Howell Raines On 9/11, and After, At ‘The Times’

Follow by Email
Visit Us

By: Greg Mitchell, E&P editor

It was just before 9 o’clock in the morning and Howell Raines, as usual at that hour, was reading the paper, his paper, in his Greenwich Village apartment. The phone rang. It was Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times. “Are you watching television?” Sulzberger asked his executive editor. But Raines doesn’t like any distractions while he’s reading the paper. His paper. Their paper.

Sulzberger suggested he turn on the TV because a horrific event had just occurred downtown: a plane had struck the World Trade Center — probably an accident, but surely an enormous “Metro” story for the paper. It was primary-election day in New York, and the two men agreed they’d need to chat further about shifting resources. What a way for Raines to start his sixth day on the job.

Raines didn’t spend much time watching the burning tower on TV, instead hustling upstairs to take a shower and get dressed. When he emerged from his rinse, the phone rang again, and again it was Sulzberger. He said that another plane had just hit the second tower. Raines got dressed in a hurry, about to enter what he now calls “the maelstrom of 9/11.”

What happened in New York the rest of that day, and over the next several months, will never be forgotten, and neither will the performance of Raines’ paper. From the exhaustive coverage he directed that first day to creation of the “A Nation Challenged” section and the moving “Portraits of Grief,” Raines did more than drive his own paper to new levels of distinction — he set the bar for the entire industry in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Despite this, Raines has rarely spoken about his personal experience, his emotions, and his inside view of the Times‘ operations on (and since) Sept. 11. The following represents his first extensive print interview on his life and the Times since that September morning when he got that wake-up call from Arthur Sulzberger.

Raines begins

Having gained the nod in May to succeed Joseph Lelyveld as executive editor, Raines spent a far-from-leisurely spring and summer. While continuing his duties as editorial page editor, he set out to learn all he could about how his paper operated. He did everything from sitting on the night copy desk to checking on distribution (in the wee hours of the morning) on the Hudson River docks. Besides getting to know people, he wanted to find out, for example, how far he could push a deadline. And he spent a lot of time in the art department, chatting with photographers, and learning more about pagination.

“That was,” Raines says, with traces of his native Alabama still in his voice, “how I spent my summer vacation.”

So when he moved downstairs to the eighth-floor newsroom on Sept. 5, he felt well-prepared. But foremost in his mind when he took office was “a sense of stewardship … to take a newspaper that is already great and operating with the highest levels of journalistic principle and intellectual penetration, and preserve those standards and that tradition and improve it and pass it on to the next person.

“I feel very strongly about this because I am keenly aware that if The New York Times would cease to exist, it would not be re-created by any media company now in existence.” This is, he says, a “sobering responsibility,” for he and others at the Times “stand on the shoulders of generations.”

Still, on Sept. 5, he felt supremely confident and eager to get started, believing that everything he had done since his first newspaper job at the Birmingham (Ala.) Post-Herald in 1964 had prepared him for this task. “I did not feel hubristic or guaranteed to succeed,” he explains, “but I felt ready.” And he had big plans for the paper. He wanted to make it more visually arresting, with “more punch,” but he was most concerned about — some would say obsessed with — “the competitive metabolism” of the paper. It was already operating at “the highest levels of quality, but I felt very strongly that we could do things with a higher energy level.”

What he could not have predicted, of course, was the degree to which the events of Sept. 11 “would basically put everybody’s metabolism at the highest level, not only at our paper but throughout our profession.”

On the sixth day

After the two calls from Arthur Sulzberger on the morning of Sept. 11, and the hasty exit from his apartment, Raines found himself on Seventh Avenue at 11th Street looking for a cab uptown, forsaking his usual subway ride. And that’s when “the magnitude of the event and what it meant to New York hit me.” Hundreds of medical staffers from St. Vincent’s Hospital were lining both sides of Seventh Avenue “dressed in their green scrubs, with gurneys and wheel chairs at the ready,” waiting for the parade of injured (which, poignantly, never materialized).

Startled, he looked south on Seventh Avenue and observed the towers in flames, “and it all became real to me.”

Oddly, his first impulse was to rush back to his apartment, grab a camera, and take a picture- – “and then I literally remember having this conversation with myself: Your photographers are doing their jobs. You need to get to the office.” Despite the rush, he paused for a moment with everyone else on the street to study the burning buildings, “and I remember thinking, This is the last time today that I will experience this event directly, for I am about to be sealed inside a newsroom. That moment was when it struck me — I’ve never seen New York stopped that way.”

Finally, he hailed a taxi, but the cabby didn’t want to haul him uptown, so Raines paid him more than his usual fare to get to Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street.

Journey to the center of the Earth

Sitting in the cab, Raines felt “a calm assurance that the staff and I would meet this challenge journalistically,” while wondering if his troops were already deployed. When he arrived at the newsroom, he discovered that Metro Editor Jonathan Landman and other desk editors had done a magnificent job “getting everyone moving.”

