The Chastening of the Times
On March 9, 2003, a distinguished group of high-ranking politicians and journalists descended on the Bryant Park Hotel to attend a wedding reception for the then-executive editor of the New York Times, Howell Raines. Raines, in a white dinner jacket and black pants, swooned for the paparazzi and introduced his young Polish-born bride to guests who included Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senator Charles Schumer, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Charlie Rose. "I remember thinking, good for you, Howell," Times staffer Warren Hoge later confessed to Vanity Fair. "You're on top of the world, the newspaper's going great, you've married this great woman. If someone had come up and said, 'This man will be deposed in three months,' I'd have given him odds of 10,000 to 1."
But deposed he was. A few weeks later Raines's reputation sank when it was revealed that a wily young reporter named Jayson Blair had shamelessly manufactured and plagiarized details in dozens of news stories he had written for the Times. With media watchers breathing down its neck, the Times panicked and rushed into print a 14,000-word account of Blair's chicanery that took up four full pages of the Sunday edition for May 11, 2003. Three days later, at a tension-filled staff meeting at a rented Times Square movie theater, newsroom employees vented their fury at Raines and his boss, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
By unveiling a thorough chronicle of Blair's deceptions, Raines and Sulzberger had expected to put the affair to rest. The strategy backfired: The Blair scandal expanded in scope and intensity, and developed a cruel momentum of its own. Demands for Raines's scalp began to proliferate in journalistic circles, and on June 4, 2003, he was forced to resign, along with his deputy, Gerald Boyd. It was only the second time in the paper's history that the top editor had failed to complete his term, and Raines suffered the further ignominy of having his demise reported on the front pages of both the New York Daily News and the New York Post. ("OUT!" shrieked the News; "PAPER OF WRECKAGE" bellowed the Post.)
One might have expected Raines to fade away quietly with a Times pension and a comfortable teaching post. But in a radical break with Times tradition and etiquette, he composed an audacious counterattack in the May issue of The Atlantic. "My intention here," he declared at the outset of a lacerating 21,000-word essay titled "My Times," "is to perform a final service for the newspaper that I worked for and loved for twenty-five years, by revealing the real struggle that was going on behind the scenes at the Times as the Blair scandal played out." That struggle, Raines insisted, concerned his attempt to consolidate a "managerial reformation" at a paper that, before he took the helm, was "becoming duller, slower, and more uneven in quality with every passing day," a paper with an internal culture "that requires mass allegiance to the idea that any change...is to be treated as a potential danger."
"My Times" has received cursory attention from a press corps that is entranced, awed and intimidated by the Times. That's lamentable, because Raines has given us what is probably the most revealing X-ray of the paper's inner sanctum since Gay Talese's The Kingdom and the Power in 1969. Former Times executives don't usually speak forthrightly about the institution they served. Consider the case of Arthur Gelb, who rose from copy boy to managing editor in his forty-six-year career on 43rd Street and who, with Timesian restraint, has now chronicled his newsroom adventures in a hefty volume, City Room. Raines, who was once close to Gelb but has since broken with him, eschews that polite approach. Where Gelb is stodgy, Raines is pungent; where Gelb is sentimental, Raines is realistic; where Gelb offers platitudes about the Times, Raines offers wry aphorisms, gallows humor, poison darts and bons mots worthy of Mencken. City Room, despite some winsome anecdotes, comes dangerously close to hagiography. "My Times," by contrast, is the work of a journalistic fugitive with nothing to lose, a man pugnaciously determined to go down swinging.