Howell Raines: May a Thousand Critics Bloom

When there was a Soviet Union, there were cultural commissars to give directives: Shostakovich good; Shostakovich bad. And, of course, China had Madame Mao. And for decades, New York City had The New York Times .

But lately, the city has culturally been on its own, more or less. The newspaper’s grip on the cultural life of the city has loosened. New Yorkers have been allowed to operate under less assertive direction.

However, Howell Raines, the executive editor of The Times , has made it his mission to reinvigorate the paper’s cultural coverage. In October, he appointed the stylish writer and former foreign correspondent Steven Erlanger as culture editor, and then, on Jan. 8, brought back the paper’s biggest culture name, Frank Rich, as a kind of cultural commissar with full epaulets: a weekly front-page column in the Sunday Arts & Leisure section from which he can issue proclamations: Eminem good; Eminem bad.

Culture, apparently, is back in style at The New York Times . And in an interview with Off the Record on Monday, Jan. 13, Mr. Raines blew the flügelhorn for the paper’s cultural restoration.

He called the culture section the “crown jewel” of the paper and added: “It is as much a part of our signature identity as the foreign report. It’s an area where we have not only history-dating back to Arthur Gelb’s invention of the modern culture report-it’s also an area where we have high reader expectations. People in the city have high expectations of our report, and people out in the country, I think, come to our report for the New Yorkness of New York. It’s a very important part of our local and national ambitions.

“I posit our readership as being the most sophisticated in the country and having a Renaissance-like appetite for information,” Mr. Raines continued. “Therefore, it’s important for us to dominate high culture in New York: opera, ballet, visual arts-the great institutions that exist here. And that’s something we would never walk away from. At the same time, I think our readers expect us to be as sophisticated and comprehensive on popular culture as on those traditional aspects of culture that you’d identify with The New York Times … to be as good on Hollywood and the music industry as we are on Lincoln Center.”

Once, no play or movie or cabaret show or museum show took flight in New York without the approval of The Times , or its succession of monumental critics operating under its last great culture czar Arthur Gelb-the former drama writer for the paper who went on to become culture editor and managing editor, discovering Woody Allen and Whoopi Goldberg along the way, fronting theater and music stories left and right as he co-ran the paper with his colleague, executive editor A.M. Rosenthal.

Now, Mr. Raines is taking some steps to reassert the paper’s cultural primacy. In a somewhat ambiguous but dramatic move, he returned Mr. Rich, the paper’s drama critic from 1980 to 1993, to the cultural mainstream of The Times by moving his column from an every-other-Saturday position on the Op-Ed page to a weekly front-page slot in Arts & Leisure, and presenting him the title of associate editor. This move stirred debate on Don Imus’ radio show of whether it was-talk about “Back in the U.S.S.R.”!-promotion or demotion. But whatever its internal tensions, the move immediately reinstated not only Mr. Rich as a presence in culture, but reinstated the paper’s cultural brand name on his old backyard. Mr. Raines has yet to name an Arts & Leisure editor, but sources at The Times say the leading candidate is Jodi Kantor, currently the New York editor for Slate , the Internet magazine.

Mr. Raines said that he wanted the section to “break stories that our competitors have no choice but to follow … stories that are of such compelling interest that no smart reader who has the option will skip over them.

“I’ll give you an example from Hollywood,” Mr. Raines said. “We’re interested in movies because we like to review them, because the world of Hollywood is a place of great interest in terms of personalities and talent. But also, Hollywood is a global industry that is putting out a stream of images and ideas and other kinds of cultural artifacts that have a global impact. We want to be first on writing the story of the movie industry in its full amplitude-that is to say, artistically, financially and in terms of global culture.”

Mr. Raines said he wanted to “be in a position to break news in the L.A. Times ‘ backyard.” He added that having seismic cultural pieces jump from the front page was an important part of Mr. Erlanger’s mandate.

“One of the things that I believe in is that our readers have high quality expectations and high seriousness expectations of The Times ,” Mr. Raines said. “But they like a diverse front page that puts them in contact with the culture. You know, sometimes it works, and sometimes people think we do this less well.

