Troubled Times

Missteps by Howell Raines, the New York Times' imperious top editor, have left the nation's best newspaper vulnerable to attacks by the right.

By Eric Boehlert
Published December 19, 2002 12:23AM (EST)

A century ago, New Yorkers saw advertisements around town for the New York Times that played up the emerging paper's respectability: "It won't soil the breakfast cloth." Today it's the Times' own dirty laundry that's being scrubbed in public -- and the newspaper's political opponents couldn't be happier.

The mighty daily is struggling to regain its footing in the wake of the paper's most embarrassing newsroom flap since it famously outed the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of rape more than a decade ago. This time, the controversy erupted when two Times sports columnists questioned the newspaper's editorial campaign against the men-only membership policy at the venerable Augusta National Golf Course in Georgia. Both columns were spiked by executive editor Howell Raines.

The decision outraged journalists and media critics. While it's rare for columnists to contradict the editorial policy of their paper, it's almost unheard of at major newspapers to spike a columnist's work for internal political reasons. The fiasco played right into the hands of conservative critics who in recent months launched fresh attacks against the Times for its alleged liberal bias, arguing the left-wing fights of the editorial page were permeating the news sections. The bigger worry, say some media analysts, is that the poor judgment on one story is being used to discredit the Times' critical work on life-and-death issues like the Iraq War, where the paper's coverage has international influence.

"All the news that's fit to spin," brayed Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard.

The Augusta breakdown was not an isolated incident. During the '90s the Times seemed to jump the journalistic tracks with wide-eyed pursuits of Whitewater criminals, Chinese fundraisers and a spying nuclear scientist -- and Raines had a hand in each failed campaign. Recently tapped to head the newsroom, he now has the power to shape the paper any way he wants. Aggressive reporting is the hallmark of great journalism, but it's a fine line between stories that change history and overzealous crusading. The former wins Pulitzers; the latter cost newspapers credibility.

While one newsroom insider bemoans the habitual Times-watching that goes on in the press as a "God-awful burning of calories," others are still anxious to discuss -- anonymously -- the internal ramifications of the recent Augusta flare-up. "It's done incredible damage to the paper," says one Times source. "The real story is internally at the Times, where the ramifications are even greater. There are a couple major talents at the paper being wooed right now and if there were to be a major defection from the paper, it would be a fucking disaster."

"I don't think the New York Times wants to stand for censoring its columnists," says former Times reporter Susan Tifft, a professor of public policy at Duke University and coauthor of "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times." "Are people not going to believe what they read in the New York Times? No. But it's serious and I'm sure Howell Raines would like to rewind the tape on this decision."

The paper's active army of Republican foes have pounced on the controversy in hopes of taking the paper down a notch. "I couldn't prove it quantitatively, but its reputation has been diminished," suggests Rich Lowry, editor of National Review Online and a persistent Times critic from the right. Certainly Times-bashing is not a new phenomenon. It's been a favorite political sport on the left and the right for decades. As a news organization that arguably is the best and most influential in the nation, and perhaps in the world, the paper is bound to get caught in the crossfire.

"You've got to understand the people who are dedicated to a political movement will always be there taking crack shots at the Times. It's important to them," says Arthur Gelb, a former managing editor at the Times who has had a nearly 50-year association with the newspaper. "If they can bully the paper and get the Times to cave in to their point of view, it's a big victory."

The paper's recent troubles come just as it should be savoring an extraordinary season of success. Last spring, on the strength of its inspired work covering the attacks of Sept. 11, the newspaper won an unprecedented seven Pulitzer Prizes. With another war brewing in the Persian Gulf, the Times, which has always championed international reporting, seems uniquely poised the cover the conflict. Adding to its overseas prowess, the paper in October opted to end its 50-50 partnership with the Washington Post in running the International Herald Tribune newspaper. The Times wants that European flagship to itself.

While other major American dailies struggle with eroding circulation, the Times' readership continues to grow. "There is no more profitable paper, cash-wise, than the New York Times," boasted publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., during a recent question-and-answer forum at the University of California at Berkeley.

Media watchers had been impressed with the Times' recent run. "These are not ordinary times for the newspaper," notes Jay Rosen, who chairs New York University's department of journalism. "The Times is at the zenith of its power."

