By: Greg Mitchell
In a 20,000-word article titled “My Times” in the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly, released in preview form today, former New York Times executive editor Howell Raines writes that the “biggest surprise” in the immediate fallout from the Jayson Blair scandal “was Arthur Sulzberger,” the newspaper’s publisher. “I had not realized how rattled he was, and frankly I don’t think I worked hard enough to stiffen his spine for the survival battle we could have won,” Raines writes.
Raines also reveals that, contrary to his statement at the tumultuous May 14, 2003, meeting of Times (
“I was relying on my experience with the previous two cases when Jayson Blair returned to work … I passed Jayson’s desk often after his return, and I saw in him a level of vitality and social engagement that I took to be evidence of recovery,” Raines writes. “These positive signs, I thought, warranted giving him a spot on the team covering the D.C. sniper story.”
In another disclosure, Raines observes that on the Sunday morning in May 2003 when the paper published a mammoth report on Blair’s misdeeds, he was fishing with writer John McPhee on the Delaware River. “I read the story in sections as the day unfolded, and I knew at that point that I was unlikely to survive,” he writes. “The article did not pursue the one area of reporting that might have worked in my favor — how and why critical information about Jayson never reached me.”
The “one thing” he would have “done differently” in responding to the Blair scandal was in who he would have asked to compile that massive accounting of Blair’s transgressions that would spark his departure.
He first approached a distinguished former Times staffer, who had retired, but who could not do it for personal reasons. Raines now wishes he had then gone to other ex-Times editors such as Max Frankel, Bill Kovach, or John Lee to conduct the inquiry. “Such a person,” he explains, “would have had a depth of managerial experience and institutional knowledge that was understandably missing from our team of seven mid-career reporters.” That, he feels, inadequately explained to readers how others had kept crucial information on Blair from reaching Raines.
Raines also admits: “In hindsight I’m a little surprised that I weathered more than eight years as editorial-page editor without being canned.” He also discloses that Times columnist William Safire had urged him not to hold the disastrous May 14, 2003, meeting with Times staffers.
Discussing how the paper is advancing since his departure, Raines declares, “the signs are mixed.” But he charges that the Siegal Committee report of July 2003 on the Blair affair and ethics at the newspaper “shows an institution in denial.” It’s “a hymn to the old status quo, drafted by the very people who most strongly resisted the idea of a more vigorous and inclusive way of producing the paper.”
Most of the lengthy piece, however, covers Raines’ career at the Times before the Blair scandal broke.
Raines also reveals:
* that the Blair scandal “destroyed the relationship between me and one of my mentors, Arthur Gelb.” In a phone call, an “unhinged” Gelb denounced Raines for authorizing that massive front-page Blair correction that appeared in May. Raines also says that Gelb “was famous for insincere praise of Times staff members…”
* While Raines admits that a more modest report on Blair’s misdeeds would have “better served my personal interests,” he felt that “full disclosure,” not “damage control” was best. He still believed that the paper’s report on its Wen Ho Lee errors had been insufficient.
* that he takes “full responsibility for the failure to catch Jayson Blair. I had been in the job for twenty months, and I should have somehow found the time to ascertain whether our ramshackle personnel system was up to the task.”
* one of his closest friends at the paper, Michael Oreskes, told him during the crisis that he was an odd manager — “a control freak who doesn’t like details.”
* “Nowadays I think of Jayson Blair as an accident that ended my newspaper career in the same unpredictable way that a heart attack or a plane crash might have.”
Cullen Murphy, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, said Raines had been contracted to write not only about his disgraceful exit from the Times, but also about other aspects of his tenure and the paper’s future.
“He wanted to write a serious piece about that past and future of The New York Times that would touch on some of the difficult events of the recent past, but would also look at larger issues,” Murphy told E&P Wednesday. “That sounded intriguing.”
Murphy would not reveal what fee Raines received, but said the piece required no more editing than usual. “Editing of a piece is hard to talk about,” he said. “There wasn’t anything unusual.”
The 20,000-word article is in the May issue, which will reach subscribers beginning next week, Murphy said, and be available on newsstands by April 14.
In a statement, Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said: “In his article in The Atlantic Monthly, Mr. Raines calls The Times ‘indispensable’ and ‘irreplaceable. ‘ We agree. And this is due to the inspired work of Times men and women over decades.”