Press Box

Dead Man Editing

Sooner or later, the beleaguered Howell Raines will take a bullet for his paper.

Committees and ombudsmen might not be enough to save Raines

Had the Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg debacles happened on Joseph Lelyveld’s watch instead of Howell Raines’, would I be writing a column predicting Lelyveld’s imminent departure from the executive editorship of the New York Times?

I doubt it. When Lelyveld ran the paper from 1994 to 2001, he held great political stock in reserve and could call upon it in a time of crisis like the one currently muddying the paper. When the Times overplayed the Wen Ho Lee espionage story in 1999, nobody attributed its errors in judgment to Lelyveld personally, even when the paper published a crow-eating, 1,600-word note from the editors in 2000, admitting that, among other things, its stories had unnecessarily “adopted the sense of alarm that was contained in the official reports.”

Lelyveld’s stock protects him still. Nobody blames him for the Blair and Bragg fiascos, but he’s as culpable as Raines. He hired and promoted both reporters and gave Bragg the idea that regular newsroom rules didn’t apply to him. Bragg suggests as much in his memoir, All Over but the Shoutin’. Lelyveld, then managing editor, stops at Bragg’s desk to discuss his second story for the Times, one that Bragg thought his bosses might reject. Writes Bragg, “I do not remember exactly what [Lelyveld] said, but it was something to the effect of, ‘I know we said we would try to get you some gentle editing, but …’ and my heart froze. ‘But we had to change the comma in your lead.’ ”

But the fists of fury fall upon Raines, and Lelyveld escapes all pillory. Why?

The blows come from two corners—inside the Times and outside the Times. Outside the Times, Lelyveld is barely known and is regarded as a fair and Christly man. Raines, in keeping with his personality, blazed a butcher’s blitz through politics, business, and culture as editor of the Times editorial pages between 1993 and 2001, cornering the market in enemies and ill-will. That few pressmen sympathize with Raines in his time of intense need reflects very poorly on him. If they haven’t been needlessly stung by his snarling ego, most journalists know somebody who has.

Lelyveld’s success at the Times hearkens back to 1962, when he started building constituencies as a copy boy. Later he served as a foreign correspondent, Washington correspondent, foreign editor, and lastly did time as Max Frankel’s managing editor. As a politician, Lelyveld is a benevolent ward heeler. Raines got to the Times relatively late—1978—and never worked inside the 43rd Street newsroom proper until he became executive editor in 2001. Wherever Raines actually ran the show—the editorial page or the Washington bureau—his managerial scale was small. Either by design or accident, he never established much in the way of political capital or a Times constituency—outside of Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.—before becoming editor.

As a politician—and temperamentally—Raines is a dictator. Dictators can be good editors. But when he took over from Lelyveld in 2001, he earned the staff’s immediate enmity by centralizing the operation that Lelyveld had so carefully decentralized, consolidating power in his “troika” with Managing Editor Gerald Boyd and Assistant Managing Editor Andrew Rosenthal. The remaining assistant managing editors and section editors lost their autonomy, becoming short-order cooks who prepared whatever the troika requested. Raines stupidly undercut the “Business” and “Sports” sections by telling them how weak he thought they were.

Raines went on to eviscerate the paper’s investigative unit, ditching stories that take time and patience to mature in favor of “flooding the zone” with coverage every time a 9/11 or Enron or shuttle or war story appeared. Flooding the zone, of course, leaves the paper drained during non-crisis periods.

In remaking the Times, Raines erected a divide in which he pampered his favorites, including Bragg, Patrick E. Tyler, R.W. Apple Jr., Steven Weisman, Elisabeth Bumiller, Alex Kuczynski, Alessandra Stanley, Douglas Jehl, Felicity Barringer, and David Barstow. Of course, every newspaper has a star system, but Times staffers began to complain that not everybody on Raines’ list had gotten there by merit. The same management style drove away at least a dozen (and rising) talented people who preferred hitting the highway to doing it Howell’s way: Stephen Engelberg, Melinda Henneberger, Sam Howe Verhovek, Kevin Sack, Michalene Busico, Dean Baquet, Ilene Rosenzweig, Doug Frantz, Buster Olney, Rick Flaste, Tim Golden, and Rick Marin. [Correction, June 4, 2003: Dean Baquet left the New York Times in 2000, before Howell Raines became executive editor in 2001, so he should not have been listed as one of the journalists who departed after Raines’ ascension.] 

