By: Joe Strupp
Besides offering his first words, in print, on the Jayson Blair scandal that helped end his brief tenure as executive editor of The New York Times, Howell Raines in a forthcoming article in The Atlantic Monthly performs what he calls “a final service for the newspaper that I worked for and loved for twenty-five years” by providing a behind-the-scenes look at the good, the bad and the ugly. (See Preview of Howell Raines ‘Atlantic Monthly’ Article.)
“Today,” he notes, “the sad fact is that [Times Publisher] Arthur Sulzberger, who was my partner in the great enterprise of revitalizing the Times, and who remains my friend, may no longer be in a strong enough position internally to push all the reforms we felt were essential.”
When he took over at the paper on Sept. 5, 2001, Raines found that a “quiet but intense factional war was going on within the Times, between the senior editors who endorsed these improvements and traditionalists on the newsroom floor and among mid-level managers.”
Raines writes of dual cultures at the paper, made up of the “culture of achievement” and the “culture of complaint.” Blaming the Newspaper Guild for perpetuating many of the elements of the complaint culture — including the indoctrination of younger staffers — Raines says the achievers are often surprised to find how easily they can make themselves known simply by working extra hard.
“What’s shocking to the newcomer is the amount of coasting,” he writes. “Newspapers with slimmer resources and no union rules inhibiting dismissal somehow manage to closely monitor productivity. At the Times, as at Harvard, it is hard to get in and almost impossible to flunk out.” Raines also declares that “the tendency toward ‘manana’ journalism can infect newcomers as if it were carried in the air ducts, like Legionnaires’ disease.”
He recounts that when Sulzberger introduced his successor as executive editor, Bill Keller, to the staff last year, he took the trouble to rebut Raines’ statement on “The Charlie Rose Show” that the newspaper had grown complacent. Sulzberger told the staff this had never been true or would be true. “I can guarantee that no one in that newsroom, including Arthur himself, believed what he said,” Raines writes.
Raines declares that the paper’s atmosphere required “mass allegiance to the idea that any change, no matter how beneficial on the surface, is to be treated as a potential danger,” while describing “attitudes of entitlement and smug complacency that pervade the paper.”
Specific attacks are made against the business section that “surrendered a lot of territory to The Wall Street Journal” and arts coverage which he contends “was in fact a shambles.”
During two dinners in mid-2001 with Sulzberger, in which Raines effectively lobbied for the position prior to being chosen, he writes that he explained the paper’s problems and was greeted with positive reaction from the publisher. He talked of “stripping away the New York parochialism — an editing perspective that made our national edition a matter more of cosmetics than of substance.”
He also writes of telling Sulzberger about his objections to the paper’s “silo management” approach that “put too many journalistic decisions in the hands of a restricted group of editors” as well as his disdain for the paper’s lack of hunger for going the extra mile.
When discussing the paper’s Sept. 11 coverage, however, Raines piles on the compliments, stating that “I’ve never seen so large a staff rise to so high a level of effort and intensity for so long a time.” He also brags about improvements he made to the business and arts coverage during his time as editor, pointing out how the Times led on the Enron and AOL Time Warner stories, as he deployed veteran and talented staffers to beef up Arts and Leisure. “The impact was immediate,” he contends about the arts coverage.
But he also writes of Sulzberger that, like his father, he shared “the super-frugality one finds in families with multi-generational wealth.” Raines faults Arthur’s father, Punch Sulzberger, for “bottom feeding” for small, cheap papers to add to the company rather than papers like the Baltimore Sun and The Des Moines (Iowa) Register when they came up for sale.
The former editor, who spent 25 years at the Times prior to his departure, also pays homage to its past, giving considerable attention to prior executive editors James “Scotty” Reston, Max Frankel and Abe Rosenthal. While offering praise and respect for each, he also points out their negatives.
He calls Reston “tough as goat guts.” On Frankel and Rosenthal, he writes, “The were both impatient men who were bracingly difficult to satisfy, and who had in common few traits other than a reverence for talent and a determination to rapidly advance the people who had it.”