Press Box

Howell Raines, Press Critic

A very fishy memoir.

Howell Raines

How wretched a newspaper was the New York Times when Howell Raines assumed the executive editor job in September 2001?

In his new memoir, The One That Got Away, which combines fish stories with newspaper recollection, he claims that the Times had been stinking up the joint since March 13, 1978. That’s the first full day he spent in the Times newsroom, when he noticed its “habit of cruising through critical intersections on automatic pilot.” 

The Times was a “newspaper that liked to wear its dullness like a merit badge” doing “much of its journalism by the numbers.” On some stories it revealed itself to be a “churning urn of underachievement.” It possessed a “collective, institutional willingness to stand around and get scooped.” It was “dull but worthy … slow, tedious and self-important.” Its “stolid pace” frustrated him; it was “selling an ossified product over and over again to the same people.”

Establishing himself as the Sen. Joseph McCarthy of press criticism, Raines names no underperforming reporters or dimwitted editors in his sweeping critique of the Times. He cites no specific dull, tedious, or ossified coverage in the underperforming paper. He scalds “brainless bloggers,” too, but doesn’t name any. He only gets specific about the various species of fish he’s stalked, tortured, slaughtered, and eaten on four continents and a few oceans: salmon, sailfish, snapper, bonefish, marlin, crappies, sunfish, striped bass, bluegill, pickerel, walleye, catfish, carp, shad, and brook, brown, and rainbow trout, among others.

Raines blames “militant traditionalists” and “lifers” inside the Times—also unnamed—for preventing the paper from achieving its potential: They “didn’t want to see the old hulk change its heading by so much as a single degree.” A “heretic minority” of “subversives,” of whom Raines is the only one named, opposed the lifers and were “salted away on all the [Times] building’s fifteen floors, a kind of secret society.” 

I haven’t observed this kind of self-service up close since the last time I pumped my own gas.

Raines is right to describe the Times of 1978 as full of itself. No broadsheet had competed with it on its home turf since the Herald Tribune had collapsed a decade before, and no Spy magazine had emerged to lampoon the bullying swagger of its Politburo, which by then included Raines. Under the leadership of Raines’ immediate predecessors Max Frankel and Joseph Lelyveld, and facing growing competitive pressure as it became more of a national publication, the Times would become much more lively and aggressive. But Raines won’t acknowledge these changes, because to do so would undermine his self-portrait as Times savior. Saving the Times required “courtship”—his word, not mine—of Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., who was scheduled to pick a new executive editor for the paper in 2001. “What I had to make Arthur see was that the Times was like a eutrophic lake,” he writes. That’s Rainespeak for starved of oxygen, filling with silt, and degenerating into a wetland. 

Although Raines compares the Times to a stagnant pond, he also finds it “the best newspaper in the country without really trying.” His desire was to close the “big gap between being a great newspaper and simply being the best in comparison with competing rags.” And he had a plan to reverse the Times’ sclerosis, or at least he claims to have had a plan. As with his reluctance to name the foes of excellence at the Times, he never charts his “vision”—his word, not mine—for the big muddy on West 43rd Street.

The Daily Howell would be “more vibrant and more stimulating intellectually” than the regular Times as it pursued the “quality-information audience.” He writes,

We would move from being a national to being an international news organization, riding the formidable, if time-limited revenues from printed papers in the United States and Europe to spread across broadcast, cable and digital “platforms” for the delivery of news and quality information.

He would leverage the “talented tenth” at the Times to lift the whole paper. “Then you would have a paper with the Times’ traditional steadiness, but it would also have the intellectual depth, vivacity, cultural acuity, wit and analytical assertiveness of its smartest journalists and its smartest readers.”

That’s a plan? If Sulzberger awarded Raines the executive editorship on the strength of this fish story, he’s a dunce.

Every paper can benefit from a shake-up from time to time, even the paper Raines inherited from Lelyveld. But the shallow paper Raines describes is a hallucination. The Times had just come off a very long news march—the Clinton impeachment followed by the Florida recount—as Raines prepared himself for the cockpit. Then, the dull and ossified and somewhat fatigued team that Lelyveld assembled distinguished itself by winning seven Pulitzer Prizes for its 9/11 coverage under Raines’ leadership. The prizes really belong to the institution and the individuals: As many Pulitzers would have been won if Sulzberger had elevated a hamster.

