The Chastening of the Times
(The Nation, October 11, 2004)
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On March 9, 2003, a distinguished group of high-ranking politicians and journalists descended on the Bryant Park Hotel to attend a wedding reception for the then-executive editor of the New York Times, Howell Raines. Raines, in a white dinner jacket and black pants, swooned for the paparazzi and introduced his young Polish-born bride to guests who included Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senator Charles Schumer, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Charlie Rose. "I remember thinking, good for you, Howell," Times staffer Warren Hoge later confessed to Vanity Fair. "You're on top of the world, the newspaper's going great, you've married this great woman. If someone had come up and said, 'This man will be deposed in three months,' I'd have given him odds of 10,000 to 1."
But deposed he was. A few weeks later Raines's reputation sank when it was revealed that a wily young reporter named Jayson Blair had shamelessly manufactured and plagiarized details in dozens of news stories he had written for the Times. With media watchers breathing down its neck, the Times panicked and rushed into print a 14,000-word account of Blair's chicanery that took up four full pages of the Sunday edition for May 11, 2003. Three days later, at a tension-filled staff meeting at a rented Times Square movie theater, newsroom employees vented their fury at Raines and his boss, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
By unveiling a thorough chronicle of Blair's deceptions, Raines and Sulzberger had expected to put the affair to rest. The strategy backfired: The Blair scandal expanded in scope and intensity, and developed a cruel momentum of its own. Demands for Raines's scalp began to proliferate in journalistic circles, and on June 4, 2003, he was forced to resign, along with his deputy, Gerald Boyd. It was only the second time in the paper's history that the top editor had failed to complete his term, and Raines suffered the further ignominy of having his demise reported on the front pages of both the New York Daily News and the New York Post. ("OUT!" shrieked the News; "PAPER OF WRECKAGE" bellowed the Post.)
One might have expected Raines to fade away quietly with a Times pension and a comfortable teaching post. But in a radical break with Times tradition and etiquette, he composed an audacious counterattack in the May issue of The Atlantic. "My intention here," he declared at the outset of a lacerating 21,000-word essay titled "My Times," "is to perform a final service for the newspaper that I worked for and loved for twenty-five years, by revealing the real struggle that was going on behind the scenes at the Times as the Blair scandal played out." That struggle, Raines insisted, concerned his attempt to consolidate a "managerial reformation" at a paper that, before he took the helm, was "becoming duller, slower, and more uneven in quality with every passing day," a paper with an internal culture "that requires mass allegiance to the idea that any change...is to be treated as a potential danger."
"My Times" has received cursory attention from a press corps that is entranced, awed and intimidated by the Times. That's lamentable, because Raines has given us what is probably the most revealing X-ray of the paper's inner sanctum since Gay Talese's The Kingdom and the Power in 1969. Former Times executives don't usually speak forthrightly about the institution they served. Consider the case of Arthur Gelb, who rose from copy boy to managing editor in his forty-six-year career on 43rd Street and who, with Timesian restraint, has now chronicled his newsroom adventures in a hefty volume, City Room. Raines, who was once close to Gelb but has since broken with him, eschews that polite approach. Where Gelb is stodgy, Raines is pungent; where Gelb is sentimental, Raines is realistic; where Gelb offers platitudes about the Times, Raines offers wry aphorisms, gallows humor, poison darts and bons mots worthy of Mencken. City Room, despite some winsome anecdotes, comes dangerously close to hagiography. "My Times," by contrast, is the work of a journalistic fugitive with nothing to lose, a man pugnaciously determined to go down swinging.
Who is Howell Raines, and why has he uttered such disagreeable things about the New York Times? Raines was born in 1943 in Birmingham, Alabama, where his father had a successful lumber and woodworking business. In 1961, with the civil rights movement in full bloom, he enrolled at Birmingham-Southern College. In his fine 2002 New Yorker profile of Raines (an expanded version of which appears in his book Backstory), Ken Auletta notes that only two students from the college had the courage to participate in the civil rights protests--and Raines wasn't among them. Raines confessed to The New Yorker that he wasn't "brave enough" to stand up to Bull Connor, and Auletta concludes, "A mixture of shame and a belief that he was witnessing a momentous event sparked his interest in journalism."