That swagger is embodied in Raines, the paper's hard-charging veteran who took the reins of the Times as executive editor just a week before the Sept. 11 attacks. Still new to the job, he was called on to deal with the most deadly terrorist strike in modern history on his home turf and in a fiercely competitive media environment. By all accounts, he turned in a tour de force.

Raised in Alabama, Raines spent the last quarter-century with the paper, busily grooming himself for the top job. That included high-profile stints as bureau chief in London and Washington, as well as eight years as the Times' editorial page editor. Along the way, Raines pocketed a Pulitzer for writing, and forged a remarkably close relationship with his current boss, Times publisher Sulzberger.

In those years, Raines developed a reputation for arrogance -- and that trait can be a vivid part of his public persona. At the Berkely forum, a professor asked Raines a clear, albeit longwinded, question about the Times' Middle East coverage. When the query was met with clapping from the audience, Raines quipped: "I assume that applause is because somebody understood the question."

The Times has never been known for its friendly work environment. Indeed, its aggressive reporters and editors are among the most talented and fiercely competitive in the business. But Raines' ascension unleashed fear as he took over the top spot and shuffled the staff, reassigning scores of staffers. Several respected reporters, such as Atlanta bureau chief Kevin Sack and Los Angeles correspondent Jim Sterngold, balked at Raines' work requests and jumped to the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle. Then, in the months following Sept. 11, Raines had to quell festering resentment from the Washington bureau, which felt a small group of Raines-loyal editors in New York had seized too much power inside the newspaper.

Determined that the Times make a difference in the world, Raines demands a more muscular brand of journalism from his troops, with deep impact being a top priority: In 2001, he reportedly told his business staff that the unfolding Enron story would be their Sept. 11 to cover. As a son of the South who grew up during an era of segregation, he reportedly was struck by the efforts of some women's rights groups to end Augusta's exclusionary policy, and he ordered the paper to make the battle a high priority.

"Having interviewed Howell Raines many times, I know the issues of social justice and diversity and discrimination are very much on his top 10 list," says Tifft. "He has a real sense of mission. He feels like his destiny is to be head of the New York Times. If you feel that way about your job, you don't sit back. Instead, you have a command-and-control kind of style."

But that crusading streak has taken Raines, and the paper, down some regrettable paths. During the '90s, as editorial page editor, Raines helped launch crusades against President Clinton, including Whitewater and the China spy and fundraising scandal. Neither conspiracy ever lived up to the Times' hype, partly because the newspaper, including the editorial page, routinely blew events out of proportion and leaned heavily on innuendo.

Despite countless, and breathless, columns to the contrary, Clinton did not defraud anybody as part of a long-ago Arkansas land deal, and his administration did not look the other way while campaign contributors leaked national security secrets to China. That same pattern was on display during the newspaper's unseemly crusade against Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, accused of stealing secrets. In each case, and particularly with Clinton, the attacking editorials were often written with a strangely personal venom, as if Raines and his team were trying to settle a weird score with a fellow Southerner who made good, rather than trying to uncover the truth.

Raines never did apologize for the Clinton crusades he helped champion. Asked at the same UC-Berkeley forum if he would go back and change anything regarding his Clinton coverage, Raines had a simple answer: "No."

"Raines has a history of going off on quixotic crusades," says Gene Lyons, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist whose 1996 book "Fools For Scandal," a book sympathetic to Clinton, spotlighted the Times' questionable Whitewater reporting. "Nobody really complained when he did it before. What's changed now is who he's attacking."

Perhaps the difference this time is that the targets of Raines' supposed campaigns are on the right: President Bush, the war against Iraq and the restrictive, men-only membership policy of the Augusta National Golf Course.

"I sometimes feel sorry for Howell," says one longtime Times watcher. "He gets the worst of both worlds; he's seen as the prototype of liberal bias in the media by conservatives, and seen as an utter scoundrel by the left because of his Clinton stances."

Nonetheless, Raines is facing more fierce, sustained attacks -- including catcalls from mainstream press outlets such as Slate and Newsweek, which rarely questioned the Times' off-kilter Whitewater obsession -- for allegedly launching crusades in the news pages.

