcano said, but people at the Times are preoccupied with the story. Every day, he said, there’s something else in some publication, and the staff reads it and reflects on it—maybe even gets angry. Staff members’ anger, he said, is addressed at everyone. Some blame Blair the most; others blame the managers who ignored the warnings and kept promoting Blair to higher positions.
“It’s almost like having a death in the family,” said Marcano. In spite of their grief and their anger, the Times’ staff still has to get a paper out every day. Soon, it will have to do that without Marcano.
Marcano will join the Bee on June 16 and spend a week working with LaMont before the current ombudsman retreats to a life of sailing and writing books and enjoying his grandchildren.
“I have a family-history project in the works,” LaMont said, “and I’ve toyed with the idea of fiction.”
LaMont spent about five years as the ombudsman, he said, and he understands why the post would have attracted an editor, even one from the Times. “No meetings to go to,” he said. “Meetings are the bane of an editor’s life.”
Marcano said that one of the main draws was the prospect of writing again and doing it as part of a smaller, more intimate staff.
“My entire career, I’ve worked for enormous papers,” he said. “Everyone here is shouting to be heard above the background.”
But even with a high-profile ombudsman’s column, Marcano knows he’ll have to answer to some readers who will assume that he left the Times either because he had some more-than-casual relationship with Blair or because the shake-up convinced him to go. The fact that Blair is black has raised questions about whether or not he received preferential treatment, and Marcano, as a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, may even have his own credentials questioned. Though Marcano has been a journalist for 20 years and has worked not only at The New York Times but also at the Los Angeles Times and the New York Daily News, he is resigned to the fact that he’ll be fielding irritating questions about his own qualifications for a while. In the wake of the Blair story, Marcano admits that it’s important to do so.
“I’ll have to address some doubts among readers and in the newsroom,” he said, claiming that some readers will inevitably question whether he’s “qualified and competent enough” to be their representative.
Though Blair may be an anomaly among black journalists, and though he apparently was talented, aggressive and sharp, racial preference and diversity in the newsroom and affirmative action all are taking a hit because of his transgressions.
As soon as people realized that it was a black journalist who fouled up, said Marcano, race immediately became a part of the discussion.
“That’s the way race is in America,” he said.
This thought was echoed in a letter regarding Blair subsequently written by Neil Henry, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, to his black students: “This human being was very young, and he happened to be black. Sadly, it’s the last fact that some whites will find the most telling. … They will conveniently ignore the far more important and stirring reality that legions of African-American journalists around the nation—hired through similar diversity policies—are performing at the top of their game.” Henry went on to mention a white journalist who also was caught fabricating facts: “Stephen Glass was fired after it was revealed that he systematically plagiarized and fabricated his work. As I recall, no one decried the diversity culture in which he was hired, nor cast suspicious remarks about the credibility of coddled, young white journalists.”
What’s unclear is how much of a part race actually played in Blair’s story. According to The New York Times, Executive Editor Howell Raines told his staff in a meeting on May 14 that he, as a white man from Alabama, did give Blair one too many chances. Howell’s statement probably was meant to be a confession, an acceptance of blame, but it brought race openly into the discussion of how and why Blair was given so much responsibility in a newsroom position coveted by reporters with much more experience and wisdom. It has led journalists like Marcano to believe their own careers might be affected.
In Marcano’s case, race may have played some part in his own hiring at The New York Times; he was picked from a pool of minority journalists at the Unity Conference. But newsrooms traditionally have failed to mirror the ethnic and cultural distinctions of their readers, and many news outlets have made it a goal to increase diversity. The Times, said Marcano, has a mandate from the publisher to create a diversified news staff, and his hire would have contributed. As an experienced journalist, however, he had no reason to believe that race was a major factor.
“They wouldn’t have hired me just to have a brown face in a certain position,” he said, adding that he objects thoroughly to policies like that.
New York is an incredibly diverse city, said Marcano, and the paper was in favor of “getting qualified people from all backgrounds, ethnicities, nationalities. … It’s just plain old good journalism to have different perspectives.”
Though Marcano and his peers feel that their successful careers are the result of hard work and talent, the question of race and racial preference, at least for a while, may force newspapers like the Times into, as Marcano described it, a re-evaluation of how minorities are recruited and promoted.
Once the ombudsman’s column is published next to Marcano’s photo in the Bee, Marcano expects that the question that follows Blair will follow him, as though passed through casual contact: “Is he an affirmative-action hire?” As an ombudsman, Marcano will have the power to tackle such questions head on.