“I’ll give you an example,” Mr. Raines continued. “When [Run-D.M.C.'s] Jam Master Jay was killed a few months ago, I had been following the debate in rap music about Snoop Dogg trying to revive his career by insulting Suge Knight. I thought this was so interesting because it was being covered in the entertainment press like it was about one guy’s mother being insulted by the other guy. And, in fact, it’s a business story that’s touching Sony and many other companies in an industry that’s had a 20 percent decline in revenues. So behind this public street conflict is this huge business story.”

Mr. Raines admitted, though, that despite some attempts he felt were successful at covering youth culture- The Times made a somewhat Humbertian stab at following Britney Spears around town for an A-1 feature-the paper had to “get better” when writing about what the kids were up to. “We want to be as good at telling our readers the history of CBGB as we are about telling them about the Metropolitan Opera,” Mr. Raines said. “And we would actually like to be really good at trying to explain what is today’s successor to CBGB. I’m probably dating myself simply by using CBGB, but that’s where we’re going.”

As an emblem of the paper’s direction, Mr. Raines pointed to a piece about AOL Time Warner’s new chief executive, Richard Parsons. “One of our themes was that this was a victory for the old company, that Time Warner was reasserting itself. Some people said it was speculative and premature, but we knew it was true from our reporting. We had great sources, and it turned out to be exactly right. I take great pride that that story was on page 1 from Day 1.

“Ken Auletta, in his profile of me in The New Yorker , singled out that story as being somehow flawed. I saw him the other day and asked him if the new company could stand any more of this good news.”

Still, there’s business news and there’s culture news. For years, particularly from 1967 to 1990 under Mr. Gelb’s direction, the culture section of The Times served as the repository of New York’s most distinguished cultural critics: Harold C. Schonberg and Donal Henahan on music; Hilton Kramer and John Russell on art; Walter Kerr, Stanley Kauffmann and Mr. Rich on the theater; Clive Barnes on dance; Renata Adler, Vincent Canby and Janet Maslin on the movies; Ada Louise Huxtable and Paul Goldberger on architecture; and Jack Gould, John O’Connor, Walter Goodman and John Corry on television. And in dance, literature and cabaret, The Times ruled the waves. Even readers who hated those critics read them.

“For decades, the paper was able to boast the foremost critics and reporters in the culture area,” said Arthur Gelb, 78, who recently finished a memoir about his lifetime at The Times . “Both daily and Sunday were absolute must reading. Anyone in the cultural world or interested in culture had to read the culture section. I think it was something everyone took for granted.”

What the section seems to have lost is authority, and the understanding that cultural leadership in New York is as hard-won and easily lost as political leadership. Just because The Times remains the great transmitter of cultural news, sending out signals, doesn’t mean anyone’s listening.

While expressing “reverence and admiration” for Mr. Gelb’s culture section, Mr. Raines said he didn’t see it as a “template” for how Mr. Erlanger and Mr. Rich will work. Asked what he wanted The Times ‘ culture coverage to stand for, Mr. Raines said, “The same thing we try and stand for everywhere. We have very high aspirations. No one gets to the level of senior editor-that is, desk-head through masthead level of The New York Times -without being drenched in what Max Frankel called ‘ Times- ian values.’ That’s why I find it amusing when I read these depictions of me as someone that’s out to change the character of The New York Times . If you knew our institution, you’d see how much continuity of tradition is central to our identity. And indeed, we regard ourselves as stewards to an irreplaceable institution. And the first rule of stewardship is to pass it along in vibrant shape.”

And he had a declaration to make: He liked 8 Mile .

“I was surprised,” Mr. Raines said of the movie. “Marshall Mathers has a presence that’s quite interesting. And I liked the depiction of urban working-class life, which is something I know a great deal about, having grown up in a grim industrial city. And I liked the performance aspects. And in particular, though it was hokey, I liked the dramatic climax.”

Fellow New Yorkers! Eminem is good!

Blaine Harden spent 21 years at The Washington Post before becoming a national correspondent at The New York Times . Now he’s heading back.

On Monday, Jan. 13, Mr. Harden confirmed that he’s leaving The Times , where he’s spent the last four years, to become a national correspondent for The Post based out of Seattle. His departure is the sixth by a national correspondent or bureau chief from The Times since the start of 2002.

“I’m from the Pacific Northwest, and I’ve wanted to write about that region for a long time,” Mr. Harden said of his new gig. “I wrote a book about the Columbia River in the early 90′s [ A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia ], and I’m interested in water and environmental issues. But I’m a general-feature writer, so I’ll write about everything.