Those allegations, which preceded the issue of spiked Augusta columns, seem odd in some respects. Since the Times hasn't been accused of botching the facts or stooping to insinuation as it too often did in the '90s, the oft-heard crusading charges ignore the fact that newspaper editors for generations have used news pages to ride their hobby horses, often for great public good. And particularly when so many major metro newspapers today are relentlessly boring and passive, the charge that the Times is too aggressive and passionate rings hollow.

By now, the details of the Times' recent controversy surrounding Augusta are well known. For months the paper closely covered the effort by a women's rights group to force the prestigious Georgia golf club to accept women members. The Times editorial page eventually suggested that superstar Tiger Woods should boycott next spring's Masters tournament hosted by Augusta if the club did not change its discriminatory ways. To many readers inside and outside the paper, the coverage seemed disproportionate.

In recent weeks, two Times sports columnists, Harvey Araton and Pulitzer Prize-winner Dave Anderson wrote columns gently taking issue with the newspaper's Augusta battle. Araton argued women had bigger battles to fight than gaining admittance at an exclusive golf club, while Anderson directly contradicted the Times editorial, arguing that it wasn't Woods' fight and he should be allowed to simply play golf.

In a move apparently without precedent at the newspaper, both columns were killed. When the New York Daily News reported the development, the Times was quickly buried in condemnations. Trying to quiet the storm, managing editor Gerald Boyd sent a memo to staffers. "One of the columns focused centrally on disputing The Times's editorials about Augusta," Boyd wrote. "Part of our strict separation between the news and editorial pages entails not attacking each other. Intramural quarreling of that kind is unseemly and self-absorbed."

Less than a week later, the paper, deluged with charges of censorship, capitulated and ran the columns, with minor alterations.

Just weeks before the controversy exploded, Raines had insisted to UC-Berkeley students: "In this business, there's only one thing to do when you're wrong, and that's to get it right as quickly as you can."

Defenders argue that by publishing the columns in question, Raines and the Times have done just that -- made things right. "That's what a good newspaper editor does," says Gelb. "If he makes a mistake, or what's perceived to be a mistake, he corrects it."

Some inside the paper disagree, noting that there still has not been a coherent explanation given for withholding the two columns or, more importantly, who made that key decision. "People are beside themselves about this," says one Times writer. "To this day, no one knows what happened. There's been a 'the-dog-ate-my-homework' type of explanation. What's that say about Howell's leadership?

"There are only two possible explanations for who killed them [the columns]," the source adds. "Somebody in sports took it up the masthead and they killed them, or somebody on the masthead took it to Howell Raines and he killed them. Nobody knows. If he killed them, it's a problem. If other people lower than Howell killed it out of fear [that the columns would anger him], that's a different version of the same problem."

Asked to clarify, Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis says, "Ultimately it was Howell's decision to kill the columns."

The controversy has created a peculiar role-reversal for Raines. As editorial-page editor he often belittled public figures -- Clinton officials in particular -- for not providing clear and accurate accounts of their actions. But now, it's Raines who refuses to talk to the press, except for a single interview granted to a Times reporter. He has not addressed his staff in person, or even apologized for the misjudgment. That has left some inside the Times angry and confused about the entire episode.

By contrast, when then-executive editor Max Frankel was rocked by the William Kennedy Smith controversy, he opened the Times auditorium to the entire staff and answered hostile questions for more than an hour. "It turned out to be Max's finest hour," says one Times veteran.

Nobody at the Times came out looking good after the Augusta conflict. In fact, last week USA Today referred to the Times as the "so-called paper of record." Subtle jabs like that are being duly noted inside the Times' West 43rd Street headquarters, and by the Sulzberger family that has controlled the Times for nearly a century.

"The family itself is always concerned about the standing of the Times and how it's perceived and whether its credibility is minimized in the public eye," says Tifft.

One Times staffer notes the sad irony that the paper's fight with Augusta has been over diversity and equal rights, yet in the end it's Times managing editor Gerald Boyd, the highest-ranking African-American at the paper and Raines' No. 2 man, who's been left holding the bag.

Raines was out of the country when the Daily News story about the sports columns broke. Since Boyd's name was on the widely ridiculed internal memo that initially tried to explain the reasons for not running the columns, and it was Boyd who spoke with reporters outside the newspaper defending the Times, he was often seen as the public face of the fiasco. "People at the paper are sympathetic towards Gerald, because what did he have to do with killing the columns? It's that kind of collateral damage that really riles people."