In 1967, Raines began graduate work at the University of Alabama's English department and fashioned an identity for himself as a man of letters. (His revealing 1993 memoir, Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis, is filled with references to Yeats, Mark Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, James Mellow, Leslie Fiedler...) But it was newspaper work that paid the bills, and by 1970 Raines had landed a job at the Atlanta Constitution. In 1977 he published two books: My Soul Is Rested, a stirring oral history of the civil rights movement, modeled on the work of Studs Terkel, and Whiskey Man, a novel that the University of Alabama Press has kept in print. In 1978 Raines joined the New York Times and two years later was assigned to cover the Reagan White House. He eventually sought the position of Washington bureau chief but was rebuffed. His consolation prize? A choice between the London and Paris bureaus. R.W. Apple Jr. urged him to pick London, for one very specific reason: "The Sulzberger family," Auletta writes, "passed through London regularly; Raines would get to know everyone who mattered to his career." Raines never quite mastered the art of foreign correspondence: "Senior people at the paper," Auletta notes, "say they cannot remember a single memorable story that Raines did from overseas."
Yet Raines did manage to forge a special relationship with Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who appointed him executive editor in 2001. In his own detailed analysis of the paper's finances and demographics, Raines grew alarmed: The Times's daily circulation was roughly 1.1 million (in a nation of 290 million), far below those of the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and its precious advertising revenue was relatively flat. Raines arrived at a conclusion "which could not be mentioned to my senior editorial colleagues without triggering a heresy trial: our business side had harvested all the growth it could from the paper we were giving it to peddle." Chiefly responsible for that lackluster state of affairs, he felt, were the paper's writers and editors. With the company facing vigorous competition, Raines came to realize that the Times could no longer serve readers "eat-your-peas journalism and insist that they swallow it as a duty of citizenship."
As executive editor, Raines made it his mission to eradicate what he saw as a culture of mediocrity at the Times: "Great work," he writes, "gets the great praise it deserves, but routine work, too, is praised as excellent...and sloppy work is accepted as adequate." In his previous position as editorial page editor, he supervised a relatively small department of several dozen people. In his new post as executive editor, he had to direct a massive newsroom full of "lethargy and complacency," a newsroom that often practiced what he calls "mañana journalism": "Some departments hastily and explicitly school impressionable reporters in shrugging off scoops by other news organizations, with the reassuring but dangerously outmoded Times maxim, 'It's not news until we say it's news.'"
Raines became executive editor shortly before the terror attacks on New York City and Washington, and, in The Atlantic, he goes out of his way to effusively praise the staff's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of 9/11 and the Afghan war. But when the dust from those mega-stories settled, Raines sank into despair and disillusionment. He wanted a newspaper that was smarter, leaner, faster, better written, more sophisticated, more competitive and in sync with a youthful demographic. Instead he found himself at the helm of a publication he himself could barely read. In his droll memoir, The Good Times (1989), Russell Baker, whose wit and intelligence adorned the paper's op-ed page for three decades, averred that the Times was "full of writing that made you think of people playing pianos with boxing gloves on." Raines came to feel the same way. "One of our dirty little in-house secrets," he whispers, "was that even we, who were paid to read it, often couldn't hack the Sunday paper."
Raines was not the first editor to undertake a "managerial reformation" at the New York Times. Turner Catledge, another son of the South, ran the Times newsroom in the 1950s and '60s, and set down his experiences in a 1971 memoir, My Life and The Times, a book that Raines cites as "essential reading for anyone who sought to understand the resistance to change at the paper." Catledge's Times was financially successful and nationally renowned--yet, he wrote, it suffered from "an unnecessary stodginess in the way the news was reported and written." In the late 1940s, when he was assistant managing editor, Catledge would sometimes suggest improvements to his boss, Edwin James, but "his attitude would be, 'Why change? We're doing all right, aren't we?'" Catledge nevertheless persisted in his crusade to enliven and modernize the paper, and to improve its dreary prose. In 1959 he politely suggested to the publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, that the young Gay Talese be given the "About New York" column. Sulzberger said all the right things--"I'd be glad to see some of Talese's work"--but the column was never authorized. In The Kingdom and the Power--still the most outstanding book on the Times, and a dazzling masterpiece in its own right--Talese went inside Catledge's head to record his true feelings about the institution: "For all its size, the Times was a rather delicate and sensitive monstrosity. It had to be petted, cajoled, prodded gently. It was like an elephant...a slow-moving, heavy creature." One finishes Catledge's memoir with the feeling that he coaxed the elephant to move in a straight line, but not to dance.
