The staff of The New York Times hasn’t seen much of Howell Raines lately.
Or at least not the Howell Raines they once knew.
It’s been a month since the story of Times fabricator and plagiarist Jayson Blair broke; three weeks since the tempestuous town-hall meeting in which staffers pilloried Mr. Raines for what they said was his top-down leadership and occult management style; one week since Mr. Raines’ friend Rick Bragg, among the most controversial of The Times ‘ star writers, stepped down with a somewhat arrogant defiance after the word got out that he’d made extensive use of stringers to put together his writerly stories.
Since then, Mr. Raines has been in the building. But the executive editor whose domination of the organization has been compared to the reign of A.M. Rosenthal, who began molding the paper in his own image- that Howell Raines-has not. There’s been another Howell Raines around, a man who seems largely absent from the newsroom, though select editorial constituencies have had dinner with him to discuss the Blair Affair; who has had to arrange desk-to-desk newsroom tours with managing editor Gerald Boyd to ingratiate himself with the rank-and-file; who faces the prospect of being mummified by red tape as committees form to prescribe the newspaper’s recovery.
That Howell Raines has been around. Or at least that’s what his co-workers have complained, as the long-suffering often do when they’re not quite sure if they want an autocrat to assert himself or free them.
“People can feel it,” one Times source said. “He’s totally lost control.”
The void is not being filled by some Lelyveldian bureaucracy, in which responsibility is systematically diffused as it descends the chain of command, but rather by a kind of overall editorial discombobulation with which The Times is not familiar.
Many Times staff members who spoke to Off the Record on the condition of anonymity said that the paper was paying the price for this jarring crisis. High-ranking editors are spending a lot of their time either working on or answering to assistant managing editor Al Siegal’s committee, set up to investigate How Jayson Happened. Meanwhile, according to Times assistant managing editor Craig Whitney, about 20 reporters, editors and support people have joined the so-called Communications Working Group, which Mr. Whitney set up with fellow assistant managing editor Andrew Rosenthal.
“The real purpose [of the group] is to explore the flow of communication up and down and sideways,” Mr. Whitney said. “Editors to reporters, and among each other as well.”
National editor Jim Roberts said there had been distractions. “I spend more time talking to people like you,” Mr. Roberts told Off the Record. “To what extent that distracts me from my work, I don’t know. But I don’t think it affects our ability to cover the news.”
One Times source said the result of all this involvement in the Blair fix has been a newspaper put together by “the B-team.” Another staffer said: “It’s not clear who puts together page 1 each day. No one, really.”
“It’s a fair assessment in the very short term,” said metropolitan editor Jonathan Landman, a member of the Siegal committee. “But I don’t think it speaks to anything larger. For a few weeks, there’s going to be some crazy bullshit before we come up with a better management structure. This is a strange, unpleasant time, but it will pass.”
Business and financial editor Glenn Kramon, another member of the Siegal committee, said that it would ultimately yield good things. “We’re working hard, figuring out how to do things better,” he said. “We feel as if it will be a chance to change things at this paper, to be able to do things better that hadn’t been possible before all of this happened.”
Through a spokesperson, Mr. Raines said: “We intend to do an even better job of tapping the collective industry and intellect of our 1,100 journalists, who make up the most talented news staff in the world.”
What The New York Times will finally look like after the dust settles-and how Mr. Raines will fit into the picture-is the long-term question. It’s a complicated and interesting question. But the paper’s present state, according to sources, has made it vulnerable to challenges from The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times . Important decision-making has been left in a state of paralysis, contributing to an unfocused front page without Mr. Raines’ signature news judgment, just when The Times is most eager to prove itself to the world.
Of course, a good deal of the paper’s work continues as before, much as the White House did after Monicagate.
“There are 1,100 really good journalists here, and they haven’t forgotten how to do their work,” Mr. Landman said. “The executive editor, on a day-to-day basis, never told them how to do their job. Look, The New York Times competes with more publications than any one single publication does. Locally, we compete with the tabloids, with Crain’s . Our business section competes with The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal . In Washington, we compete with The Washington Post . We compete with magazines. Lots of people beat us. We’re not the only ones with good stories.”
Whether that chastened position is shared by Mr. Raines or Mr. Sulzberger, who didn’t comment for this story, remains to be seen. Some small gestures aimed at decentralizing power, however, are already taking shape.
Mr. Raines and Mr. Boyd, in a May 20 memo, advocated “push[ing] authority on news coverage and staff assignments down to the department heads and to work with them in a consultative way on matters of news judgment and deployment of resources.”
Abramson, Tyler, Swords
Sources said that no clear plan has been established as to how, in fact, this will take place. But in the meantime, the one man Mr. Raines does report to has been trying to reacquaint himself with the newsroom through which he once padded in his socks. According to a Times source, following the May 14 town-hall meeting, Mr. Sulzberger attended two meetings with several assistant managing editors on the paper’s 14th floor. Even more than during the rancorous Loews Astor Plaza meeting, Mr. Sulzberger was said to be “shocked” at the level of discord between this level of the masthead and Mr. Raines.
On Tuesday, June 3, Mr. Sulzberger met with the members of the Washington bureau of the Times , historically the newspaper’s most discontented outpost, and one that has been downright hostile during Mr. Raines’ tenure. The entire staff, from interns to top editors, attended. Over soda and chips and wraps, staff members staged a reprise of the May 14 town-hall meeting, lobbing tough questions that Mr. Sulzberger had largely heard before, but apparently had yet to answer fully.
