Is The New York Times about journalism to you? Or is it about the hybrid of PR, advertising, infotainment, pandering hipness, and unfiltered government propaganda that so much of journalism has become?
What does journalism mean to you? To you personally, Arthur, is there something about journalism that is precious and irreplaceable in public life?
Is the Times safeguarding that irreplaceable thing?
Does The New York Times play a special role in America's public life -- and the world's? What is that ideal role in your view? I'd like to know.
In 1971, as you know, the Times defied a presidential threat to stop publishing the Pentagon Papers, secret documents revealing how the U.S. got entangled in Vietnam. It published David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and other Vietnam War reporters despite intense White House pressure to silence them.
How did it happen that The New York Times has morphed from the gutsy, indispensable newspaper of the Pentagon Papers and the war reporting of David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, to the faux journalism of Judy Miller?
Do you understand that Judy Miller's faux journalism was far more serious than Jayson Blair's?
How come the Times reversed its long tradition of independence from government power and published the mendacious propaganda of a White House determined take this country into war? What a sad 180, Arthur.
What an abuse of press power. Do you know what I mean?
A couple of years after I left the Times, Arthur, I visited you in your 10th-floor office on West 43d Street. You had been publisher for a couple of years. You were talking about your vision of the paper and you said, "The Times should be like a box of candies. It should offer readers one of everything. If they don't like the one with almonds, they can try the one with jelly. Whatever a reader wants."
In the half-hour we spent together that day, I never heard you talk about the Times as a public trust, nor of its pages as a public service. Nor did I sense, quite frankly, the seriousness I would expect from a youngish man (then in your early 40's) who had recently taken the reins of the world's most respected newspaper.
Not that you needed, with me or anyone, to walk around stoop-shouldered with concern. But your devil-may-care breeziness was disconcerting. The Times' power is awesome and it would be seemly, at times, to show that you are humbled.
For years after that visit, I've looked for evidence that you'd learned to balance your endearing flippancy with a deeper sense of the Times' public responsibilities. In other words, that you were maturing into your job. I'm still looking.
Even last week, at the Online News Association annual meeting in New York where you gave a speech, you cracked jokes and gave PR-type answers to questions like "Do you believe The New York Times' failure to fire Judy Miller has affected your credibility as a journalistic organization?"
You referred to the "shameful" behavior of the former journalists Stephen Glass, Jack Kelley, and Jayson Blair. But as for Judy Miller, you were at pains to explain that hers was an institutional as well as a personal failure, and that in any case we're "not going to get rid of the system" of confidential sources in Washington, "and that's okay."
What does "without fear or favor" mean to you, Arthur?
The United States feels more fragile to many people now, I think, because the Times showed itself in Judygate to be entirely a creature Washington power -- just another cog in the endless round of lobbying, lying, and leaking.
It seems like we've lost a critical counterweight to government and corporate corruption. It seems the Times just got swallowed up and even the publisher can't see the problem.
Is it your vision of The New York Times, Arthur, that it should stand up to government and corporate power every day on behalf of millions of world citizens who need an independent and courageous press at the very top of global society?
Can the Times represent not only society's elite -- the sources and subjects of most of your daily stories -- but also the millions of people in the middle and lower classes leading ordinary lives?
With Judygate the Times took favors and published out of fear -- of not winning more Pulitzer Prizes, of not capitalizing on its prized access, of not being a player every single day, of losing a few front-page scoops while it worked on the tougher stories to report.
Is The New York Times, for you, Arthur, really about journalism as a public trust and public service? I think that's what you've got to decide.
If you can't, I think the paper is finished as the real New York Times. It might continue as just another player -- possibly a successful player -- in the mass media universe. But what it really means and stands for, will be over.
(Full disclosure: I worked at The New York Times from 1979 to 1989 as a copyboy, metro reporter, culture reporter, and business reporter. )