Contrary to what one might expect, the scene was fairly calm, “not a lot of shouting. I don’t remember myself or anyone else in that newsroom appearing rattled, but rather focused on the business at hand.” Raines recalls making countless decisions, with other editors, just “taking them one by one in an orderly way. … Anyone who’s ever worked for a newspaper knows that getting one out depends on a team effort, relying on a really remarkable thing — which is a number of people doing highly intricate tasks, on a strict timeline, without direct instruction. And there’s no one person who can make that happen. I’ve never felt the teamlike nature of a newsroom more powerfully than that day.”

Raines felt confident enough to spend much of the rest of the morning going back and forth to the photo department. Part of it, no doubt, was an attempt — in the sealed newsroom — to experience the tragedy, but he also wanted to do justice to the event visually, to fully capture it. Surprisingly, he calls this “my most nervous point of the day.”

Two things happened that he recalls most vividly. First, a free-lance photographer brought in an image of one of the towers that was so powerful that Raines knew “we could make it front page.” He personally thanked the free-lancer. Then, just before noon, while in a Page One meeting, he noticed a group of photographers nearby. He walked over, and in the middle of the circle was Times photographer Ruth Fremson. The others were pulling debris out of her hair. Raines learned that she had escaped the fall of the second tower only because a cop had “pulled her into a deli as a wave of debris swept by, and while she was in there, she’d taken a picture of the cop leaning over catching his breath — she’s still shooting pictures!

“That’s when the real event hit me, emotionally,” he says. He started focusing on where all his staffers were, and whether they were safe, while also beginning to absorb “the true enormity of the event.” And he realized that he had not stood this solidly “in the hot center of a story since my early days of covering the civil-rights movement.”

The rest of the day, Raines recalls, unfolded in a blur. With thousands dead downtown, the attack on the Pentagon, and a hijacked plane going down in Pennsylvania, “the story was metastasizing,” but there was a sort of order in his newsroom. Copy started coming in, “flawless deadline reporting,” so he did not feel he had to hover over the computer screens. Instead, with Managing Editor Gerald Boyd and the graphics people, he spent a lot of time thinking about the visual presentation. In the end, he would feel that the front page of the next day’s paper would indeed capture the event, and “will always live in my memory.”

Finally, at 1 a.m., he left the office, reflecting that he had put together an “A” section of 28 pages with absolutely no advertising, “without ever really discussing it with the publisher or the CEO of the corporation, because I knew that was what The New York Times would do. I never called upstairs for permission. I knew we could throw everything out of the ‘A’ book. And I say with no sense of boasting that I doubt there is another editor in the country or possibly the world who knew he could walk in his front door and start working in that way.”

Raines never got home that night. With all traffic cut off at 14th Street, he had to sleep in a hotel.

Portraits in ink

After another long day, Raines did manage to get past 14th Street the following night, and when he did, he saw an entire wall at St. Vincent’s Hospital covered with pictures and posters of the missing. Although he could not have known it at the time, this encounter would become one of the inspirations for that feature of the post-Sept. 11 Times that might live longest in memory: its “Portraits of Grief” page.

Raines makes clear he did not come up with the idea. Christine Kay, deputy metro editor, and reporter Janny Scott had been assigned the unenviable task of figuring out how to report on people who were missing and presumed — but not provably — dead. Quickly, they became frustrated by the lack of hard information amid so much unfounded hope. So they came up with the idea of sending reporters out to read the “missing” posters, call the families, and write up the results. Raines calls this ” a snapshot of the person’s life as it was being lived when it was interrupted by those airplanes, rather than in a traditional obituary form.”

The first page of profiles that appeared on Sept. 15 carried the slug “Among the Missing.” Inspired by what he saw on the walls of St. Vincent’s, Raines proposed a photo essay on the “missing” posters for the following day. It would appear on a spread with the profiles, and it fell to Patrick LaForge, assistant to the metro editor, to come up with an overall headline for the package — “Portraits of Grief.” LaForge wasn’t crazy about the hed, but it stuck, no one knowing that the page would soon become a national shrine.

And what was Raines’ contribution to this feature? “All I did on that,” he admits, “was to say, ‘Yes, keep doing it!’ Sometimes that’s the best thing an editor can do. There was no calculation to it. The page came about organically.”

A sprint turns into a marathon

The rest of the week after Sept. 11 (Raines’ second week on the job), he spent a lot of time communicating with the staff in person and in memos “saying, you know, ‘This is something we did.'” He had never seen people operate at such a high level for so long.

While he is flattered that some people feel that the Times set the bar for the entire industry, he claims this was “not my conscious thought. I just wanted to put out the best journalism we could on any given day, to concentrate our resources at the point of attack — to ‘suit up’ everyone and get the best team out on the field.”

