How the NYT Is Like the FBI

Howell Raines=Robert Mueller; Jill Abramson=Coleen Rowley.

In the months since Sept. 11, the New York Times has fared much better in the court of public opinion than the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Quite deservedly, the Bureau has been excoriated for, among other sins, suppressing evidence that it might have anticipated the September attacks, failing to track down the source of the fatal anthrax mailings, and exerting an inexplicable amount of effort closing down a brothel in New Orleans. The Times, meanwhile, has won seven Pulitzer Prizes. Commenting on the Times’ coverage of the terror war since Sept. 11, Ken Auletta writes in the June 10 New Yorker, “among America’s newspapers, none matched the reach of the Times.”

Nonetheless, as Chatterbox made his way through Auletta’s excellent 22-page profile of Howell Raines, intriguing FBI parallels kept popping up. Like Robert Mueller, Raines moved into the top job one week before Sept. 11. Like Mueller’s FBI, Raines’ Times has been criticized for being arrogant and smug. Like Mueller’s FBI, Raines’ Times has been said to place too much power in the hands of top managers operating out of the home office. Like Mueller’s FBI, Raines’ Times professes to venerate field operatives, but is said to demonstrate little interest in their ideas. Like Mueller’s FBI, Raines’ Times gave apparently shabby treatment to a brilliant and dedicated female veteran. (Washington bureau chief Jill Abramson is reported in the New Yorker piece to have threatened to resign because the boys in New York were bigfooting her; the FBI’s Coleen Rowley wrote a whistle-blowing memo because the boys in Washington were bigfooting her.) And like Mueller, who last week thanked Rowley for writing a memo that called him a liar (“I certainly do not have a monopoly on the right answers”), Raines is pledging to handle the troops with a bit more sensitivity and respect. (“One mistake I made is that I have an intensity and … in my enthusiasm for this work, my passion sometimes comes across as a harshness, or my intensity gets mistaken for an adversarial or aggressive instinct that I don’t have.”) In both instances, it’s too early to tell whether this is more than good PR.

The key question, of course, is whether work output is suffering at the New York Times, as it clearly is at the FBI. Those seven Pulitzer Prizes suggest not. But Chatterbox would argue that a major newspaper that can’t sweep the Pulitzers in a year when a gigantic disaster befalls its hometown is a very poor newspaper indeed. The awards are as much for the disaster as they are for the coverage.

Probably the best thing the New York Times pulled off in the wake of 9/11 was its superb bioterrorism coverage, which Judith Miller had been spearheading well before anthrax turned up in the Hart Senate Office Building. Miller was one of this year’s Pulitzer winners, but not for her bioterrorism stories. The second-best thing the Times pulled off was the columns of Thomas Friedman, who did win a Pulitzer, but who does not, technically, work for Raines. (Though, to be fair, Raines was, in his capacity as editorial page editor, Friedman’s boss prior to Sept. 11.) The Times won an “explanatory” Pulitzer for a series of pieces that weren’t especially explanatory, but that did constitute pretty good national and international coverage of the war. But Stephen Engelberg, arguably the best of the reporters who won the Times that Pulitzer (his third), is leaving to become a managing editor at the Portland Oregonian. This is said in Auletta’s piece to be a “life-style decision,” but Auletta does note that there was tension between Engelberg and Raines last fall.

Two of the Pulitzers were for work that Chatterbox doesn’t remember especially well—some financial pieces by Gretchen Morgenson that weren’t 9/11-related and some overseas features by Barry Bearak. That leaves two Pulitzers for some really magnificent photography (click here and here to see it) and one Pulitzer for public service that is mainly a pat on the back to the Times for running its “Portraits of Grief” series in a special section that Chatterbox would have preferred to have been called “War News,” but instead was given the politically correct title, “A Nation Challenged.” The “Portraits of Grief” may have constituted an innovative way to memorialize those who died in the World Trade Center attack, but they were not, Chatterbox would argue, journalism, any more than the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is journalism.

Now let’s consider the stories the Times got beat on. What principally comes to mind is a series of scoops delivered by Bob Woodward, the lead reporter on a Washington Post team that won a Pulitzer for national reporting. (See, for example, Woodward’s Sept. 28 piece on documents Mohamed Atta left behind on the planning of the 9/11 attack.) Woodward, it should be noted, also embarrassed himself with a fawning multipart tick-tock about the president’s conduct of the war, but overall Woodward’s post-9/11 coverage ranks among the best in his distinguished newspaper career. When the United States deployed special forces into Afghanistan for the first time, the paper that reported it wasn’t the Times but USA Today. When the United States first deployed troops into Central Asia, the paper that reported it wasn’t the Times but the Washington Post. When troops in Afghanistan were found to be hampered by the need to get “target clearance” from the Pentagon, we read about that first in a piece Seymour Hersh wrote for TheNew Yorker. The newspaper that first identified the author of the now-famous Phoenix FBI memo was not the New York Times but the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper that happened on a treasure trove of al-Qaida documents in an abandoned computer was the Wall Street Journal. The publication that first published Coleen Rowley’s now-famous Minnesota FBI memo was Time magazine.

Has the New York Times done a poor job covering 9/11 and its aftermath? It has not. But Chatterbox is hard-pressed to argue that it has done an especially great job covering 9/11 and its aftermath, which is surprising given the undeniable fact that the New York Times is the best newspaper in the world. Might the management difficulties described by Auletta play some role?