Press Box

Howell’s End

And then, like quicksilver, the New York Times editor who vowed to stay was gone.

Until a couple of weeks ago, the New York Times was the closest thing left to the Soviet-era Kremlin—or the Corleone family. Whatever politicking or bloodletting that went on inside the 43rd Street compound stayed inside. But New York Times staffers kept mum not so much out of fear of reprisals as out of respect for the institution. As the Don told Sonny, “Never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking. …”

The Times omertà started evaporating shortly after Howell Raines became executive editor in September 2001, and by the time he and his managing editor, Gerald Boyd, resigned today, it had completely boiled away. Times staffers who ordinarily would not return calls from the press to talk about the Times reached out to initiate contact. Some shot sensitive internal memos into the Internet ether, where they stuck for all the world to see on the Romeneskomedia Web site. Reporters Jennifer Steinhauer, David Firestone, and Alex Berenson used Romenesko’s letters pagelike a Democracy Wall, sending their beefs about the Rick Bragg issue over their bosses heads to colleagues at other publications and the public at large.

By the time Romenesko posted Adam Clymer’s Times-only memo urging his fellow reporters to “stop feeding this destructive monster” with their letters and leaks, the newsroom resembledthe gladiator uprising scene in Spartacus, with Times reporters swinging maces and clubs on their way to Raines’ office. Such was the rage that when Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. visited the paper’s Washington bureau on Tuesday of this week, he got an earful of hostility from his employees, who no longer worried about the consequence of dissing the publisher to his face. With so many people speaking out, reprisals were no longer to be feared.

I foolishly predicted here two days ago that Raines could last months or even two years when his hold on power could have been measured in hours. But the fall came even more quickly than the bloodthirsty Raines-haters expected. As recently as Tuesday evening, Joseph Lelyveld, former Times executive editor, was spotted at a social engagement and gave no signs of knowing he was about to return to the top. Yesterday, Raines was hunkered down like Bear Bryant in the fourth quarter, down by six points, commanding his section editors with future plans. From the wording of the Times corporate press release, one can assume Raines and Boyd were forced out abruptly by Sulzberger, who decided that the hamstrung Raines could no longer lead the paper. “This is not a decision to fire Howell or Gerald,” Sulzberger spun the dismissal in the Wall Street Journal. “They made a very painful decision and they did it because they felt this action would help the New York Times get past where it has been, and now it is our job to live up to their sacrifices.” The alternate speculation is that another shoe was about to drop in the much-anticipated Journal feature by Matthew Rose, or perhaps that the paper’s in-house sleuthing had uncovered another Blair or Bragg.

That Raines didn’t see his support from below and above evaporating like dry ice thoroughly contradicts his boast of having a political reporter’s DNA. He probably didn’t see his demise coming until Sulzberger’s downcast eyes telegraphed it to him. In many ways, the Raines rise and fall echoes that of former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. After gaffing about the glories of Dixiecrat ideology, Lott turned to his Senate colleagues and the president for support. Hostility and silence from these people, who Lott considered allies, spelled his end. The political lesson here, of course, is that you don’t own power, you only borrow it, and you must stay on good terms with your creditors.

Why wasn’t this support there when he needed it to call upon? Dr. Raines delivered a kind of shock treatment to which the patient, the newspaper, did not respond favorably. Upon taking over the paper from Lelyveld, Raines told reporters and editors in so many words that the paper was crap and needed a complete makeover. Staffers complain of coming out of meetings with Raines feeling beaten and depressed rather than energized. His rah-rah memos to the staff, exhorting them to higher greatness, fell flat on the page. He kept to himself and to the power troika he formed with Boyd and Assistant Managing Editor Andrew Rosenthal. He scotched Lelyveld’s method of letting stories bubble up from the bureaus with dictates from New York about what bureaus should be covering. In the hands of another editor, a command-and-control system might have inspired the newspaper. But at the Times, where everybody is a class valedictorian or expects to be treated like one, the savvy thing for the new editor to do is to come in and proclaim the paper is fabulous and that we will lead it to greater fabulosity. Also, making the troops think your idea is their idea doesn’t hurt either. But such people skills aren’t in Raines’ DNA, either.

