The Gray Lady Lives


The spectacle of Jayson Blair’s fraudulent reporting for The New York Times has attracted an angry crowd of avengers. Every day since the scandal broke, the Times has found itself buzzed by the enemies of diversity, right-wingers, competing news companies, the U.S. Attorney’s office, and just about anyone who disagrees with any particular agenda the Times has ever promoted.

What’s most amazing is that even some Times staffers who worship the brand are intent on ramping up the damage. They say Blair’s meteoric rise at the paper demands an institutional fall guy—and who better than executive editor Howell Raines, an autocratic manager who has discouraged dissent and alienated large swaths of the newsroom? However, Raines has said he will not step down unless asked to, and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. says he will not ask Raines to resign.

The staff’s distaste for Raines became official on May 14, when newsroom employees crowded into a town hall meeting led by Sulzberger, Raines, and managing editor Gerald Boyd. According to the Times‘ own reporting, Raines told the crowd he accepted responsibility for the fact that “our institution has been damaged” and acknowledged that his own management style was on trial. He recited specific complaints he had heard: He is “inaccessible” and “arrogant,” his newsroom is “too hierarchical,” he dictates, promotes favorites, and presides over a culture of fear. The now on-the-record complaints were eerily similar to those first reported in a recent Press Clips column (“Republic of Fear,” April 16-22, 2003).

But Raines’s critics remain unmoved, and one said, “Wednesday settled nothing.” Some hope an internal investigation will expose a “second smoking gun,” that is, another Times reporter whom Raines has favored despite a tainted track record. The hunger for a scapegoat may extend all the way to the top: Last week, a rumor went around that the Sulzberger family, which owns the Times, is dissatisfied with the performance of Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

But there is no truth to the rumors of the publisher’s demise, according to Peter Tauber, a member of the extended Sulzberger clan who has known the current Times publisher for more than 35 years. In an interview with the Voice, Tauber said, “Nobody’s after Arthur. No one attributes this in any way to his leadership and no one is anything but admiring of the incredibly successful job he has done.” As for Raines, Tauber added, the top editor is “very secure. It would be completely inappropriate for him to lose his job over this. This is not the cause for a revolution. This is the cause for correcting systemic errors.”

Tauber dismissed complaints about Raines’s style, explaining that there will always be grumblers in a hierarchy of supremely talented people. He credited the Sulzbergers for the “thankless, but amazing” job of maintaining a national institution. “I hate to sound like Pollyanna,” he says, “but things are good at the Times.” Any damage from the Blair scandal is clearly mitigated by the fact that financially, the company is doing “extraordinarily well.”

Many Times staffers are grateful to the Sulzbergers for giving up a chunk of their profits to support good journalism, especially in the wake of September 11. But don’t the Sulzbergers care about staff morale?

“Howell is unnecessarily antagonizing some very good people,” said one reporter. “His job is to hold the hands of all these neurotics and get them to be more productive. Dissing people doesn’t get you anywhere.” Citing inspirational newspaper editors such as Gene Roberts, Ben Bradlee, and Abe Rosenthal, the source said, “People will run into a burning building for them. Nobody’s going to run into a burning building for Howell.”

The question on every insider’s mind last week was whether Raines would survive the attacks—not from the furies outside the building, but from the furies within. Staffers puzzled over the available evidence: Raines, now 60, a former D.C. bureau chief, has always played favorites and ruled like a bully. Sulzberger is said to have known he was taking a risk when he appointed Raines to the top job. On the other hand, Raines is said to have cultivated Sulzberger and lunched with him every week for years. “Arthur is in love with Howell,” notes one source, and others observed that Sulzberger has now tied his fortune more closely to Raines’s than ever before.

If Raines rides out the storm, it may only enhance his profile as a keen student of power. He is said to enjoy invoking the decisions of presidents in times of crisis, and his recent actions certainly merit a chapter in the annals of executive privilege. According to one insider, Raines helped appoint the team that worked on the Times account of the Blair scandal published on May 11. When Times reporters interviewed their boss for the story, he was said to be “very confrontational” and “in-your-face.” And when Raines expressed an interest in reading the story before publication, sources say, his colleagues had to politely dissuade him.

According to a Times spokesperson, neither the publisher, executive editor, nor managing editor read the May 11 story before it was published. But Raines’s aggressive posture may account for certain gaps in the narrative, such as what motivation he and Boyd had for promoting a young employee with admitted “personal problems” and a long list of corrections to the status of national reporter last fall, or why he and Boyd did not ask for the identities of Blair’s anonymous sources shortly afterward, when prosecutors challenged Blair’s sniper stories.

As staffers recall the town hall meeting, many continue to replay Raines’s response to Joe Sexton, an editor on the Metro desk. When Sexton raised the issue of not asking for Blair’s anonymous sources, Raines chastised him for using a profanity. After that, one source recalls, Sulzberger tried to calm Raines down, but it took a long time before Raines focused on addressing the substantive issue. Not asking about the sources “was a failure on my part,” Raines said.

Sulzberger may believe Raines can change his spots, but Raines’s detractors see his hubris as a fatal flaw, and some predict he will retire before turning 65, the Times‘ mandatory retirement age for top executives. Whether Raines stays or not, says one source, “the prospect of him leading the Times to some new era of greatness is gone.”

If Raines is damaged goods, where does that leave Boyd, whom Raines was grooming to be his successor? “Gerald will never be editor of the paper,” says one source. But no one seems to think Boyd will be fired. He is credited for his forceful efforts to promote minority journalists at the paper. And while some observers find Boyd’s recent denials disingenuous, so far no one is painting him as the Frankenstein who created the monster.

The worst rap on Boyd seems to be his “brusque” personality, yet another factor he seems to want to deny. At the town hall meeting, Boyd denied giving Blair special treatment, describing himself as an approachable manager whose door is open to everyone. One source says Times staffers laughed hard at this, because the real Boyd is “sour and intimidating. He never has time to talk to anybody.”

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