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Joseph Lelyveld, Former Top Editor of The New York Times, Dies at 86

Mr. Lelyveld retired a week before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and coverage of the biggest story of the new century fell to his successor, Howell Raines, a hard-driving former political reporter and editor of the editorial page. Mr. Raines’s staff won a record seven Pulitzers in 2002, six for its 9/11 work. But a year later, The Times was hit by a scandal that led to an interim encore by Mr. Lelyveld.

In June 2003, after weeks of anguish over disclosures of journalistic fraud and plagiarism by a reporter, Jayson Blair, and the resignations of Mr. Raines as executive editor and Gerald M. Boyd as managing editor, Mr. Lelyveld, at the behest of the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., returned to work to restore calm and credibility to the paper’s damaged reputation until a new leader could be named.

Traumatized by the scandal and exhausted by Mr. Raines’s demands for greater production, the staff largely welcomed the return of Mr. Lelyveld, who professed some reluctance, having embarked on a new career writing books and freelance articles. Six weeks later, Bill Keller, a columnist and former Times correspondent who had been Mr. Lelyveld’s managing editor and his choice as a successor, was named the executive editor.

“Joe ran a superb newsroom, and under him we produced a superb newspaper,” Mr. Sulzberger told Stephen J. Dubner for a 2005 profile of Mr. Lelyveld in New York magazine. “Under him we entered into the digital age, we broke circulation barriers, advertising barriers, won a plethora of awards. It was Joe who assembled the talent that’s now driving the paper forward. He was a damn fine editor.”

Mr. Lelyveld’s reputation as a journalist was secure long before he wrote “Move Your Shadow” (1985). Exploring ordeals and absurdities under South Africa’s apartheid system of racial separation, the book was based on his two reporting tours in Johannesburg, the first in 1965-66, when he was expelled after 11 months by a government displeased with his work, and a second from 1980 to 1983.


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