Raines, in his own attempt to force an elephant to behave like a puma, initiated a number of measures to increase the paper's "competitive metabolism." He wanted his national correspondents to vacate their cubicles and travel more for their stories, and he also attempted to rotate some of them to different regions. These modest goals nearly sparked a putsch: At least one national correspondent was reluctant to leave his posting for personal reasons, and Raines was pilloried by the staff for not being family-friendly. Revisiting the episode, Auletta scolds the Times newsroom for jumping to conclusions about Raines's decision-making: "Although the newsroom is populated by reporters, often facts do not intrude on their opinions." On major stories, Raines wanted the paper to "flood the zone"--to use its massive resources to overwhelm competing newspapers. So the Times ran dozens of stories about the Augusta National Golf Club's refusal to admit women--a genuine Raines crusade that reflected his own passions (sports, the South, equal opportunity) and that brought scorn and mockery to 43rd Street. The decision by Raines to flood the zone with blanket coverage of the Enron scandal was likewise ridiculed by those who thought the Times was becoming too political and crusading.
"Sociology" was a word that tumbled frequently from Raines's lips when he spoke about reforming the paper. On Enron, he had a ready answer for his critics: "It's a story of as much sociological significance potentially as the great populist reaction to the abuses of the Gilded Age." Sociology, he thought, could also help to capture the hearts and minds of younger readers. But instead of take-no-prisoners reporting about, say, access to health insurance and higher education, Raines opted for revamped coverage of style and popular culture: "The serial ups and downs of a Britney Spears," he announces in the Atlantic, "are a sociological and economic phenomenon that is...worthy of serious reporting." The Times's page one Sunday feature on Spears (October 6, 2002) was not serious reporting and not sociology, but piffle.
The staff felt bullied and beleaguered by the executive editor. In his forthcoming account of the Times wars, Hard News, which reads like a hastily assembled prosecutorial brief against Raines, Seth Mnookin notes that denizens of certain cubicles began to refer to their boss as Mullah Omar; what one Raines critic called a "guerrilla war" was in full swing. Raines professes to be a Civil War buff, but he was outmaneuvered in his own backyard: He possessed Catledge's reformist longings, but lacked his instinct for self-preservation: Sometimes, Talese notes, Catledge "would stand outside his office door with a pair of binoculars raised to his eyes, bringing everybody in the vast newsroom into close, sharp focus." Raines didn't have binoculars, or eyes in the back of his head. He needed both. One top editor and Raines critic, Jonathan Landman, later told Vanity Fair, "Howell was bound and determined to establish the notion that the paper was full of lazy slugs and he had to kick their ass. What was happening was a kind of undifferentiated rage at big parts of the paper."
For all its stylishness and bravado, Raines's jeremiad offers an incomplete record of his abbreviated tenure at 43rd Street. He doesn't flood the zone. For one thing, the essay minimizes the extent to which his "managerial reformation" was undone by his own imperious style. In December 2002, top editors spiked two sports columns (by Dave Anderson and Harvey Araton) that dissented from the paper's official stance on the Augusta National Golf Club. The logic in the Araton column, Boyd remarked with classic Times pomposity, "did not meet our standards." (After a hailstorm of criticism, the columns were eventually printed.) One gathers that Raines's handpicked deputy inspired much fear and loathing in the newsroom. The Wall Street Journal, in its own inquiry into Raines's demise, described a high-level meeting at which Douglas Frantz, then the paper's investigations editor, bluntly contradicted one of Boyd's assertions. After the meeting, Boyd, whose persona could be rather menacing, told Frantz: "You shouldn't humiliate the managing editor." (Frantz eventually left the paper.)
