Raines Wants ‘To Be First and Best’

By: Alex S. Jones

Before Howell Raines was anointed executive editor of The New York Times, there were those who doubted it would happen. He was not among them.

He knew, of course, that he might not get the job. Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, had not made his choice clear, and there was another contender. But Raines had a deep sense that being the Times‘ top editor was somehow his karma. That aura of destiny was only burnished when the most important and challenging news story in decades broke less than a week after he took over.

In the months since Sept. 11, Raines has been praised for directing what many view as unequaled coverage of the war on terrorism. And he also has been shellacked in some articles, mainly for some of the changes he is seeking at the Times.

Certainly, he is breaking some eggs, which is not unexpected. For example, the highbrow Sunday “Arts & Leisure” Section recently led with a piece on country music; Raines had said forcefully that he wanted the section to include more popular culture. His empowerment of the paper’s assistant managing editors has prompted muttering among the various desks that their authority has been undermined, in favor of more central control. His decision to reassign national reporters resulted in one resignation and tremors of fear throughout the paper.

At the same time, the paper’s business section has gone after the Enron story with an aggressiveness that seems inspired by Raines’ passionate competitiveness. As one Raines observer puts it, “He’s governed by wanting to be first and best.”

His high expectations and bursting ambition scare some people at the Times. They’re afraid of him. And yet, the same people who talk of fear say that the Times is more open, more energized, more joyous than before. And this, too, they attribute to Raines.

The heart of Raines’ strength as the paper’s editor is a zest for the job that radiates from him like heat. Some of the paper’s more senior people liken Raines’ pure and obvious pleasure in the job to that of Abe Rosenthal of the Times and Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post when they were hitting their stride during the Pentagon Papers era.

Raines has other strengths as well. He is comfortable with power. He has an artistic sense; the photo department feels it has gotten a new lease on life with an editor who cares about pictures. He has a passion for good writing and a taste for the soaring, symbolic gesture, such as the “Portraits of Grief” series.

He is very smart, but he uses his intelligence in an unusually strategic and disciplined way. Indeed, if one thing separates him from editors such as Rosenthal and Bradlee, it is that they trusted their gut, and Raines trusts his brain.

For instance, when he was the paper’s editorial page editor, he knew that he had personal weaknesses he needed to address. He needed to understand how to be a manager of people, and he set about studying that. Similarly, he studied business, an area in which he had almost no experience, and foreign affairs, which was also a hole in his r?sum?. The key point is that he studied, and learned from his effort.

He is sometimes called an intellectual, but that has more to do with his breadth of interests and mode of dealing with issues than with his being an aesthete. Raines believes in reading, listening, and thinking. He is deliberate. Then he acts, decisively.

But perhaps his most unappreciated strength is what happens after that. His mind is not one that stops with the decision, which means he can be persuaded to reconsider. He views himself as unusually flexible, which is not to say malleable or easy to manipulate. But it does mean that he listens and is often open to other ideas.

In fact, his style of listening is one of the reasons he gets in trouble. He listens with intensity. When he is sharply focused on something important, he resembles an aroused and furious hawk, which can scare the pants off people.

But the focused Raines is not the one people need to fear. It is the Raines whose face communicates disappointment in how a job was done that should be feared, because he does have stupendous ambitions for his editorship.

When a spate of negative stories appeared regarding the shake-up of the national desk, Raines read them and decided that he needed to do some fence-mending and bridge-building. He embarked on a conscious campaign to try to show that he was, in fact, flexible and not to be so feared. He didn’t think the articles were accurate about him as he saw himself, but he recognized that the critical issue was how his staff viewed him. So he set out to change that perception.

The charm offensive came naturally because he has the classic Southerner’s talent to seduce with words and wit. The last person in the world he would want to be compared to is Bill Clinton, whom he attacked ferociously from his pulpit on the editorial page, but the two do share a mix of brains, charm, and grand vision.

Unlike Clinton, however, Raines does not require to be loved. He would prefer it, of course. But his larger need is to be the greatest editor the Times has ever had.

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