Press Box

Howell Raines Owes Me an Apology

The New York Times editor’s sudden conversion to public journalism.

The New YorkTimes has been tremendous since Sept. 11. More war-related stories each day than you can actually read. Analytical and investigative pieces that anticipate what you’d want to know. Even the color in the photos, at least in the edition available in Washington, D.C., has had a weird neon intensity that seems somehow appropriate to the magnitude of these events.

The Times must be bleeding money for this coverage. Next year, when the journalistic prizes are rolled out, the Times will obviously deserve quite a few—not for the endless, high-minded series that newspapers crank out as prize bait in normal years but for its organic response to genuinely important news.

The prize I’m most looking forward to seeing awarded is the James K. Batten Award for Excellence in Civic Journalism, which Howell Raines, the Times’ new executive editor, should receive next spring. The award will have been richly earned—and its announcement will be an even more delicious moment for me than for Raines. Here’s why:

I barely know Howell Raines, but five years ago I found myself in a weird little war with him. I had just published a book about what was wrong with journalism, called Breaking the News. The book said that the news business was becoming too scandal-and-spectacle-minded, that reporters were going bad by turning into talk-show performing bears, that the distinction between “news” and entertainment was disappearing, that television in particular offered an unrealistic picture of life by bouncing from one spectacle to another with no sense of proportion or history. You know, all the obvious complaints—although in fairness to myself, this was before things reached their full, fleurs du mal ripeness thanks to Monica Lewinsky, Gary Condit, Bill O’Reilly plus the whole Fox Cable team, AOL’s conversion of Time Inc. into a “content” provider, and so on.

Thinking that some part of the book should at least sound constructive, I devoted the last chapter to suggestions about how news coverage could improve. Some useful ideas, I said, could be drawn from a reform movement in the newspaper business known as either “public journalism” or “civic journalism.”

The main argument of the public journalism advocates was that reporters and editors should think of themselves as being inside society, affecting through their coverage the way other people thought and behaved, rather than being wholly detached observers from outside. When viewing a society somewhere else in the world, members of the American press accept this point immediately. They know that the existence and quality of information flow will have a huge impact on other aspects of that society—whether people can hold their government accountable, how realistic a picture they have of other cultures, how unified or divided they seem. To use the obvious current example: If the media in Islamic societies never blow the whistle on Islamic extremists or their own corrupt regimes, people in those societies won’t understand why the United States is now “attacking” Afghanistan.

The public journalism crowd was insisting on the same point about America. News was not just another form of “content,” and newspapers and broadcast stations were not just another “profit center” (when profitable). The reason they were protected in the Constitution was that what they did affected everyone else. As I put it in the book: “One of public journalism’s basic claims is that journalists should stop kidding themselves about their ability to remain detached from and objective about public life. … They inescapably change the reality of whatever they are writing by whether and how they choose to write about it.” (Read a bit more here.)

This was hardly a subversive or revolutionary concept, it seemed to me. Indeed, it was one that any journalist grabs onto when convenient. (“How can you deny me the minutes of that meeting? Don’t you care about the People’s Right To Know?”)  It’s also not far from the Times’ own motto, “All the news that’s fit to print.”

Yet for reasons I couldn’t quite explain at the time and are even stranger in retrospect, Howell Raines appointed himself the Public Scourge of Public Journalism. He was then running the Times’ editorial page, and he did me the favor of devoting an entire editorial to the heresies contained in my book. (Favor? Hey, when you’re trying to draw attention to a new book …) One line of this editorial was frequently quoted in later discussion of me and my book—and of Raines himself, when he became the Times’ executive editor (big boss) just before the Sept. 11 attacks. This line said that public journalism’s prescriptions, as advanced by me, represented “an insidious danger, and that is that reporters and editors become public policy missionaries with a puritanical contempt for horse-race politics.”

What was odd about the editorial at the time is that it sounded as if it were written by a dumb guy. Raines is clearly not dumb, but his editorial took the classic Miss Emily Litella stance of first misunderstanding a concept, and then attacking the misinterpreted version. He acted as if he thought public journalists were recommending no political news, no human news, basically no interesting news of any sort, but instead newspapers that were long sermons. Political news is important—I’ve written my share of it. So is human news—and if what’s in the newspapers and magazines is not interesting, no one is going to read it. It’s all a matter of proportions, just like in politics. We know that politicians need some amount of wile and ruthlessness; otherwise they can’t get elected. We know they need something more than that; otherwise they’re just hacks. Balance and proportion are everything—a point that Raines can’t really have misunderstood.