"My Times" is weakened by other omissions. A 21,000-word essay of this sort ought to contain the words "Iraq" and "Judith Miller." Much of Miller's shoddiest reporting, after all, took place on Raines's watch, and it displayed, as many critics have pointed out, a credulous reliance on "inside" and "official" sources. (For a hard-hitting survey of the Times's Iraq coverage, with a special emphasis on Miller's transgressions, see Howard Friel and Richard Falk's forthcoming The Record of the Paper.) In a sense, Miller was adhering to a deep tradition at the New York Times, one that has survived Raines's short-lived reformation. It's a tradition that is practically encoded in the paper's DNA. Adolph Ochs, who created the modern New York Times in 1896, despised the muckraking in Joseph Pulitzer's World; he wanted a centrist, impartial, passion-free newspaper for the business class. ("We are not a crusading newspaper," Arthur Hays Sulzberger once lectured the young Arthur Gelb.)
By and large, every one of Och's successors in the publisher's chair has preserved that vision, not least because it was a superb business model: "Ochs had not made a fortune out of the newspaper business," Talese noted dryly, "by offending the mighty, crusading for reforms, espousing the causes of the have-nots against the haves." Still, a journalistic price was paid: The paper's deference to power led to debacles like the Bay of Pigs affair in 1961. (Tad Szulc's story about the impending invasion, which had already been reported in The Nation, was set to run on the front page, but the publisher, Orvil Dryfoos, neutered it; John F. Kennedy himself later reproached the Times for not printing all the relevant facts.)
During the Vietnam era, when dissident winds swept through the journalistic profession, some of the best and brightest talent at the Times publicly contested the Ochsian philosophy of newsgathering. At a 1972 convention sponsored by the vibrant but short-lived journalism review [MORE], Tom Wicker skewered the "official sources" approach, which, he said, fostered a front-page mentality based on a "spurious objectivity," a mentality that "imposes such a deadly sameness on our newspapers." Six years later, in his book On Press, Wicker implored journalists to "take an adversary position toward the most powerful institutions of American life." In a 1973 [MORE] profile of Times éminence grise James Reston, J. Anthony Lukas excoriated his cozy, insider reporting ("Perhaps he was right to trust William Fulbright, Mike Mansfield or John Gardner," Lukas said, but "what of Robert McNamara, William Rogers and Henry Kissinger?"). Later, in his memoir, Russell Baker blasted a hole through "objective" reporting: "No matter how dull, stupid, unfair, vicious or mendacious they might be, the utterances of the great were to be reported deadpan, with nary a hint that the speaker might be a bore, a dunce, a brute, or a habitual liar." (One aphorism from that book ought to be engraved on the wall of every newsroom: "Only a fool expects the authorities to tell him what the news is.")
Despite these and other warnings, the Sulzberger family was always reluctant to depart from core Ochsian principles. Even in the wake of the Judith Miller affair--when the paper published (on page A10) a 1,200-word "From the Editors" note lamenting the shortcomings of its Iraq coverage, a mea culpa partly inspired by Miller's reliance on dubious Iraqi defectors and hard-line Administration operatives--the Times, in too many instances, continues to permit the authorities to define the news concerning terrorism and national security; quotations from named and unnamed Administration "officials" continue to cascade down page one. (Not long ago, the London Independent's Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, quipped that the New York Times ought simply to change its name to "American Officials Say.") If Howell Raines has an intellectual quarrel with the shopworn, deferential, "official sources" model of newspapering, which has been so injurious to American journalism in general and the New York Times in particular, he doesn't say so in The Atlantic.
"He had the drive, moxie and talent to succeed at 43rd Street." That's how one Times editor described the young Jayson Blair. But Blair soon began to unravel under the weight of drug addiction, alcohol abuse and--if one chooses to believe his memoir, Burning Down My Masters' House--mental illness. Blair's behavior was peculiar, and his work frequently had to be corrected in print. On April 1, 2002, one of his supervisors, Jonathan Landman, drafted an internal memo that vanished into bureaucratic limbo. "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the New York Times," he declared. "Right now." The paper's own investigation of the Blair affair--released to the public in July 2003 and known as the Siegal report--shows how Blair continued to receive promotions and salary increases, thanks in large part to the largesse of Gerald Boyd. It was Boyd who chaired the recruiting committee that promoted Blair to "regular full-time staff" reporter; and it was Boyd who, despite Landman's warning, first suggested that Blair be assigned to one of the biggest stories of 2002: the Washington area sniper case.
