‘Republic of Fear’


Last week, as one regime crumbled in Baghdad, another was consolidating power on 43rd Street—that of New York Times executive editor Howell Raines. Since former editor Joe Lelyveld stepped down in September 2001, Raines and his deputies are said to have engaged in a rolling purge, systematically pushing out editorial employees with ties to the past and making way for new stars. “It’s like a divorce,” says one insider, with the staff now divided between Joe’s people and Howell’s people. “To be a favorite of Joe is a black mark with Howell,” says another.

According to insiders, Raines is the kind of 1950s-style autocrat who manages through humiliation and fear. Aside from right-hand men Gerald Boyd and Andy Rosenthal and a core of loyalists, morale is said to be at a new low. There are many rooms in that palace and nobody sees the whole picture. But, says one source, “the old timers who lived through the worst of [former executive editor] Abe Rosenthal say they have never seen anyone be so arrogant, so petty, so mean. Vindictiveness is in.” Another source says, “It’s no longer about managing down. It’s about paying obeisance to the king.” Among cognoscenti, 43rd Street is now known as the “republic of fear.”

A Times spokesperson offered no response to a detailed request for comment, and efforts to reach Boyd found him first in a meeting and then unavailable. A further request for comment was placed with the head of corporate communications at press time.

In the 19 months since Raines took over, so many high-ranking Times people have stepped down that cultural custodians are scrambling to keep track of the body count. On the investigations desk, the departed include Stephen Engelberg, Doug Frantz, and Tim Golden; on the national desk, Kevin Sack, Sam Howe Verhovek, and others; on the foreign desk, correspondents Melinda Henneberger and Suzanne Daley. Three women who stepped down this year are assistant managing editor Carolyn Lee, who retired at 57; pictures editor Margaret O’Connor, who Raines has said will get a new job at the Times; and science editor Cornelia Dean, who has been replaced by Elizabeth Rosenthal, the Times’ former Beijing correspondent. To be sure, each departure is caused by unique circumstances, and managers see such turnover as a natural part of newsroom evolution.

Some of the anxiety stems from the recent resignations of investigations editor Frantz and investigative reporter Golden, veterans of a unit that has produced several Pulitzers for the Times. Their departures, which reflected the two men’s dissatisfaction with Raines, coincided with the news that the Times‘ seven Pulitzers of last year had been slashed this year to one, for Clifford Levy’s investigative series on the treatment of mentally ill adults in New York State. On April 7, the day the Pulitzers were announced, Raines told a group of staffers that Levy’s win proves “our commitment to investigative journalism.”

In comments that same day, Joe Sexton, an editor on the Metro desk, praised Metro editor Jonathan Landman, a longtime champion of the Levy series. According to Sexton, he said of Landman, “He has created a wonderful environment to work in. He gives the editors and reporters around him his trust, a sense of individual authority, and complete freedom to go out and do their best.” Others noted a contrast with Raines, who often ignores editors’ and reporters’ ideas.

The prizewinning series was the work of Landman, Levy, Sexton, and Christine Kay, then an editor on the Metro desk. Before it was published in April 2002, the editors sent Raines a memo summarizing it. But Raines did not read the memo, sources say, and two months later, he claimed he had lost it. Raines’s interest in the series seemed to peak when it won the award. In a congratulatory house ad last Sunday, the Times listed every Pulitzer it has ever won, rather than focusing on, say, how Levy’s series produced dramatic results.

Critics see Tim Golden’s April 1 resignation as the latest sign that Raines does not understand the needs of a successful investigations desk. Golden can be a contentious person who fights for his copy, but he is also a meticulous reporter and two-time Pulitzer winner. His star rose under Lelyveld. Critics say Raines judged him more for his loyalty, or lack thereof, than on the merits of his performance.

Loyalty and performance were put to the test between July and October 2002, when Raines killed several stories by Golden and fellow reporter David Kocieniewski. For months, the two had been pursuing allegations of influence peddling by former New Jersey senator Robert Torricelli, who was running for re-election. The New York Observer reported last week that Raines felt the pieces he spiked had been “reckless.”

Times insiders tell another story: They say editors asked Raines to spell out his complaints about the spiked pieces, but he declined, citing only his aversion to “piling on” or to giving prosecutors too much credence. After all, the Justice Department had declined to press charges, and the Senate only gave the senator a severe reprimand. But the spiked stories included a jailhouse interview with Torricelli’s accuser, David Chang, and an inventory of the evidence investigators had collected to corroborate Chang’s claims that he gave Torricelli gifts in exchange for political favors. One source claims that Landman lobbied hard for the spiked pieces and felt undercut when they did not run.

Asked if Golden’s work was “reckless,” Landman told the Voice, “I think Tim’s a great reporter. His stuff on Torricelli held up brilliantly. There’s nothing reckless about it.” He declined to comment on internal disputes. Golden and Kocieniewski declined to comment.

Adding insult to injury, someone else got the scoop. On September 26, after some of the Times pieces were spiked, WNBC ran a special Torricelli report by Jonathan Dienst, featuring a jailhouse interview with Chang and an inventory of evidence. According to someone close to the Torricelli case, key sources tired of waiting for the Times to use their info, so they turned it over to WNBC. Four days after the WNBC report aired, Torricelli pulled out of the race, expressly to avoid further harm to the party. It seems likely that the Times, not WNBC, would have delivered Torricelli’s coup de grâce—had Raines not killed key stories in the heat of the election campaign.

Frantz recently gave Golden a major investigative assignment. But when Frantz quit, Golden was pulled off the assignment and asked to do other work, to “prove himself” in some daily-news capacity. Sources say this fuck-you was the final straw that prompted Golden to quit.

Life goes on. Frantz’s deputy, former UN bureau chief Julia Preston, is a candidate for the job of investigations editor. Preston is smart and talented, colleagues say, but her background is in hard news, not investigative reporting.