Press Box

Raines-ing in Andrew Sullivan

Is the Andrew Sullivan heave-ho the marker of more changes to come at the New York Times?

“I’m not whining,” Sullivan says in a phone interview of his banishment from the New York Times Magazine by Times Executive Editor Howell Raines. “It’s not unreasonable or crazy for Raines to do this.”

Exactly why Raines ordered the Times Magazine’seditor, Adam Moss, to boot Sullivan is an uncrackable mystery because the New York Times is less open an institution than the Central Intelligence Agency and because Sullivan, a Times Magazine contributing writer since 1998, declines to be completely forthcoming. (E-mail to Moss requesting an interview on the subject went unanswered.)

Writing in his blog last week, Sullivan reported, “My presence in the Times, I’m told, makes [Raines] ‘uncomfortable,’ and I am off limits for the indefinite future.” Continuing, Sullivan defends Raines’ “editorial prerogative” to sack him but regards it as payback for “the sharpness of some my broadsides” against the Times on Indeed, on any given day, Sullivan reliably rips the Times for pieces it prints (“anti-Bush” articles, for example) or that it doesn’t (the “truth” about Pim Fortuyn). Sullivan’s most strident anti-Times blogging came in January and February, when he campaigned against Paul Krugman, who joined the Times op-ed page in 2000. “I have long found Paul Krugman an insufferably pompous, shrill, Bush-bashing pseudo-populist and so it was particularly galling to see him neck-deep in corporate cash,” Sullivan wrote in late January. (I took a dim view of Sullivan’s war on Krugman in this Slate piece.)

Sullivan says he has an obligation to readers to write what is on his mind, and that it’s almost impossible to blog without discussing the New York Times. But, he adds, the Times should be 1) “excessively open to criticism” and 2) not so threatened by comments in his little blog because it is such a pervasive institution. He also acknowledges that he expected his devilish salvos to eventually raise the ire of Raines, who succeeded Joseph Lelyveld as Times executive editor last September.

Sources surmise that the Sullivan banishment didn’t come out of the blue but evolved out of discussions between Raines and Moss, in which Raines’ aversion to Sullivan’s work ripened into a complete ban. The anti-Krugman eruptions and Times slagging marked Sullivan as a non-team player, but other forces were at play. Sullivan excels at punditry, happily riffing off the news or essaying exuberantly off the top of his head. But when he dons the reporter’s hat, Sullivan’s enthusiasm for a conclusion sometimes outruns the facts at his disposal, whether he’s discussing the science of testosterone (see Judith Shulevitz’s Slate critique) or prematurely diagnosing the end of AIDS (see Jon Cohen’s Slate critique).

You might guess that Raines’ previous job as the Times’ fulminating editorial page editor would make him partial to a fellow member of the commentariat, especially a bomb-thrower like Sullivan. But Raines’ highest passion is for hard news and reportorial detail, which explains the saturation coverage of breaking stories—Enron and the priest scandal—in the Times under his editorship. Raines might very well have already assigned two or three strikes against Sullivan before he even started blogging against the Times.

Raines doesn’t yell and scream like Daily Bugle Editor J. Jonah Jameson, but nobody would ever mistake him for a Montessori school teacher. He’s an old-school, no-nonsense, alpha-monkey journalist, the sort they make movies about. The sacking of Sullivan makes it easy to villainize Raines as the autocratic boss who squashed the Weblogger with his mighty thumb. But what American newspaper—outside of the old Village Voice—would have allowed a contributor to serially and publicly deride it as long as Sullivan did the Times before bouncing him? Most newspapers are preternaturally touchy about criticism. Just two years ago, Washington Post sports editor George Solomon cut loose horse-racing stringer Dave McKenna after he accused Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser of “meanness” and wrote one unflattering sentence about Post luminary Shirley Povich in Washington City Paper. (To its credit, the Post covered the McKenna controversy in its own pages. Such self-coverage is unheard of at the Times, except when the Pulitzer-monopolizing giant flubs a big story like the Wen Ho Lee case.)

One can’t overestimate how seriously Times people like Raines take the newspaper as an institution, worshipping its traditions and its glorious past. In the old days, the magazinewas an integral part of the Times, with the newspaper’s reporters occupying most of its pages. Under that order, Raines won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing with a Times Magazine piece about his relationship with his parents’ housecleaner.

But in his four-year tenure as editor, Moss has separated the magazine from the greater institution, replacing newsroom hands with talented free-lancers. The Sullivan diktat could be a one-off, foreshadowing no additional changes at the financially and editorially successful Times Magazine. A Raines memo to the staff all but guaranteed that Moss, a favorite of Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., was safe in his job. Or the diktat could signify that the independence Lelyveld granted to Sullivan patron Moss—and other top editors—to run their sections as they like has run its course. At this point, it’s all fuzzy Kremlinology.

Less fuzzy are the early, very visible first markers of the Raines era. He’s looking for a new editor and a new direction for the Sunday “Arts & Leisure” section. “Howell wants to take it more in a populist direction, more popular culture,” outgoing A&L editor John Rockwell told the New York Observer. Roger Cohen has taken over the foreign desk, and Raines has recalled many of the paper’s regional correspondents to New York for what some call Rainesian “rebranding.”

Not all correspondents chose to heed the call. Sam Howe Verhovek of the Seattle bureau and Kevin Sack of the Atlanta bureau moved to the Los Angeles Times, where Managing Editor Dean Baquet, a former top New York Times editor, is setting up a shadow version of the New York Times on the West Coast. Baquet has also poached editors Michaline Busico and John Montario from the mother-ship. These defections reverse a natural law that says all journalistic talent flows toward the New York Times, not away from it.

In typical overkill, a recent New York Post headline called the personnel changes “Terror Raines at the Times.” But terror is relative. The heaven that was Joe Lelyveld’s newsroom is as rare as the hell that was Abe Rosenthal’s. Readers should worry less about Howell Raines reshuffling the deck than they do about what sort of newspaper he deals. And, after all, the Raines era won’t last forever. Some Times departees and staffers passed over in the opening months of the Raines regime consider themselves “Prague Exiles” and joke about returning to the paper after the “tanks” leave—i.e., Raines takes his mandatory retirement at 65 in 2008.

(Disclosure: I talked with Adam Moss about a job in 1997 [or was it 1998?], but nothing came of it. I also wrote a piece for Sullivan when he edited the New Republic.)