So, why did he bluster on? People at the Times offered various hypotheses to me. Perhaps this was a salvo in an internal battle at the Times, and I just happened to be part of the “collateral damage.” Apparently one or two of his close friends at the paper had been miffed by the book; maybe he was expressing their wrath. Raines was at the time beating steadily on Bill Clinton for (remember this?) his heinous Whitewater offenses. I’d pooh-poohed the significance of the Whitewater “scandal” in some articles. Maybe this was my punishment?

I guess it doesn’t matter, because the one explanation that would be really significant—namely, that Raines profoundly rejected the message of public journalism as I presented it—can’t possibly be true. When journalism schools of the future do their studies of what public journalism means, their shining example will be the New York Times under Howell Raines.

Horse-race politics? It’s in there, as part of the story—the race to succeed Giuliani, Giuliani’s own mistaken effort to stay in control, where and why the Democrats oppose the Bush agenda, the ways in which the crisis will affect elections in 2002 and 2004. But it’s there in its realistic and proper proportion, part of the story, not, as is so often the case, the plot line through which everything else is seen. (“In the wake of mounting criticism of his setbacks in the Congress, Thomas Jefferson today announced the purchase of the Louisiana Territory …”)

Explanation and context? The Times’ special war-news section is jam-packed with it. How skyscrapers are built. What anthrax can do. What Muslims think. How American Muslims are trying to cope. I started pulling clippings of “public journalism” stories from the war-news section, until there just were too many of them—they appear every day. Stories about charity, which while properly skeptical about waste and misrepresentation are obviously sympathetic to the idea of a charitable response. Business stories about hard-pressed merchants and workers, one implied message of which is: Help these people survive, by going out to restaurants again!

And what is the name of this special section? “Bush Under Pressure”? “The Hunt for Bin Laden”? “Winning or Losing the Next War”? “Attack on New York”? “Our Next Quagmire”? Not at all. Howell Raines’ trademark section is called “A Nation Challenged.” If the viziers of the public journalism movement had held a contest to come up with the section’s name, they could not have improved on this. The event involves a nation—not one city, not one president, not a military doctrine. It is a challenge—not a controversy or a test or even a war!

But of course the clinching evidence is the single most unusual aspect of the Times’ coverage: “Portraits of Grief.”This is the full-page section of brief lives of the terror victims, which has run every day since the attacks.

You could explain away everything else the Times has done by calling it “just good old-fashioned journalism.” There is nothing conventional or old-fashioned about “Portraits of Grief.” On straight news value, a newspaper would have covered the deaths the way most papers, including the Times, did initially. Two or three dozen noticeable obituaries for the publicly notable people who died—high-tech executives, financiers, officials from the fire and police departments. The others—waiters, clerks, office assistants—would have been just “others,” as they usually are in the news. (“Payne Stewart, four others, die in airplane crash.”) And the people who did deserve mention would have been treated in normal obituary fashion—with articles of varying length depending on each one’s fame, with emphasis on the public achievements or controversies, and with any failures or criticisms noted as well.

That’s not the approach this time. “Portraits of Grief” is remarkable not just for the ambition to commemorate as many victims as possible but also for the tone of each remembrance. If you wanted to be catty about this—if you were worried about being a “public policy missionary” or having a “puritanical contempt” for normal hard-boiled standards of news—then you might call the series “Lives of the Saints.” You might observe how lucky it was that, of the many thousands of New Yorkers who died in the financial district that day, none were dishonest, pushy, insufferable, physically abusive, deeply depressed, living dual lives, about to be fired, cheating the welfare or tax or immigration systems, or in other ways “newsworthy” by normal standards. Instead these people are shown in their full, civic humanness. The Little League coach, the aspiring singer, the cricket enthusiast from the Caribbean, the loving child caring for a disabled parent, and on with the thousand variations we see in real life, all presented in their most sympathetic form. Three headlines on “Portraits of Grief” in Saturday’s paper: “A Problem-Solver,” “Made Happy by Motherhood,” “Smile at the Finish Line.”

Last month I asked a Times-man about the reason for the tone of the portraits, and he said it was to “give solace to the families.” Conceivably that’s what the Times tells itself—although in itself that’s a departure from past policy on obituaries. But the real significance of this series is clearly to give solace to a community—not simply the community of New York or those who knew the victims personally but the entire national community for which the remembrances have become a powerful sacrament.

Why should a newspaper bother to give solace to anyone? Because it has stopped kidding itself about its ability to remain detached from and objective about public life. It is trying to help its city and its nation, and it is succeeding. The Times of this era will always be known for this coverage, especially for the portraits. They will be the monuments to the greatest public journalist of them all, Howell Raines.

Welcome to the club, Mr. Raines! And don’t worry about that apology.