The long days “sort of flew by,” but one of the highlights in his mind is the decision to come up with the paper’s second memorable innovation: its daily “A Nation Challenged” section. Raines had quickly realized that the post-Sept. 11 story would completely dominate separate parts of the paper, and that readers would have to be constantly referred to related stories in other sections. This was “the logic” of putting the bulk of the coverage in one, new section, he says.

“Great deliberation went into thinking up the title,” Raines says, laughing. It seems that, one day, Assistant Managing Editor Allan Siegal fell into step beside Raines as they walked down the main corridor of the newsroom, and said, “We’ve got to have a name for this section — here are six options.” Raines recalls looking at the list, “literally as we were walking, and I put my finger on ‘A Nation Challenged,’ and I said, ‘That one.’ That’s how much deliberation went into it! And I don’t remember what the other five choices were.”

By then, Raines had established a pattern of working seven days a week, never getting home before 10 o’clock at night — and this went on for five or six weeks. Yet, during this period, he sent a memo to his staff reminding them that “this is a marathon, not a sprint. So take some time to be with your families, trade off with your colleagues.” But then the anthrax scare hit, the United States waged war on the Taliban, and he realized that, instead of taking his advice, “the staff had simply taken the sprint to a higher level for another two or three weeks, which is really quite astonishing.”

During the anthrax scare, it “got personal” again for Raines. He had to make decisions about evacuating his own building, while receiving “contrasting advice from the city and feds.”

Asked what decisions in the following weeks he’s most proud of, he mentions correctly anticipating that the Bush administration “would follow what the previous Bush administration, also with Cheney and Powell, did — which was restrict media coverage of a war.” But he felt that if he got a lot of reporters and photographers “in the vicinity,” the military “would not be able to fully control the area and we could get people in.”

This happens to reflect one of his prime beliefs: that senior editors have to realize “that journalism is made by the reporters and desk editors. Our job is to look over the horizon anticipating what’s going to happen, and what we need to be prepared for.”

The sovereign Raines

As months passed, praise across the ideological spectrum headed his way, and this man often accused of being a fire-breathing liberal enjoyed an unexpected honeymoon from criticism from both inside and outside the Times.

If his reign had kicked off with a partisan White House controversy instead of Sept. 11, the reception likely would have been radically different. Raines, however, doesn’t see it that way at all. “I’m aware of perceptions,” he says, “but I’m aware of who I am, and I am not a highly ideological person. I’ve never belonged to any political party as a matter of principle.” With some pride, he cites a report that when he failed to follow White House requests last fall and printed a transcript of an Osama bin Laden interview, a Bush spokesman nevertheless called him a true “professional.”

He also earned respect by maintaining a low profile and refusing to latch on to post-Sept. 11 fame and glory. “My day job,” he explains dryly, “is pretty demanding. And my inclination is that it is not appropriate for the editor of the Times to do a lot of that.”

Finally, the new year arrived, and Raines told his staff that, in a real sense, he felt like “my editorship is only beginning now.” He told them, “The past four months is something none of us will ever forget, but now we have to think things through strategically.” But events would not quite leave him alone. When the Enron Corp. scandal broke, he remembers telling the business staff that “this looks like the biggest business story since the trust-busting days — this is your World Trade Center, in a way.”

And so the long-range planning began only recently, evidenced last week by the launch of a beefed-up national edition, with material added from Times‘ local lifestyle sections. The idea came together during three weeks in March, he reveals, “a speed record for us.” Although he admits the Times‘ creative committee, called the Mohonk Group, knew about similar plans by The Wall Street Journal, this was “not intended as our response.” His next move in the national edition: more sports.

In fact, he mentions “the idea of enhancing the national edition” as one of main goals of his stewardship. Another is “carrying our kind of journalism across the digital/cable broadcast platform.” Just in recent weeks, journalists outside the Times — and a few sources inside — have started taking shots at Raines for planning to transfer reporters and introducing too much “soft” journalism to its front page and culture sections. But, he argues: “The traditional language of hard versus soft is irrelevant today. We have many readers with renaissance tastes. They’re interested in both high culture and low — in opera and pop music. When you set up boundaries, you inhibit editors and ignore the catholicity of Times readers’ interests. We are capable of providing sophisticated journalism on all subjects.” His son, by the way, is a guitarist in the rock band Galactic.

Asked if he felt his “honeymoon” with the media was over, Raines laughs and claims that he has never had a honeymoon at the Times, especially after eight years as editorial page editor. “I’ve always felt,” he says, “that at the end of the day I am going to be judged. The Times is always a story, particularly for other publications in New York, and that comes with the territory. I don’t take any of it personally. What I do is listen to my staff, and I talk directly to them. I’m a big believer in that way of managing.

“I’m humbled by any personal honors because we have 1,100 people here and great leaders up and down the line.” And the E&P Editor of Year honor? “I really view this,” he says, “as an award to a team rather than to me.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *