Behind the fall of Raines

Scandal-scarred and resented by a newsroom fed up with his arrogant style, the top New York Times editor finally pays the price.

Published June 6, 2003 8:07PM (EDT)

He took over September 2001 with an unmistakable swagger. As the New York Times new top editor, Howell Raines brought a muscular approach to chasing news, and demanded the pages crackle with excitement. Inside the Times newsroom though, grumbling grew over Raines autocratic style, and last year when he killed two sports columns for political reasons, critics pounced on his penchant for crusades. By the time the Jayson Blair scandal broke five weeks ago, followed quickly by the resignation of his star reporter and old pal Rick Bragg, Raines ran out of internal allies, especially the one who counted most, Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

Though the Times won seven Pulitzer Prizes in the first year of his stewardship, and another for stories done last year, Raines could not survive the self-consuming rage that has ravaged the Times in the past five weeks. On Thursday, one of the most-watched media stories in years came to an abrupt climax when Raines and his second-in-command, managing editor Gerald Boyd, resigned.

No top editor of the Times had ever resigned or been forced out under such a cloud. Raines' predecessor, former executive editor Joseph Lelyveld, will return to the paper and serve as interim editor, giving publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. the time he needs to select a permanent replacement. The publisher did not immediately name a new managing editor.

Though rumors had been circulating for days that Raines might be forced out, employees were stunned when they got the news. "We're still in shock because nobody can believe it," says Allen Barra, a Times sports columnist and friend of Raines.

"It's a horrible day," added a senior staffer, repeating a mantra that was heard throughout the Times building on Thursday. "You'd have to be a heartless person not to feel the tragedy of it."

On the surface, it would appear that the two editors are paying the ultimate professional price for the misadventures of Jayson Blair. In recent days, however, rumors were rampant that the Wall Street Journal was set to publish yet another damaging story about the Times, raising new questions about newsroom practices and ethics under Raines. The Times is notorious for preempting moves by other news outlets to air the newspaper's laundry in public, and the timing of the resignations on Thursday may have been a way to head off a possible Journal exposé.

The Blair story erupted a month ago when it became clear that the young reporter disgraced the paper by not only plagiarizing work from other newspapers, but also concocting fictional accounts of news events he never covered. Almost immediately, critics inside and outside the Times questioned whether Raines, as an avowed Southern liberal, and Boyd, as the paper's first African-American managing editor, gave the young black reporter too many second chances. But in the past month, the story has transformed from one about a troubled reporter into one about Raines' domineering, often arrogant leadership style and whether he had the ability to lead the newsroom and survive in the job he had coveted for much of his career.

"Jayson Blair was Mrs. O'Leary's cow," says Jim Dwyer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Times, referring to the firestorm that's swept the newsroom in the last month. "His misbehavior, his betrayal, opened up a lot of score-settling, not only inside the newspaper but outside as well."

It has been a stunning turn of events for Raines, considered among the most gifted -- and polarizing -- editors of his generation. "This is a man who was just saluted for having led the Times coverage of 9/11, which won seven Pulitzer Prize awards, and then it all fell apart," noted one veteran Times source. "It's almost Shakespearean."

Indeed, a year ago Raines was toasted as editor of the year by industry trade magazine Editor & Publisher. He was the subject of a 17,000-word profile in the New Yorker, which came complete with an appropriately portentous headline: "The Howell Doctrine."

On Friday, within hours of the resignations, gloating conservative critics escalated their attacks against the paper, demanding that the Times appoint new leaders who are free of perceived liberal bias. "Now that Mr. Raines and Mr. Boyd have resigned, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has a crucial decision to make," said Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center. "He can either continue to use the Times to promote an arrogant, left-wing advocacy agenda or he can return to the news. The New York Times' return to respectability is dependent upon whether it presents the news in an accurate, evenhanded manner. 'All the news that's fit to print' is meaningless if the reporting is skewed to promote a liberal agenda."

Blair himself issued a statement Thursday saying he was sorry for the damage he'd caused to the newspaper. But by many accounts, he may end up profiting from the debacle, with a book deal that could approach or exceed $1 million.

The newspaper deserves high marks for the way it covered the the Blair scandal in its own pages, says media critic Steven Brill. "The Times could have dealt with it in a less forthright way and not brought this grief on itself," he told Salon. "But it's helped itself in the long run."

The story of Blair's corruption and fall, and the extraordinary aftermath at the Times, is a cinematic tale of ambition and power played on a grand stage. And for the past month, reporters -- and critics -- have swarmed to the story. Rival newspaper journalists, some no doubt anxious to dent the Times' national standing as the most important daily newspaper in the country, continued to circle the paper looking for fresh evidence of Raines' mismanagement, while an army of angry staffers who felt misused under Raines were grousing openly (if anonymously) about their editor.

And there seemed no end in sight.

The Blair story morphed completely into a Raines story last week with the revelation that Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter Rick Bragg, a close friend of Raines', had been suspended for not crediting the work an unpaid intern had done on a story that appeared with Bragg's byline. As the story mushroomed, Bragg's response was, essentially, that everyone at the Times does the same thing; when that provoked open revolt among his colleagues, Bragg called his good friend Raines and resigned. There's no evidence Raines knew about the corners his friend had cut, but the suspicion inside the newsroom lingered that some members of Raines' star system have been allowed to play by a different, more lenient set of rules.

Under the guidance of Sulzberger -- a fourth-generation Times leader who, in 1992, became publisher at the age of 40 -- the Times handled the crisis in an unusually public way. The paper published an exhaustive 14,000-word package on Blair, held a now-infamous town hall meeting in a Broadway theater, and formed committees to sift through the wreckage and make recommendations. Meanwhile, young reporters at the Times suddenly felt free to band together, air their grievances and demand changes in newsroom policy.

That response fit Sulzberger's stated emphasis on teamwork and cooperation. But such transparent management, which would have been completely foreign to Sulzberger's father and longtime Times publisher Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger, had some inside the paper scratching their heads and wondering if it hadn't done the Times, and especially Raines, extraordinary damage. "I'm devastated over how this has all been handled," complained one Times veteran, just days before Thursday's announcement. "The Times is saying, in effect, 'I'll bend over and kick me in the ass. And then kick me hard and kick me harder.' It's the Times that's keeping the story alive, and it's done Howell in. He's getting pummeled."

Indeed, the resignations were not only a humiliation for the two jettisoned editors, but also for the still-young publisher who was openly fond of Raines and hand-picked him in 2001 as the man to lead the Times into a new century. Both men often spoke about their sense of mission in shepherding the paper's extraordinary traditions, while at the same time growing the Times into something even more energetic and unique. Both men, it seemed, were willing to take on criticism to transform the newspaper, but neither of them envisioned the chaotic meltdown that had gripped the West 43rd Street newsroom for the last month.

"The appointment of Raines was by far the most important decision Arthur Sulzberger had ever made as publisher, and it proved to be a disaster," says Geneva Overholser, a former Times editorial page writer, and currently a journalism professor at the University of Missouri.

"I've called Howell Raines a high-risk editor," says Overholser, who served as editor of the Des Moines Register for seven years. "And we've seen both the risks and the rewards. The extraordinary success covering 9/11, that was Howell Raines. But exhausting the newsroom and creating a star system was also very much Howell Raines. He's an exceedingly talented man, very passionate and hardworking. But the newsroom has found out he's not terribly open to criticism.

"I think Arthur must be heartbroken," she adds. "But he's responsible for the newspaper and he's taken strong and very effective action today" by accepting the resignations.

Additionally upsetting for Sulzberger must be the fact that Boyd, so closely aligned with Raines, was forced out. He was the paper's first black managing editor, which was critically important to the publisher, who once called diversity in the newsroom "the single most important issue" the Times faced.

As rumors swirled earlier this week about Raines' possible resignation, Susan Tifft, a former Times reporter and co-author of "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times," was asked what it would mean if Raines had to abdicate his position. "If that moment came and Arthur Sulzberger asked him to go," she said, "he'd consider it his last gift to the paper. That's how he sees the Times."

But, she added, "it would be the most devastating thing to ever happen in his life. He's spent his entire professional life grooming himself, and preparing himself, and really living for this moment when he'd be able to lead the Times. He feels a real sense of mission about it."

By contrast, Lelyveld, older, more temperate and cerebral than Raines, never shared the same revival-tent feeling about the Times that Raines did. Responding to his 1994 appointment as the Times' executive editor, arguably the most prestigious job in journalism, Lelyveld said, "I was happy, but I didn't have any sense of triumph. It was never my dream."

Lelyveld comes to the interim job with some baggage of his own. It was under his watch that the Times was embarrassed by the Wen Ho Lee spy case. And Jayson Blair was hired on his watch. Yet Lelyveld may be the most logical caretaker, giving the paper time to calm the newsroom, clear the debris, select new leaders and move on.

For now, the unlikely nightmare endures for the Times, the only American newspaper that wields governmental-like power in its ability to dictate the national news agenda, even in the age of cable and the Internet.

