NEW YORK – In a town hall-style meeting that drew hundreds of staff members, top executives at The New York Times (search) apologized Wednesday for mistakes and oversights that allowed a former reporter to repeatedly fabricate and plagiarize material.
Reporters, editors and photographers crowded into a theater behind the Times' offices for the session, called after the newspaper found that Jayson Blair (search) "committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud" in stories from October through April. The meeting, closed to other media, lasted more than two hours.
"I've received a lot of advice on what to say to you today, all of it well-intended," Executive Editor Howell Raines told the staff, according to a statement issued by the Times.
"The best came from reporters who told me to speak to you from my heart. So the first thing I'm going to tell you is that I'm here to listen to your anger, wherever it's directed. To tell you that I know that our institution has been damaged, that I accept my responsibility for that, and I intend to fix it."
Reporter John Wilford said many questions focused on the breakdown in communication that allowed Blair to remain at the newspaper -- and be given national assignments -- even after he repeatedly made mistakes during an earlier assignment on the paper's metro desk.
"I heard a lot of people ask questions about the desire for better communications [from] the reporters all the way up, instead of just from the top down," Wilford said.
Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd also led the meeting. In their opening remarks, the Times said, "the executives apologized for the mistakes they made and the pain caused by their oversights."
One reporter asked whether Raines intended to resign, according to a participant who spoke on condition of anonymity. Raines responded that he did not plan to leave the Times, and Sulzberger said he would not accept the editor's resignation even if it were submitted.
Some staffers interviewed after the session complained they did not have sufficient time to ask questions, but others noted the newspaper was working to address problems.
"We've got some internal problems we need to take care of, and they're trying to take care of them the best they can," said Mike Wise, a sports writer.
Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said newspaper executives are "reinforcing our open-door invitation for anyone on the staff to come and tell us about concerns."
The Times published a 7,500-word story Sunday that detailed fabrication, plagiarism and factual errors in 36 stories by Blair, most of them written over the last five months. They included articles about the investigation into last fall's sniper attacks.
Blair resigned May 1 after questions were raised about his work. Late Tuesday, he read a statement to the AP in which he said: "I remain truly sorry for my lapses in journalistic integrity. I continue to struggle with recurring issues that have caused me great pain."
He refused to answer any questions.
Federal prosecutors have asked the Times for information about Blair, although neither the newspaper nor the prosecutor's office in Manhattan would describe the information being sought. It was unclear what crimes could have been committed.
The Times had not received a subpoena and had not replied to the request, said another newspaper spokesman, Toby Usnik.
Matthew Fishbein, an assistant U.S. attorney in New York from 1993 to 1997, said a criminal case would be highly unusual in such circumstances.
In this case, Fishbein said, prosecutors could consider charges under mail or wire fraud statutes, which allow cases against defendants who devise a scheme "to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services." He said the charge is most commonly brought against politicians.
Meanwhile, alumni of the University of Maryland's student newspaper, The Diamondback, said they plan to research stories written by Blair when he worked there in the mid-1990s. The university's student-staffed wire service is also reviewing Blair's work, as is the Boston Globe, where Blair was an intern.