The atmosphere leading up to the meeting was tense. One Times source said, before the meeting, that should Mr. Raines try to replace bureau chief Jill Abramson with chief correspondent Patrick Tyler, “swords would be drawn.” (Mr. Tyler, currently reporting from Iraq, did not return an e-mail seeking comment, and Ms. Abramson didn’t return calls before press time.)
But anger toward Mr. Raines is not confined to the Washington bureau. Sources described a general feeling at the paper’s national desk that Mr. Raines ought to have advanced a more public defense-as Peter Kilborn did-following Mr. Bragg’s comments in The Washington Post and other media outlets, in which he spoke of the extensive use of stringers at The Times .
“They feel abandoned,” said Susan E. Tifft, co-author with Alex S. Jones of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times . “They feel that because neither Howell nor [publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.] stood up, they were all indicted.” On May 29, The Times ‘ two top editors issued a memo that finally defended the battered national desk. Mr. Raines and Mr. Boyd said that Times correspondents had been “depicted unfairly in various news accounts involving the use of stringers and freelancers.”
Meanwhile, the question remains: How much will staff discontent with Mr. Raines affect his standing with The Times ‘ publisher? To date, Mr. Sulzberger has expressed his full confidence in Mr. Raines, and even some Times staffers question how much of the old Times management model really needs to be scrapped.
“The staff doesn’t normally run the paper, and Arthur has no obligation to run the paper like the staff wants it to be done,” one Times staff member said. “He’ll determine the quality of the editor based on how good the paper is. As long as the paper’s good, what difference does it make what the staff wants?”
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said the real issue for The Times is explaining to its readers why Mr. Blair didn’t get caught sooner, and demonstrating that it had “fully absorbed” the implications of the scandal.
“This is between The New York Times and its readers,” Mr. Rosenstiel said. “Ultimately, staff morale and issues like that are less important than the bond between the reader and the paper. Whatever they do, they have to do for the readers-and publicly.”
It’s the internal contradiction that reflects The Times’ ambivalence in this moment of crisis. Angry at its strong-willed leader, the paper seeks a strong-willed leader. Distressed at his autocracy, it still wants his authority.
“Where is this a happy newsroom? Nowhere,” one Times staff member said. “This is an environment of paralysis and uncertainty. We need someone to restore momentum and hope. And I don’t see Howell as the person to do that.”
By any measure outside of Times Square, this should have gone away by now. Mr. Blair’s deceptions could have been viewed as a self-contained act of malevolent self-destruction. Mr. Bragg, meanwhile, might have been filed away on an index card as a case of laziness infused with arrogance. And, if not forgotten, these two resignations-in another time and place, at another newspaper-might have served as a galvanizing moment to achieve what the military calls “unit cohesion.”
But as Adam Clymer pointed out in a widely circulated memo urging his colleagues to “stop feeding this destructive monster,” despite the prospect of further revelations, the forces keeping this scandal alive are more internal than external.
“I was trying to get people to deal with their problems internally, without sharing them with people on the outside,” Mr. Clymer said. “It’s just something I felt strongly about.”
“There is a sense that, if there had been a foundation of good will, people would just go back to their jobs and let it go,” another Times staff member said. “Now you have people on the inside actively looking for things. It’s the people inside that won’t let it go.”
That tug is what might ultimately hurt Mr. Raines the most. For most of his career, Mr. Raines has directed an aggressive offense, as tightly wound and forward-moving as his beloved Alabama football. As editorial-page editor of The Times , he produced editorials that verbally bloodied a post-Monica Bill Clinton, who became, through his lens, a traitor to a whole generation. He won his job from Mr. Sulzberger by pitching himself as the strong cowboy who could bring order to a mulling herd; who came crashing down with goals that were sexy and decisive, “flooding the zone” to gain total control of the most important breaking stories. His goals were to break national news, to build an identifiable core of writers whose names would draw in readers, and to transmit stylish takes on popular culture that would combine with The Times ‘ traditional higher intellectual wavelengths, competing with magazines on both the cultural and cerebral levels.
But to survive, a consensus at The Times seems to believe, Mr. Raines must do the near impossible, or at least the very difficult: run the place while disowning the technique that led him there.
“Howell cannot play to his strengths,” a Times source said. “It’s very hard for him to play to his strength, and his strength is being in command. Every fiber of his being wants to be the leader of this paper, but I’m not sure Arthur would let him. He’s being watched like a hawk.”
Another newsroom source said: “Howell Lite doesn’t play. Howell Lite means he’s not doing anything.”
It’s an old story: Nice leaders aren’t necessarily good leaders, and strong leaders don’t necessarily play as nice leaders. Think of Lyndon B. Johnson trying to give a grandfatherly smile through his glasses, or Richard Nixon trying to democratize.
Ms. Tifft, while acknowledging that the sudden sprout of committees was “an Arthur Sulzberger way of doing things, not a Howell Raines way of doing things,” said that one shouldn’t underestimate Mr. Raines’ adaptation skills. “This is a country that believes in redemption,” she said. “Redemption for Jayson Blair, but also for Howell as he looks to gain the faith of the newsroom back. But it’s not going to be easy. Howell’s incredibly determined; he’s going to do whatever he can to win the confidence of the newsroom going forward. If he fails, it won’t be for lack of trying.”
Mr. Landman said he thought Mr. Raines would “give it his best shot.”
“He’s a smart guy,” Mr. Landman said. “He’s got a lot going for him. I’m proceeding as if he’s going to be here for a while, and as if I’m going to be here awhile.”