“Mr. Raines is nothing if not competitive.” That’s how one insider explains the announcement last week that New York Times executive editor Howell Raines has created an independent investigations desk for the first time ever, and named Times Istanbul correspondent Douglas Frantz to be his investigations editor. Raines “wants to be seen as the greatest editor in the history of The New York Times,” says another source. Indeed, newsrooms across the country are buzzing about whether Raines will commit the necessary resources to investigations, or whether he created this new desk merely because he realized that not doing so would tarnish his image.
Frantz was not Raines’s first choice, but he is universally liked and admired by colleagues, one of whom says he has the “chops and ambition” necessary for the job. Before joining the Times in 1994, Frantz worked for the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Colleagues praise his 1992 book on the BCCI bank scandal, his brief editing stint at the Times, and his ability to do both proactive and reactive investigations—that is, not only the public service projects that start from scratch and lead to indictments, but also the shadow probes that track developing law enforcement investigations.
Newspapers pride themselves on old-fashioned enterprise reporting. In recent years, for example, The Washington Post has won Pulitzers for stories about the high rate of police shootings in D.C., and about the D.C. government’s mistreatment of its mentally ill and foster children. The Los Angeles Times recently added D.C.-based freelancer Ken Silverstein to its investigations team. Given the stiff competition among these papers, it was significant when Washington Post investigations editor Jeff Leen praised Frantz to the Voice last week, calling his 1997-1998 Times reporting on Scientology and the IRS “very brave and proactive. It showed all the things you want to see in an investigative series.”
Frantz is slated to move to New York in October—and not a minute too soon. Of late, some Times staffers have been demoralized by Raines’s seeming lack of interest in long-term enterprise reporting. “When someone like Frantz rises to be an administrator,” says one source, “it sends a message that the type of journalism this person stands for is going to be pushed ahead, that you won’t have to fight management.” A Times insider says investigations will be “beefed up, more muscular and aggressive.”
The proof will be in the pudding. The Times has long been parsimonious with its gumshoes, and in the past the investigations editor was lower in rank than the Metro, Washington, National, and Foreign editors, each of whom commands a desk. What’s more, Raines’s decision to create an independent investigations desk is an about-face from his previous thinking. Just last winter, Raines sent the message that instead of long exposés, he wanted investigative reporters filing short updates every few weeks. Said one insider, “His vision of investigative stories is scoops that you start reporting on Tuesday and get in the paper on Sunday.”
Many insiders were surprised that Frantz took the job. He loves Istanbul, they say, and must have gotten some heady promises about funding for long-term investigations. According to Leen, Frantz’s success will depend on Raines’s commitment. “Investigations are the most expensive things you can do, short of covering a war,” says Leen. “This is more expensive than adding a new food critic or a couple of feature writers. You’re stepping up to the big poker table in terms of the bets you’re making.”
If Frantz doesn’t get the power to hire additional staff, a real budget, and the freedom to spend it, sources say, he is the kind of guy who will walk. Rumor has it that Frantz has a fallback position, perhaps working for the Los Angeles Times. From an office-politics perspective, he is seen as ideal for 43rd Street because he is an insider, yet not overly loyal to the previous regime. Frantz declined to comment.
Unlike, say, The Washington Post, which set up an independent unit shortly after Watergate, the Times has never formalized its approach to investigative reporting. Which is not to say they don’t do it. Perhaps the Times‘ most admired shot was a series published in 1985 and 1986, which accused a former New York City medical examiner of covering up police brutality. (The ensuing libel suit was dismissed last year.)
In 1997, Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld promoted Stephen Engelberg to the position of investigations editor. According to one insider, Engelberg “fired up” the investigative reporters on staff. “He got them resources and got their stuff in the paper.” Five years later, he had won three Pulitzers, including one for a series on corruption in Mexico and another for a series on Al Qaeda. But one of the Times‘ biggest embarrassments happened on Engelberg’s watch: He edited the stories accusing Wen Ho Lee of being a spy. The Times backpedaled in a letter “from the editors” published in September 2000.
When Raines took over a year later, he had every reason to be cautious. But in certain circles, the rap is that he is all style and no substance—that is, he doesn’t understand the value of investigative reporting, and neither he nor his cronies have any background in the craft. So far, his idea of generating buzz seems to be splashing pop features on the front page and promoting his stylists. (To be sure, the Times has published some outstanding enterprise stories on Raines’s watch, including reports on the mistreatment of the adult mentally ill, doctors’ misreading of mammograms, and the Internal Revenue Service’s lax approach to scrutinizing the rich.)
When Engelberg quit the Times to become managing editor for investigations at the Portland-based Oregonian last spring, he cited personal reasons. But last year, Raines’s deputies are said to have pressured Engelberg for better September 11 reporting and berated him for stories the Times missed. One source says the editor was “beaten down to a pulp.” Another says Engelberg wanted more control and impact and knew he wasn’t going to get it. Engelberg declined to comment.
When Engelberg left, it was rumored that Raines would not fill the position. But at some point, Raines apparently realized that his legacy would be incomplete without an investigative editor. He first approached reporter Matthew Purdy, and then began courting Marilyn Thompson, who is assistant managing editor for investigations at The Washington Post. Thompson, a former Daily News reporter with years of editing experience, is now on leave, writing a book on the anthrax attacks for HarperCollins. For Raines, who like Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. supports diversity in the newsroom, it would have been a coup to hire a woman for such a prominent position—not to mention one from the Post.
Thompson said she was approached last spring and had “one discussion with Howell,” but never received a formal offer. Asked why she didn’t jump at the chance, she said she has a “dream job” and the Post has “made it clear to me repeatedly that my contributions are highly valued.” She called Frantz “an enormous talent.”
Also last spring, sources said, Raines asked Times D.C. bureau chief Jill Abramson to come to New York to be assistant managing editor for investigations. But Abramson has complained about Raines’s brusque management style, according to The New Yorker, and she was reluctant to uproot her family to New York. Insiders said Raines has merely delayed his master plan, predicting that Abramson will likely be transferred next year, whereupon chief Washington correspondent Patrick Tyler will take over as D.C. bureau chief. Abramson and Purdy did not return calls. A call to Times managing editor Gerald Boyd was immediately transferred to a Times spokesperson, and top editors subsequently declined to respond to a detailed request for comment.
While outsiders mull over the meaning of Frantz’s appointment, Times insiders are concerned with more practical issues. Will Frantz concentrate on national and foreign stories, or will he also control investigative projects launched by the D.C., Metro, and Business desks? And by the way, who wants to go to Istanbul?