Those sorts of blunders can prove personally crippling at the Times, especially for Boyd, an ideal candidate to succeed Raines one day. "It could be a career-ender for Gerald unless Howell steps in and makes it right," says one Times source. "But Howell's not talking to the press." Neither is Boyd. A Times spokesperson said editors had declined to comment for this story, but emphasized that in terms of the columns, "Howell believes ultimately it's his responsibility."

And yet, this is not just about who's up and who's down inside the Times. It's also about the very public role the paper plays in American culture and politics. The Augusta dust-up has given additional ammunition to conservative critics who for years, even decades, have crusaded against the Times' alleged liberal bias. They paint the spiked columns as proof that Raines has handed out liberal, social-justice directives on hot topics, and that reporters and editors dare not cross him.

For conservatives eager to score points against the Times, "this is their Chandra Levy, their summer-long crusade," says Tifft.

"The conservative reaction to coverage they don't like is to attack it, and they've been successful," says Alex Jones, a former Times media reporter and Tifft's coauthor on "The Trust."

More importantly, it overlaps with conservatives' claim that the paper's news coverage of the pending war against Iraq has been tilted to the left.

While Democrats in Congress failed to aggressively question White House plans for the war in recent months, the New York Times has not. A series of Page 1 stories raised critical questions about the cost of such a war and what a post-Saddam Iraq would look like. Well-placed sources leaked detailed war plans to the Times, which set off a round of robust debate about whether the paper was being used by either side of the dove/hawk debate raging inside the White House. The public benefited, however, from the insight about war planning -- and about war doubts held by some Pentagon factions.

With coordinated, orchestrated attacks coming from the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard and other conservative outlets, the right-wing press unloaded on the Times this summer after it included former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger among prominent Republicans who had broken with Bush on Iraq. In fact, Kissinger supported attacking Iraq, but with several caveats.

The newspaper published a clarification stating that the original article "should have made a clearer distinction" between Kissinger's views and those of other Republicans "with more categorical objections to a military attack." A second article "listed Kissinger incorrectly among Republicans who were warning outright against a war," the clarification said. The misstep may have been relatively minor, particularly in light of the hundreds of articles and columns the Times has published on Iraq this year, but Republican foes pounced.

Writing in the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer announced: "Not since William Randolph Hearst famously cabled his correspondent in Cuba, 'You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war,' has a newspaper so blatantly devoted its front pages to editorializing about a coming American war as has Howell Raines's New York Times."

At the Cal Berkeley symposium, Raines laughed off the accusation: "Charles took leave of his senses." But that has hardly mollified the critics.

"I think that because of things the Times has done recently, from the war coverage to Augusta, where the paper has an almost inarguable agenda, it's much easier for conservatives to make their case about a bias," says National Review Online's Lowry. "You can probably go to a cocktail party and say the New York Times is biased and not necessarily be laughed out of the room, compared to one year ago."

Jones, who runs Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Media Center, dismisses the argument that the Times is biased. "I don't think conservatives have a leg to stand on."

Still, that accusation has larger implications as the war over alleged media bias, both from the left and right, heats up. Both former President Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore have recently bemoaned the Republicans' ability to shape and control the news. Clinton called it a conservative "destruction machine" and suggested that Democrats were badly outgunned in the press.

"I think the left should be jealous," says Steve Rendall, a senior analyst for the liberal advocacy group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. "The larger emerging story of media bias is that some Democrats and liberals are starting to wake up to the conservative echo chamber -- the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh -- and that it has tremendous impact on politics."

While the Washington Post in recent years has moved to the right politically, Lyons says, "the New York Times is the largest target that can reasonably be called the liberal press. And there's an orchestrated campaign against them now."

Sulzberger conceded as much from the stage in Berkeley. "It's a time when people are polarized, when legitimate debate gives way to demonizing your enemies," he said. "And we're seeing it play out in the far-right press and we're seeing it play out in the far-left press of this county. And we are not benefiting as a society from it. As journalists, part of their mandate is to deliver the news and it's rarely good news. And it's often easier to kill the messenger than try to understand what the message is."

The problem is that while critics are out hunting the messenger, the Times keeps giving them fresh ammunition.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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