It’s hard to tell who is more in denial these days, Howell Raines or Jayson Blair. In a 20,000-word memoir that appears in the May Atlantic, the former New York Times executive editor takes responsibility for not catching the liar who brought him down, but continues to insist, I didn’t do anything wrong!
With his salary of $1 million or more a year, Raines must have gotten a nice severance package, but he doesn’t seem to have spent any of it on therapy. He remembers how he got the top job and what he was doing with it, but still hasn’t figured out why he lost it. In the end, he’s not much of a tragic hero, having yet to experience the moment of self-awakening that makes a protagonist sympathetic in defeat.
To his credit, Raines made the Times lively, and this piece confirms his place as a master of literary journalism and skilled raconteur. Given his previous stint as a novelist (Whiskey Man, 1977), he might want to try pulp fiction next.
The Times he remembers is nothing if not macho. Missing in action are Krystyna Stachowiak, his glamorous second wife; Gail Collins, the Times‘ editorial page editor and his most prominent female hire; and Jill Abramson, the D.C. bureau chief who sparred with him and is now the managing editor. Times Company executive vice president Janet Robinson and Arts & Leisure editor Jodi Kantor get only passing mentions. Even many of the male contemporaries he names seem faintly damned.
Raines’s Times is a land of “old lions,” former executive editors from Turner Catledge and James Reston to Abe Rosenthal and Max Frankel. These are the figures he measures himself against, with the key to greatness being the willingness to exercise power, to rock the boat, to whip the staff into producing “more, better, faster.” Once inside the Times, he confides, “I learned to swim with sharks, and I don’t mind saying that I liked it.”
The memoir does have a love interest: Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. Sulzberger had long found Raines beguiling, and Raines clearly decided to market his charm. He boasts that the relationship between executive editor and publisher is akin to a marriage, and that he and Sulzberger had “chemistry.” In the spring of 2001, Raines recounts, they had an intimate dinner at Aquavit (the publisher reportedly liked it there because the waterfall thwarted eavesdroppers). That’s when Raines began selling Sulzberger on his plan to guarantee the paper’s long-term viability, the details of which are rehashed here in too much detail. Before long they were meeting in a secret room where Sulzberger’s grandfather once “had assignations” with Hollywood star Madeleine Carroll. To discuss business, of course.
Staff Story is a One-sided Screed
One expects juicy stories about the tension between Raines and the newsroom, but he paints that story in broad strokes. His was the culture of achievement; theirs the culture of complaint. It was an epic battle of the change agent against the change-averse, the ambitious against the lazy, the meritocracy against the Newspaper Guild. Like a good contrarian, Raines sees every development as proof of his thesis. Thus, there was a simple reason why he had no “reservoir of good will” when the Blair scandal broke: He had kept the staff continuously “outside its comfort zone.”
But morale counts. Just ask Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who likes to trot out a stuffed moose to express his sympathies with employees. It’s well-known that Sulzberger knew all about Raines’s inner bully, but gave him the executive editor job anyway because Raines had promised to be collegial. It seems Raines either didn’t understand his promise or never intended to honor it.
Instead, he alienated broad swaths of the newsroom in pursuit of his goals. A 2002 New Yorker profile reported that when Raines talked about changing the metabolism of the Times, some staffers felt he was “assaultive” and “contemptuous.” Raines all but confirms the complaints in the Atlantic. “In public,” he whines, the executive editor has to be “a constant cheerleader for the whole staff,” adding elsewhere, “I won’t argue with those who say that my indifference to the approval of individual staff members was a disabling flaw.”
As for playing favorites, well, au contraire: Raines writes with a straight face that he was trying to build “an open assignment process based purely on a correspondent’s talent, performance record on big stories, and willingness to work diligently under adverse conditions.” That chimera of meritocracy is likely to be scoffed at by those who worked outside the star system he denies having assembled.
Raines continues to ignore much of the criticism raised by colleagues before the fall. He makes no mention of having antagonized the D.C. bureau, alienated investigative reporters, and driven talented journalists out. Though at one point he suggests that “taste, honesty, and accuracy” were slowing down the boat, he does not counter the allegation that he sometimes inserted his own opinions into stories, over the objection of reporters who felt he was messing with the facts.
And while he recounts two red-letter days from last spring—when the Times published its comprehensive Blair story, and when the staff assembled to tear Raines apart—he fails to deconstruct the crucial last weeks, which are what this piece should have been about. There is no mention of the press frenzy over Rick Bragg’s “toe-touch,” of Raines’s last-minute attempt to rally the troops, of his farewell to managing editor Gerald Boyd. It seems that Raines’s non-disclosure agreement guaranteed there would be no kiss and tell.
The piece ends in mystification. Raines’s insistence that no one told him about Blair’s history of errors is no more satisfying or credible now than it was a year ago. And as for why Sulzberger canned him, that may remain a mystery forever, because Raines himself doesn’t want to know. He writes that his biggest regret is that he didn’t buck up the publisher and check his emotional temperature. But don’t ask him to learn anything from the process. “Once the essential bond is broken on one side or the other,” Raines writes, “the marriage is over. Anything else is just details.”