By the time the twin plagues of Blair and Bragg arrived, Raines was so isolated from his own people that the anger heaved on him at the Times employee “town hall” discussion convened for staffers after the Jayson Blair exposé stunned him. Joe Sexton spoke for the paper when he told Raines and Sulzberger, “You guys have lost the confidence of much of the newsroom.”

The accusation that Raines ruled his newspaper by fear and favor gained legs after the paper revealed Bragg’s byline/dateline shenanigans. Times reporters traditionally keep their heads down, do their work, and don’t complain to the press. But suddenly Times staffers started discussing the paper’s woes in Romenesko’s letters page as if they were members of a debate team, and every staff memo penned by Raines found its way to Romenesko within minutes. Press reporters, accustomed to the cold shoulder when phoning Times staffers for inside info, found themselves on a first-name basis with dozens of top writers. Somebody even leaked to the Washington Post’s media reporter, Howard Kurtz, a sensitive internal e-mail between Judith Miller and John Burns that cast aspersions on her reporting. By Times standards, the joint was in complete riot.

Raines introduced a number of palliatives after the town hall meeting.

The Siegal Committee, chaired by institutional memory/internal watchdog Allan M. Siegal, will organize itself into subcommittees and study the doling out of assignments, performance evaluations, apprenticeships, career tracking, the business of accuracy and errors, and ethical issues. In other words, the committee’s job is to shut the barn door after Blair flew out of it. The Siegalians are also likely to recommend the appointment of a Times ombudsman.

Another Raines committee has been commissioned to apportion 20 new slots approved to relieve the allegedly overworked newsroom. And a third, the Communications Working Group, chaired by Assistant Managing Editors Craig Whitney and Andrew Rosenthal, is looking to restore some of the give–and-take communications of Lelyveld era.

In a substantive memo, Raines and Boyd promise to return editorial authority to underlings. Effective immediately, the memo read, they were pushing “authority on news coverage and staff assignments down to the department heads and to work with them in a consultative way on matters of news judgment and deployment of resources.” Raines also began politicking his staff, taking them to dinner, picking their brains, and mending their wounds to mixed results. With his too little, too late strategy, he’s started appearing in some newsroom departments like a kind of squat King Hamlet’s ghost; some staffers awkwardly back away or freeze at his presence. It’s not that the staff is so much hostile as it is befuddled: Who, exactly, is this guy, and what does he want from us?

No dictator or great leader ever creates fact-finding missions, new rules, or ombudsmen unless he’s confident he can control their output. In his haste to right the perceived wrongs at the paper with such novel remedies, Raines may end up diminishing his options and control, ultimately finding himself bound to the deck like Gulliver by procedure and process. Imagining Raines—or any editor of a great newspaper—in bondage is a terrifying thought.

At some point—tomorrow, the next day, or next month—another crisis will visit the Times. If the past month is any guide, the next crisis will surely tar-baby itself to Raines. With no political base from which to operate and no real allies besides those of his inner circle and the publisher, all the new study committees in the world won’t protect the paper’s reputation. Raines will stagger from disaster to emergency, like a political candidate who doesn’t know the campaign is over.

Raines—and Sulzberger—will, sooner or later, realize that it’s not the newspaper that’s wounded. It’s Howell Raines who is wounded, pricked by a thousand lances—from the right wing, which lusts to destroy the paper’s authority; from his staff, which owes him no favors; from the competition, for the obvious reasons. As somebody whose dream-come-true is running the Times, Raines won’t resign the first or 15th time it occurs to him. Depending on his capacity for punishment and the intensity of his staff’s passive-aggressive outbursts, Raines could hold on for months or a couple of years, as the Times suffers. “Never quit. It is the easiest cop-out in the world,” his guru Bear Bryant preached. And truth be told, he’s guilty of no single act that demands his resignation.

Having surrendered his “fear and favor” management tools, how long can Raines lead the newspaper effectively? Imagine the empty joy of running the newspaper holed up like Richard Nixon during the impeachment summer of 1974. Raines might quit next week—like a Roman—to stave off a crisis. Or he might even quit so somebody else can lead the paper back to normalcy where people can do their work instead of attend committee meetings.

But at some point, his boss, who dreams of projecting the Times “brand” around the world, will recognize the injury done to the brand. Arthur Jr. will do as Arthur Sr. did when he maneuvered a similarly head-strong tyrant, A.M. Rosenthal, out the door in 1986. He’ll get rid of the old editor and ask the new editor to make the paper even greater, and he’ll ask him to make the newsroom a happy place again.

[Correction, June 4, 2003: Dean Baquet left the New York Times in 2000, before Howell Raines became executive editor in 2001, so he should not have been listed as one of the journalists who departed after Raines’ ascension.]