Raines was shad fishing with John McPhee on the Delaware River the day the Times published its 14,000-word exposé on Blair. "It was a foggy day," he recalls. "As we floated along in a McKenzie River drift boat, bald eagles flushed from the shoreline timber and flapped away downstream. I read the story in sections as the day unfolded, and I knew at that point that I was unlikely to survive." The exposé sidestepped a matter of crucial import for the executive editor: What did he know about Blair's history, and when did he know it? Raines says he knew about Blair's substance abuse (which, he insists, was hardly an unusual problem at the Times), but had never been informed about "Jayson's pattern of playing fast and loose with the facts": The famous Landman memo had never reached his desk. If that's true, Raines's career may have been undone by a single bureaucratic oversight.
Raines returned from his shad-fishing trip a wounded man. The staff was already in revolt against his top-down managerial style, and the guerrillas now had a golden opportunity. In desperation, Raines consulted one of the political shamans on his payroll, William Safire, and half-seriously requested some of the "high-priced survival advice he used to give Nixon." Cancel the upcoming staff meeting at the movie theater, Safire insisted. The storm was moving out to sea, and the meeting would only embolden Raines's detractors. That he didn't heed the columnist--the meeting was a tumultuous "disaster"--is something Raines now regrets.
At that gathering, the publisher assured the staff that Raines's job was secure; but as the weeks passed and the media firestorm raged and the guerrilla war continued, Sulzberger wavered. Raines says he heard from Arthur Gelb that "the cousins"--that is, future stockholders from the Sulzberger family--were edgy: "Gelb said they couldn't abide hearing Jay Leno and David Letterman telling jokes about the Times, and they were worried about the dinner-party chatter they were hearing in Manhattan." (Gelb does not mention that conversation in City Room.) On June 4, 2003, Raines was dismissed by Arthur Sulzberger Jr.; Boyd, too, was taken to the gallows. Declares Raines: "Arthur believed that if I stayed there would be 'too much blood on the floor.'"
The man who penned the Atlantic essay is a man who seems at peace with himself: "I do not miss the daily grind of newspapering or the ephemeral nature of newspaper writing." Perhaps Howell Raines has earned his tranquillity: The student who lacked the courage to march in Birmingham in 1963 eventually mustered the cojones to compose a memorable adieu to the New York Times. And what of his "managerial reformation"? The Siegal report, says Raines, "shows an institution in denial." Its conclusions are a "hymn to the old status quo, drafted by the very people who most strongly resisted the idea of a more vigorous and inclusive way of producing the paper."
The Blair affair ended disastrously for Raines and Boyd, but not for readers of the New York Times. The intense media scrutiny around Blair gave the Times a heavy, unprecedented dose of its own medicine, and the paper did something it had resisted for almost forty years: It hired an ombudsman (and gave him the title of "public editor"). "We are enormously powerful, and we are very scary," Arthur Sulzberger Jr. told the Associated Press in mid-2003. "And we only know that when actually we've been covered. How do we open ourselves up, make ourselves more accessible and make ourselves more accountable? We've got to do it."
And so it was done--but why did it take so long? As Professor Neil Nemeth points out in his monograph News Ombudsmen in North America, the Times itself helped to float the ombudsman idea in the first place: Writing in the Times Magazine in 1967, the great labor reporter A.H. Raskin urged newspapers to create a "Department of Internal Criticism." To its credit, the Washington Post hired an ombudsman in 1970, and has kept one on the payroll ever since. The Times resisted such a move, for reasons outlined by Raines's successor, Bill Keller, in his introduction to the Siegal report: "We worried that it would foster nit-picking and navel-gazing, that it might undermine staff morale and, worst of all, that it would absolve other editors of their responsibility to represent the interests of readers."
