Press Box

Vain Raines

Seth Mnookin chronicles the Timesman’s tragicomic undoing.

If New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines hadn’t insisted on covering the Augusta National Golf Club’s lack of female members as if it were a human rights violation … if Jayson Blair hadn’t lied, plagiarized, and fabricated his way to infamy … if Rick Bragg hadn’t sent his “intern” to Apalachicola, Fla., to do his first-person reporting for him … if these mini-calamities that make up the three acts of Seth Mnookin’s Times tragedy, Hard News, had never happened, would Raines still be running the Times?

I describe the Augusta, Blair, and Bragg episodes as mini-calamities because as I read Mnookin’s detailed account of Raines’ reign, I was struck once more by the fact that none of the episodes really constitutes a firing offense. Juicing the Augusta story was dumb, as was Managing Editor Gerald Boyd’s spiking of two dissenting sports columns about the controversy—but still not that big a deal. Yes, somebody should have prevented Blair’s fraud, but I wouldn’t want to make the case that Raines should have been the cop on that beat. And yes, egomaniac Raines allowed good buddy and fellow egomaniac Bragg to play by his own journalistic rules, but what editor doesn’t plays favorites in the newsroom? If Bragg had been a good soldier and taken his suspension in silence, the whole thing would have blown over in a week.

Compare Raines’ mini-calamities with the genuine crises that his predecessors Joseph Lelyveld and Max Frankel faced down without loss of position or status. In 1991, under Frankel, the Times published the name of the woman who had accused William Kennedy Smith of rape. Some 100 Times staffers signed a petition of protest about the newspaper’s coverage, and Frankel called a staff meeting, which filled a large auditorium at the paper.

Although fractious, that session didn’t devolve into the near riot that ensued when hundreds of staffers attended a meeting called by Raines in May 2003 to talk about Blair. As Mnookin tells it, the session had an “us-versus-them atmosphere” with many employees spewing their resentment at Raines, Boyd, and Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., who were all sitting on the stage. Times veteran Jack Rosenthal tells Mnookin that after one employee asked Raines if he would resign, the “room exploded with applause.” The rebellion reads like a lost chapter from The Caine Mutiny, and it serves as a reminder to managers everywhere—never hold a meeting unless you can determine the outcome in advance.

Lelyveld suffered his professional embarrassment in 2000 when the Times had to climb down from its Wen Ho Lee coverage, publishing a lengthy explanation of its shortcomings and a two-part (one and two) investigative follow-up. But both Frankel and Lelyveld maintained their reputations and their jobs because, unlike Raines, they had stores of personal capital upon which to draw when trouble arrived.

Every dictator requires the consent of the subjugated to govern, an iron law that Raines ignored during his 21-month editorship. Raines alienated too many of his Times colleagues to remain effective. Even if Raines had held on after the Augusta, Blair, and Bragg stink bombs, critics still would have forced him to square the difference between his paper’s prewar coverage of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction with the facts uncovered on the ground. These shortcomings truly matter and can be laid directly at Raines’ doorstep. He wasn’t the first Times executive editor to indulge petulant WMD reporter Judith Miller, but he’s the only one to have given her a license to ill. When the Times finally acknowledged the deficiencies of its WMD reporting in a May 2004 note from the editors, it published a Web page that sampled some of its problematic stories: Of the 28 listed, at least nine had a Miller byline or co-byline. Luckily for Raines, he was long gone by the time of the WMD reckoning, and this allowed the paper to paint the failure as institutional instead of personal.

The pitchfork-and-torch mob from the Times newsroom got the right man but busted him for being a jerk when his real crime was tampering with the news. Douglas Frantz, the much-respected investigative reporter who left the Times after rumbling with the Raines administration, issues this indictment of his former boss in e-mail to Mnookin:

My sense was that Howell Raines was eager to have articles that supported the war-mongering out of Washington. … He discouraged pieces that were at odds with the administration’s position on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and alleged links of Al Qaeda. Because of that, Judy Miller’s reporting was encouraged by other senior editors at the paper, sometimes over the objections of other editors.

If this sort of anti-Raines dish is your idea of a meal, Mnookin serves a banquet. Here’s a ladleful:

Former metro editor Jon Landman tells Mnookin how Raines and Boyd “were killing stories by first-class people.” … Jill Abramson, then-Washington bureau chief and now the paper’s managing editor, is asked by Publisher Sulzberger what would make her happy. “It would take removing the sole of Howell Raines’s shoe off my ass.” … Responding to Raines’ claim that he raised the competitive metabolism of the Times, columnist Clyde Haberman says, “Howell seemed to think that if the September 11 attacks had occurred one week earlier”—before Raines replaced Lelyveld—”we’d all have been sitting at our desks with our thumbs up our asses.” … When complaints about Raines’ autocratic ways reached Sulzberger, he laughed them off and quipped, “I’m hearing Abe’s back!”—Abe being A.M. Rosenthal, the human Vesuvius who terrorized his staff toward the end of his 17 years as top Times editor. … In May 2003, as power was slipping from Raines’ hands, Sulzberger arranged an “intervention” during which the members of the masthead confronted the executive editor with his managerial inadequacies. When the comments caused Raines to bolt from the room, Sulzberger coaxed him back in with a mother’s love: “Howell, Howell, come back here. … Nobody hates you. We all really value you. But I think a lot of people are angry at you right now.”

Hard News’ subhead, The Scandals at the New York Times and the Future of American Media, makes it sound like a dreary book co-sponsored by the Ethics Department of the Poynter Institute and the busy-bodies at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Don’t hold this ponderous subhead against it—Hard News unfolds with the efficiency of a police procedural. This strength sometimes becomes weakness as Mnookin skims the surface instead of taking deeper soundings in his story about a man who battled his way to the top only to commit professional suicide.

Bill Powers calls Hard News an unintentional tragicomedy in his New Yorkmagazine review, an apt description. A month after Sulzberger shoved him out of the Times, Raines made a fool of himself by requesting a slot on The Charlie Rose Showso he could put a crimp in Bill Keller’s impending appointment to his old job. Raines portrayed himself and his team as the journalistic vanguard struggling against the accepted mediocrity of the newsroom. He convinced nobody. Proof that the TV comments weren’t just his reptilian core speaking out of turn, Raines expanded his boast into a lengthy feature in the May 2004 Atlantic.

Don’t come back, Howell. We don’t really value you. And a lot of people are still very, very angry with you.