In retrospect, it seem clear that Sulzberger's key managerial mistake when it came to managing the newsroom was letting Raines be Raines, over the objection of others.

After early journalism apprenticeships in his home state of Alabama, at the Tuscaloosa News and the Birmingham News, Raines joined the Times in 1978 as a national reporter, and has been working his way to the top ever since.

"People who were my age coming out of college in Birmingham, Alabama (in the '70s), we all wanted to be Howell Raines," says Barra.

Over the years Raines earned a reputation for his regal, autocratic and hard-driving management style. Detailing his tenure as Washington bureau chief, Tifft and co-author Alex Jones wrote in "The Trust" that Raines "demanded that reporters stack books on their desks vertically instead of horizontally, and once ordered a news clerk to bring his office ficus tree out into the rain so it could be watered naturally. Privately, detractors turned his name into a verb: 'to Raines' meant to have slaves and not admit it."

Following Raines' stint in D.C., Sulzberger tapped him to become the Times' editorial page editor and invited him to be part of the paper's permanent brain trust, a new kind of triumvirate made up of the Times' publisher, executive editor and editorial page editor. During the '90s, as the Times' editorial page attacked the Clinton White House mercilessly over trumped-up scandals such as Whitewater and the Wen Ho Lee case, Raines grew closer to Sulzberger and became the obvious choice for executive editor when the job opened in 2001.

But Sulzberger was well aware of newsroom complaints about Raines' penchant for showering attention on a small cadre of favored writers while ignoring others for months on end. Before promoting him, Sulzberger insisted to Raines that he could not run New York like he did D.C. In effect, Raines was ordered to play well with others.

According to the New Yorker profile, "Sulzberger told those he confided in, that he would have blocked Raines' promotion [to executive editor] if Sulzberger was not convinced that he had changed." The irony of Sulzberger telling Raines to abandon his star system, notes Overholser, is that "Howell Raines is the ultimate expression of Arthur's having his own star system."

The other glaring contradiction was that Sulzberger had dedicated himself to modernizing the Times, remaking the newspaper, and particularly its culture, in a contemporary way. Yet Raines was clearly a throwback to an era of harsh, headstrong, I-know-what's-right Times editors such as Abe Rosenthal and Turner Catledge (in the 1960s and '70s) who ran the newsroom however they damn well pleased.

Not surprisingly, Raines did not change his management style. Critics complained it became ever more overbearing -- "the republic of fear" some dubbed it -- as he and his loyalists on the masthead began to dictate the content of the newspaper, and especially Page 1. And that instead of letting reporters and lower-level editors ferret out the news and important analysis stories, assignments were coming from the top down.

The tension was only exacerbated following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, when top-of-the-masthead editors took control over stories coming out of the D.C. bureau, essentially assigning that day's political stories from New York. Even while readers and other journalists marveled at the Times' coverage, it represented an unprecedented attempt to micromanage the newspaper and infuriated editors and reporters, many of whom began to flee to other papers and other jobs.

Even before Jayson Blair, that approach created a firestorm inside the Times last year. The Times wrote extensively about a campaign to open the prestigious Augusta National Golf Course to women; the newspaper clearly seemed to believe that women should be allowed. When two sports columnists dared to question the Times' position, their columns were spiked, a move that provoked an intense national debate among journalists and others. Raines eventually backed down and published the columns, which in the end only highlighted how timid the essays were to begin with. But the fiasco damaged Raines badly inside the newsroom, where nobody could recall columns ever getting killed like that.

Adding to the unease was Raines' demand that, even though the newspaper published just once a day, the staff must compete with cable news and Internet outlets by relentlessly breaking news. The approach often left the newsroom drained, as did Raines' demand that national reporters spend more time on the road chasing stories. As one national staffer complained to the New York Observer last year, under Raines' rules, "Basically, if you have a family, you're f--ked."

Again, the approach was in direct contradiction to Sulzberger's often public proclamations about making the Times a family-friendly work environment. Staffers made sure the publisher, who put in several years as a reporter himself at the Times, understood the gap between his words and Raines' deeds. But Sulzberger opted to let Raines manage the paper as he saw fit.

Now that appears to have been the publisher's biggest mistake of his career.

In his memo to the staff Thursday morning, Sulzberger signaled he'd finally gotten the message that the Times staff was anxious for a more tolerant atmosphere. "While we focus on our craft," he wrote, "I can assure you that we will be just as focused on the goal of creating a work environment that is commensurate with the quality of our journalism and the esteem with which our brand, the New York Times, is held."

By Eric Boehlert

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

MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

The New York Times