This is polite nonsense. The Times resisted an ombudsman because it wanted to preserve its status as "the world's greatest newspaper" by projecting to the planet an aura of invincibility--what Raines calls "the Times's defining myth of effortless superiority." The paper has always had critics; and sometimes those critics took their complaints to the publisher's front door. In 1968, protesters from Columbia University, livid at the paper's coverage of the student strike, gathered outside Punch Sulzberger's Fifth Avenue apartment and chanted: "New York Times--print the truth!" But the Times has always endeavored, with almost complete success, to keep criticism of itself outside its own pages. Practically by definition, the ombudsman's job is to let the criticism in. At gunpoint, the Times hired one in 2003.
He is Daniel Okrent, and he began his career as a book editor at Alfred A. Knopf in the 1960s. He created the magazine New England Monthly, after which he found comfort and security as an executive at Time Inc. He has written a nimble history of Rockefeller Center, Great Fortune; he competes in the annual national crossword championship; and he belongs to a dining club called "The Innard Circle," whose carnivorous members nibble on dishes made of heart, kidney, brains and lung. Last December, in his first column, Okrent introduced himself to readers as a centrist Democrat who would rather spend his "weekends exterminating rats in the tunnels below Penn Station than read a book by either Bill O'Reilly or Michael Moore."
In his biweekly column, Okrent has posed searching questions about a wide range of specific subjects covered in the Times, including the Howard Dean campaign (why, he wondered, did political reporter Jodi Wilgoren aver in print that "Dr. Dean smirked his trademark smirk"?); the Tyco trial (why did the paper print embarrassing personal details about a crucial juror?); the Toledo Blade's series on US war crimes in Vietnam (why did the editors wait nine weeks to report the explosive revelations?); the Tony Hendra sex scandal (why are sordid accusations "fit to print"?); and the Tony Awards (why is the Times's coverage so full of sycophancy?).
On other occasions, Okrent has tackled more ambitious themes: Why do so many Times A-section stories--he suggested 40 percent--contain anonymous sources? Is the Times a "paper of record"--and should it be? Is it a "liberal" newspaper? ("Of course it is," he responded). A number of Okrent columns have contained apologies, half apologies and quarter apologies from Times staffers. (Asked by Okrent why it took so long to report the Toledo Blade revelations, Roger Cohen, who was then the foreign editor, replied that he was "focused on Iraq" and "did not give it the attention it deserved.") For Times staffers, scrutiny of this sort is no doubt humbling; for readers it is refreshing--not least because Okrent goes about his business with wit, elegance, precision and humor. One often disagrees with his judgments (if the paper is so "liberal" why, when John Leonard quit the Times, did Arthur Gelb inform him, "The Times is a centrist institution, and you are not a centrist"?), but he's almost always a pleasure to read.
Perhaps because he's been feasting on so many 43rd Street innards, Okrent, who has directed nearly 5,000 messages and inquiries to the Times staff, has been a target of guerrilla reprisals. In a cheeky self-interview published in February, Okrent wrote: "So tell me, Dan. How are they treating you at The Times? I'm glad you asked. It has been both better and worse than I expected--better because a lot of people here believe that the Times should be as open to examination as those the Times itself examines each day.... What's worse than I expected is the overt hostility from some of those who don't want me here." According to the Wall Street Journal, one Times reporter, David Cay Johnston, convinced that Okrent had slandered a colleague in a private exchange with a reader, urged Times people to gang up on the public editor at a January meeting: "Sometimes," Johnston bragged to the Journal, "you have to treat others like the Russians--you have to demonstrate strength." (Okrent said he faced a "lynch mob.") One Times editor drubbed by Okrent, Suzanne Daley, sneeringly questioned his credentials: "I think he suffers from not being a newspaperman."
"To open a window"--that's how Okrent has modestly defined his undertaking at the New York Times. The window is open, and gusts of fresh air are flowing in. Closing that window won't be easy: Three months into the job, Okrent had already received 11,000 e-mail messages from Times readers, many of whom clearly see a need for a Department of Internal Criticism. Okrent's contract expires in May. In the meantime, the public editor is busy tending to the interests of the public. His columns differ in tone, texture and content, but each one contains a powerful message: New York Times--print the truth.