Wild overconfidence propelled Howell Raines from reporter to bureau chief to editorial page editor and finally to the top of the heap as New York Times executive editor. But Raines’ high self-regard—call it arrogance if you will—also caused him to overshoot his mark, depositing him in the journalistic exile of his Greenwich Village townhouse.
Not even being sacked by Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. in June 2003 did much to reduce his scrappiness. About a month after his firing, he appeared on Charlie Rose to flash his ego and cuff the Times staff one more time.
“The newspapers that we have produced over the past 20 months are the best in the history of the Times,” Raines boasted on the show—a claim that, if true, wasn’t Raines’ to make. Raines went on to reiterate his now-boilerplate opinion that the Times had “settled into a kind of lethargic culture of complacency” and that he, a “change agent,” had helped rescue it by raising its “creative metabolism.”
When Rose asked Raines about his mistakes, Raines conceded only to having overworked the staff and moved the culture of the Times newsroom “too far too fast.” In other words, his mistakes weren’t journalistic, they were managerial.
Raines remains an unchanged man in Alan Shipnuck’s The Battle for Augusta National: Hootie, Martha, and the Masters of the Universe, a well reported account of activist Martha Burk’s campaign against the men-only Augusta National Golf Club and its Masters tournament in 2002-2003. In a chapter about press coverage, Shipnuck describes how critics in the press and on the Web (Press Box included) took the Times and Raines to task for overplaying the newspaper’s coverage of Burk’s campaign.
Raines thought of “Sports” as one of the Times’ weaker sections, Shipnuck writes, and regarded the Burk controversy as “the perfect story for Sports to shed its parochial traditions.” Raines tells Shipnuck:
My major interest in sports as a journalistic subject runs in a sociological direction. It’s such an important part of American life. It’s such a force in social standards. It’s such a business force. So what I envisioned is a sports section that was more national in scope, and while you record the events in sports, you write about the world of sports in a serious, journalistic way.
While this formula might have stimulated Raines, I wonder if he ever ran it by sports fans, for whom sports sections are supposedly written. With all that sociology and business hogging the ball, how much of the clock did Raines intend to allot to the games themselves? Even a dunderhead knows that fans swelter in summer’s bleachers and bundle in December’s cold out of a love for the contests, not for sociological or business deconstructions.
By mid-November 2002, the Times had flooded the zone with Augusta National coverage that made Raines proud, running almost daily dispatches about the dispute and giving them good placement. The paper even published copy in sections outside of Raines’ control (the editorial and op-ed pages), with one editorial calling on Tiger Woods to boycott the Masters on gender discrimination grounds. On Nov. 17, Shipnuck writes, the paper published almost as much Augusta National coverage as it would during a day in Masters week. The Times’Augusta National obsession, which often strained to equate the men-only golf club with whites-only drinking fountains of the Jim Crow era, crescendoed in “CBS Staying Silent in Debate on Women Joining Augusta,” a Nov. 25, 2002, Page One story, ostensibly about the TV network’s determination to cover the tournament. (For a contemporaneous critique of the story, see this Press Box entry.)
Like many, Shipnuck, a Sports Illustrated staff writer, finds the “CBS” story wanting: “The article was supposed to be a probing think piece, but the story was a muddled amalgam of different themes, regurgitating the broad strokes of the membership controversy, awkwardly working in the results of a Times opinion poll, and laboring to provide insight into CBS’s predicament. … Given how little the article advanced the narrative of the membership controversy, it was a head-scratcher that it wound up on A1.”
Raines tells Shipnuck he personally assigned the CBS story but was out of the office when it was filed, edited, and published. Raines tries to have it both ways about the story now, saying, yes, he would have run it but, no, not on Page One. “I don’t think it was executed as well as it could have been, but I think the concept of the story was dead on,” Raines says.
The blogosphere (kausfiles and AndrewSullivan.com, in particular) and Sridhar Pappu in the New York Observer tortured the Times for its Augusta National overkill. But Raines largely ignored his critics until the New York Daily News’ Paul Colford made the Times the issue by reporting the November spiking of two dissenting columns on the subject by Harvey Araton and Dave Anderson of the Times “Sports” section.
“Yeah, we screwed that up every way possible,” Raines tells Shipnuck of the spikings. Raines says Managing Editor Gerald Boyd killed Araton’s column because he found it unfair to Burk and that he killed Anderson’s because it crossed a Times line by making an explicit reference to the paper’s editorial about Woods boycotting the Masters. Times news and sports columnists aren’t supposed to criticize the paper. Both defenses sound hollow today. The news pages and other sports columnists were transparent in their enthusiasm for Burk’s crusade. So where was the danger in hearing a disparaging word or two about the subject?
As it turns out, there was no danger at all, as Raines soon proved. Raines now believes he “overreacted” to the Anderson column and made a hasty decision. (Was Howell’s metabolism running just a tad too high that day?) “It was easily fixable,” Raines says. “I booted that one. I should have sent it back to the writer for revisions, which is a standard procedure.”
After the Daily News reported the spikes, Gerald Boyd sent out an interoffice memo defending the killing of the columns and the paper’s Augusta National coverage. (The memo was immediately leaked to Romenesko: Scroll down to read it here). “At any rate, we hope no member of our staff really needs this assurance that our news columns enforce no ‘party line,’ ” wrote Boyd.
Boyd’s memo only enforced the party line that dictates that nobody at the Times should ever dispute the Times’editorial line, and it exacerbated the criticism of the Times. (See these kausfiles columns for evidence.)
A few days after the Boyd memo, Raines relented by publishing versions of both killed columns. Jim McCarthy, Augusta National’s aggressive PR maven, claims with some justification that Times coverage of the dispute “flat-lined” after the column dust-up. Raines’ great sports-sociology experiment was over.
The Times’ handling of its Augusta National coverage—”errors in judgment, breakdowns in the chain of command, scathing public criticism, internal turmoil, self-flagellation”—presaged the way the paper would handle the Jayson Blair episodes, writes Shipnuck. It also educated the newsroom on how to effectively punish Raines for his autocratic ways. The killing of the Augusta National columns was “still in the minds of people when Jayson Blair came down,” Pappu tells Shipnuck, and the “Augusta National debacle created momentum, where this backlash was building up and building up, and with Blair it just exploded”—an explosion that took out Raines and Boyd.
Shipnuck finds Raines still “unrepentant” about the Augusta National coverage and records him defending the decision to submit the package for a Pulitzer. “You’ve got to go with your strongest work,” Raines says. And proving that he’s learned precious little from the Augusta National, Blair, and Bragg hooplas, Raines exits The Battle for Augusta National picking the scab he probed so publicly on Charlie Rose:
I think a lot of people didn’t understand the importance of the story, sociologically. … I went into this job as a change agent. … Reactionaries on the staff plus the complacent folks who just didn’t like my style seized on the Blair episode as an opportunity to stop progress. … Sports journalism as it is practiced by newspapers has a long way to go.
It’s comforting to know that the XXL-size white Panama hat that Raines so famously wore before his many trials still fits.
Disclosure: Shipnuck writes some nice things about my Augusta National “Press Box” column. Send all your mulligans to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)