How did Raines distinguish himself in his 20 months as ex-ed? Everybody acknowledges that he improved photography, but the other tangibles from his tenure—putting Britney Spears and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes on Page One, turning the paper into a laughingstock by hounding the Augusta National Golf Club, advocating saturation college football as a means of resurrecting the sports section—don’t match the braggadocio contained in this book. 

The biggest test of Raines’$2 20 months was the going-to-war-in-Iraq story, which he botched and ignores in his book. Talk about the one that got away! Editor& Publisher’s Greg Mitchell pounds the Raines memoir for neglecting the Judith Miller and WMD controversies. Raines still imagines that the plagiarism and fabulisms of the “dwarf” Jayson Blair brought him down.

Raines would have his readers believe that the narrow window for his Times world-domination plan may have already closed. He writes:

We had a chance to stabilize and expand the literate, affluent minority that makes up the quality-information marketplace. Now we may be seeing a coarsening of our society’s information tastes that is reducing the audience for impartial news and acute analysis. Our strategy for growing and protecting the Times franchise was built around delivering high-quality, fact-based information and analysis, around news that is found out rather than imagined. Now, the United States is moving toward a journalism of assertion and allegation, if indeed we dare call it journalism. [Emphasis added.]

If we are moving toward a journalism of assertion and allegation, this slim book stands as a monument to the form.

How much of the crap sluicing through this book does Raines really believe? All, I’m afraid. In Chapter 33 he boasts of possessing a “high regard for factual and moral truth,” even in memos to the staff, the implied conclusion being that inferior forces at the newspaper—the dullards, lifers, and militant traditionalists whom he threatened—toppled him for speaking straight.

That’s not even his biggest lie. Scarcely a chapter passes without Raines reminding readers that he’s a literary man trapped in a journalist’s body, and has been for four decades. There are two tribes in newsrooms, he states, those who regard newspapers as a life destination and those, like him, “who rose at dawn to work on the Book, a big-canvas novel or non-fiction epic with which we could buy our freedom.” He claims to have made “serious escape attempts” from the newsroom for the literary life in 1969, 1974, and 1977—when he published his novel Whiskey Man to good notices—and again in 1984, but family responsibilities pulled him back.

Bosh. The genuine literary man will sacrifice his wife, children, nephews, cousins, and your husband, children, nephews, and cousins if he has a big book to write. While betraying them, the genuine literary man will gladly stick his fingers into his wounds and open them larger if need be to document his pain. Like the bore who goes on and on about the Great American Novel he’s writing at his 10th, 15th, and 20th college reunion, Raines is in it but not of it. If he were of it, The One That Got Away would tell us something we don’t already know about Howell Raines and the New York Times.  


Raines writes, correctly, that William Safire’s Political Dictionary (1993) credits him with coining the now-hackneyed phrase “defining moment.” When The One That Got Away goes into paperback—and Safire’s publisher reprints Political Dictionary—both books should correct the record. The online version of the Oxford English Dictionary now bestows coinage honors upon a 1978 article in the Journal of Modern History: “There has also been a quickening of interest in the ‘event’: the defining moment that reveals the complex interrelationships between ideas and institutions, structural constraints and intellectual possibilities.” Send news of your defining moment to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Addendum: May 19: “Press Box” readers fired up their databases to retrieve earlier uses of the phrase “defining moment,” further negating Raines’ claim. Many thanks for their research assistance.

Raines wasn’t the first journalist to use the phrase. In a Nov. 7, 1981, review of a performance of True West, critic Lawrence Christon wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “There are a couple of directorial missteps. Shallat doesn’t have a sharp ear for the language, which means some subtly defining moments are lost.”

The Harvard Theological Review (Vol. 60, Issue 4, Page 497) pushes “defining moment” all the way back to 1967. An unsigned summary of a doctorial dissertation states, “Quite the contrary, he argued, the liturgical representation of Christ’s death constituted the defining moment of the Church and the priesthood.”

The database of academic journals produces addition citations for the phrase from the years 1971, 1972, and 1978.