After a month and a half of intense terrorism coverage in The New York Times , tensions are flaring between new executive editor Howell Raines and the paper’s fabled Washington, D.C., bureau, sources at the paper said.
Historically, The Times has given its Washington bureau-the fabled former power base of James Reston and Max Frankel, which Mr.Raineshimself helmed from 1988 to 1993-a wide berth. At the same time, because both New York and Washington were full of headstrong, ambitious reporters and editors-and the news cultures of the cities were often different-clashes occurred now and again. In The Kingdom and the Powe r, his history of The Times , Gay Talese recounts how, in 1959, legendary Washington bureau chief Arthur Krock once turned away a star reporter from Manhattan, telling him his D.C. boys could handle the story just fine.
Now, in the wake of Sept. 11, the old D.C.–New York Times feud is cropping up again. The main issue, as in the past, is territory and control.
“Look, there’s a lot of big egos, and this is a big story,” said a Times correspondent. “There are always strains, but any time you have a gigantic story like this, it’s inevitable. There’s only so many people who can get on page 1.”
Specifically,Washingtonstaffershave complained that since the terrorist attacks, The Times ‘ daily coverage has been aggressively shaped by a tight, New York–based leadership circle, including Mr. Raines, managing editor Gerald Boyd, assistant managing editor Andy Rosenthal and assistant managing editor Michael Oreskes. Among the grievances are that Washington stories are too frequently assigned from New York, and that stories-especially those on page 1-are being rewritten after they’ve been edited in D.C.
On Thursday, Oct. 18, Mr. Boyd visited the D.C. bureau. The trip had been planned ever since Mr. Boyd had been named managing editor in July, but had been put off because of the attacks.
Those at the bureau, however, saw Mr. Boyd as a diplomat from New York, coming to soothe New York–D.C. relations.
But instead, the managing editor may have stoked the flames. Mr. Boyd began his meeting with the bureau by amply praising the staff’s efforts and reporting-but when it came time to talk about the daily decision-making in New York, a number of bureau staffers were irked by his use of the phrase “we decide.” By “we,” sources felt, Mr. Boyd clearly meant “New York.” (Mr. Boyd told Off the Record that this interpretation was wrong: He was simply describing routine editorial protocol, not addressing the recent New York–Washington power dynamic, he said.)
Since then, there has been continued grumbling in Washington about Mr. Boyd, Mr. Raines and the New York headquarters. Lately, the D.C. staff has taken to referring to Mr. Raines and his colleagues as “the Taliban” and “the Gang of Four.”
Mr. Raines told Off the Record that The Times ‘ Washington bureau is being treated no differently than it was when he was its chief, but he did acknowledge that the scale of the terrorism story required the relationship between New York and D.C. to be more coordinated and structured than it usually was. Mr. Raines added that the timing of his transition-he took over as executive editor for Joseph Lelyveld on Sept. 5, just days before the terrorist attacks-may have complicated the relationship as well.
“We’re dealing with the biggest story in living memory at a time of management transition,” Mr. Raines said. “There may be some bruised feelings, but I have not found it to be a major problem.”
He added, “This has always been an edited paper …. To edit is to choose. Washington is the locale of great journalism and then it flows to New York in the way it always has.”
Mr. Raines also praised the current Washington bureau chief, Jill Abramson. “We have a wonderful Washington editor in Jill Abramson,” he said.
Ms. Abramson returned the compliment, and also downplayed any suggestion of a rift between the bureaus.
“This is a large and dynamic bureau filled with brilliant reporters and editors, some of whom are just getting to know Howell and his team,” she said. Ms. Abramson said her staff’s concerns about Mr. Raines were not “worrisome.”
Ms. Abramson’s deputy, John Broder, said that any conflicts with New York were not impinging on the bureau’s coverage. “Are there heated discussions between New York and Washington over the shape of stories? Of course,” Mr. Broder said. “Are there disagreements? Sure. There should be; that’s how this business works. But at the end of the day, what matters is the report, not the process.”
To be sure, there are pressures between the headquarters and D.C. bureau of any newspaper, not just The New York Times . But it is true that The Times has a tradition of Washington chiefs who reveled in the paper’s independence from New York. Traditionally, attempts by New York to rein in Washington have provoked memorable battles, such as in 1968, when then–assistant managing editor A. M. Rosenthal, a rising New York power, tried unsuccessfully to have fellow New Yorker James Greenfield assigned as Washington bureau chief. (Mr. Frankel got the job instead.)
At the same time, the paper’s Washington bureau was itself in a period of transition prior to Sept. 11. Ms. Abramson is still a relatively new chief, having been promoted in January. There has been a shuffle on the White House beat, with former City Hall bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller replacing Frank Bruni, who is off to The Times Magazine . The former Los Angeles bureau chief, Todd Purdum, had also been moved to Washington, where, it was said, he was being groomed to be the new heavy-hitting analysis writer who would one day step into the shoes of veteran correspondent Adam Clymer.
Of course, this week there were other, more pressing personnel matters at The Times . For the third time in a little over two weeks, the paper was hit with an anthrax scare. A letter with white powder was discovered in the mailroom early on the morning of Oct. 23. The letter, which had no return address but was postmarked in Glasgow, Scotland, was being tested for anthrax. Initial results were not yet available, but the mailroom’s operations had been suspended pending the results, a Times spokeswoman said. On Oct. 18, the paper announced that the Rio de Janeiro bureau had received a letter that had initially appeared to contain anthrax. Later tests showed that the letter was not dangerous. And on Oct. 12, Times reporter Judith Miller opened a powder-filled letter in the paper’s New York newsroom, forcing a brief quarantine. Tests showed that this letter, too, did not contain anthrax.
The biggest critic of the New York Post ‘sOct.20″ANTHRAXTHIS” cover-inwhich staffer Johanna Huden flicked her bandaged, anthrax-stricken middle finger-seems to be Ms. Huden herself, according to her Post colleagues.
Ms. Huden, who was thrust into a media maelstrom after the Post revealed on Oct. 19 that she had tested positive for cutaneous anthrax, has told newsroom colleagues that she felt exploited by the paper. Before the announcement, Post sources said, Ms. Huden had not been coming into work, and she showed up on Oct. 19 only because the paper wanted to be able to say she was back at her desk.
“She definitely thought the cover was in bad taste,” said a Post source. “She was pretty annoyed.”
Inside the paper, the Post ran a first-person tirade by Ms. Huden blaming Osama bin Laden for her medical ordeal, but Ms. Huden told other Post staffers that her original story was not nearly as vicious as the version that ran under her byline. She complained that the sarcastic line “Thanks Osama,” was originally filed as “Thanks Osama, or whoever did this.” She is also reportedly upset that the ending “You loser” was originally written as “You lose.”
A Post editor said that all of the media scrutiny had made Ms. Huden nervous. The editor said that she had told him, “I’m getting paranoid.”
Ms. Huden’s voice mail directed media inquiries to a Post spokesperson, who said, “She worked with her senior editor on her copy, saw the front page, enjoyed it and laughed at it.”