Raines failed to read his own newsroom, which extended to him almost zero loyalty by the time the Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg episodes arrived. Both were huge embarrassments for the Times, but not hanging offenses for the editor. It was Raines’ poor handling of these twin crises—failing to accept much in the way of personal responsibility for Blair’s fraud and soft-pedaling the dateline toe-touch of his good friend Bragg—that catalyzed his many enemies inside the paper. “I gave them a sword and they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish,” as Richard Nixon put it.

Who will run the Times after the second coming of Lelyveld? The Times, like the Corleone family, always hires the executive editor from within. For the sake of the newspaper, Sulzberger needs to make his decision quickly so the paper can return to a semblance of calm. In letting Raines and Boyd go, he acknowledges his mistake of picking as editor somebody the newsroom could not work for. Calling in the first runner-up in the executive editor sweepstakes, Bill Keller, would require Sulzberger to admit that he was wrong about Raines and he was wrong not to pick Keller, an excellent news guy, in the first place. On the other hand, Sulzberger might rationalize the reversal by reminding his staff that part of the theory of picking Raines was that Keller, age 54, would still be young enough for a stint in the editor’s chair when Raines reached mandatory retirement age in five years.

My outside pick would be Dean Baquet. At the Los Angeles Times, where he’s managing editor, Baquet oversees a sort of New York Times-in-exile with former NY Timesmen Sam Howe Verhovek, Kevin Sack, Douglas Frantz, and others from the Times working for him. Universally respected at 43rd Street, Baquet could “make the newsroom” happy again, which is what Arthur Sulzberger Sr. asked of Max Frankel in 1986 when Frankel replaced A.M. Rosenthal. And, more important, he could produce a good newspaper, which is what readers should be more interested in. The knock against Baquet is that he’s “too young.” The Times appoints editors who tend only to leave at the mandatory retirement age of 65. At 46, Baquet could conceivably be editor still in the year 2022, and that’s not good for the Times, which has benefited by having three editors since 1986. When A.M. Rosenthal ran the paper for 18 years, he came to think he owned it and stifled creativity like a madman.

The realistic front-runner is Keller, currently a Times op-ed columnist writer and Sunday magazine writer. Other names bandied about include Boston Globe Executive Editor Marty Baron; Washington Bureau Chief Jill Abramson; Jonathan “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times.Right now.” Landman, current metropolitan editor; Editorial Page Editor Gail Collins.

Raines’$2 19-month tenure as executive editor oddly parallels that of the 13 months James “Scotty” Reston spent running the New York Times. Reston, the paper’s legendary Washington bureau chief and columnist came to the job, like Raines, with little idea or appreciation of how the New York newsroom worked. And like Raines, he sought almost from the beginning to create two tiers of reporters. According to John F. Stacks’ Reston biography, Scotty, Reston wanted to create an “elite corps of correspondents” to cover the big stories who would “parachute into stories anywhere in the world where their particular talents and expertise could raise the quality of the coverage.” They’d get better pay, longer leaves to write books, and even rate their own offices and assistants.

Second-in-command A.M. Rosenthal scuttled Reston’s plan to create a first-class newsroom peopled with Reston’s favorites alongside a bullpen of reporters riding steerage. No Rainesian-style journalistic calamity visited Reston, but like Raines he never fully engaged the journalists working for him. When he realized he wasn’t making a difference at the Times, he returned to Washington and his column and Rosenthal assumed command.

What did Raines accomplish as executive editor? Like Reston, Raines didn’t stay long enough to make a solid mark, but today the negatives surely swamp the positives. He and his newspaper fought two wars with mixed results, and he led the paper’s saturation coverage of 9/11, which wasn’t so much his initiative as a product of the paper’s meta-brain. None of his hires has had time to make a difference, either, and many of them face ouster when the new guy arrives.

The morale Raines damaged will self-repair. But he will have to live with the sad fact that he made his beloved newspaper the punchline of a thousand cruel jokes. He left the paper in worse condition than he found it and positioned his successor to reap the glory that he dreamed was his.


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