The Chastening of the Times
Who is Howell Raines, and why has he uttered such disagreeable things about the New York Times? Raines was born in 1943 in Birmingham, Alabama, where his father had a successful lumber and woodworking business. In 1961, with the civil rights movement in full bloom, he enrolled at Birmingham-Southern College. In his fine 2002 New Yorker profile of Raines (an expanded version of which appears in his book Backstory), Ken Auletta notes that only two students from the college had the courage to participate in the civil rights protests--and Raines wasn't among them. Raines confessed to The New Yorker that he wasn't "brave enough" to stand up to Bull Connor, and Auletta concludes, "A mixture of shame and a belief that he was witnessing a momentous event sparked his interest in journalism."
In 1967, Raines began graduate work at the University of Alabama's English department and fashioned an identity for himself as a man of letters. (His revealing 1993 memoir, Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis, is filled with references to Yeats, Mark Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, James Mellow, Leslie Fiedler...) But it was newspaper work that paid the bills, and by 1970 Raines had landed a job at the Atlanta Constitution. In 1977 he published two books: My Soul Is Rested, a stirring oral history of the civil rights movement, modeled on the work of Studs Terkel, and Whiskey Man, a novel that the University of Alabama Press has kept in print. In 1978 Raines joined the New York Times and two years later was assigned to cover the Reagan White House. He eventually sought the position of Washington bureau chief but was rebuffed. His consolation prize? A choice between the London and Paris bureaus. R.W. Apple Jr. urged him to pick London, for one very specific reason: "The Sulzberger family," Auletta writes, "passed through London regularly; Raines would get to know everyone who mattered to his career." Raines never quite mastered the art of foreign correspondence: "Senior people at the paper," Auletta notes, "say they cannot remember a single memorable story that Raines did from overseas."
Yet Raines did manage to forge a special relationship with Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who appointed him executive editor in 2001. In his own detailed analysis of the paper's finances and demographics, Raines grew alarmed: The Times's daily circulation was roughly 1.1 million (in a nation of 290 million), far below those of the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and its precious advertising revenue was relatively flat. Raines arrived at a conclusion "which could not be mentioned to my senior editorial colleagues without triggering a heresy trial: our business side had harvested all the growth it could from the paper we were giving it to peddle." Chiefly responsible for that lackluster state of affairs, he felt, were the paper's writers and editors. With the company facing vigorous competition, Raines came to realize that the Times could no longer serve readers "eat-your-peas journalism and insist that they swallow it as a duty of citizenship."
As executive editor, Raines made it his mission to eradicate what he saw as a culture of mediocrity at the Times: "Great work," he writes, "gets the great praise it deserves, but routine work, too, is praised as excellent...and sloppy work is accepted as adequate." In his previous position as editorial page editor, he supervised a relatively small department of several dozen people. In his new post as executive editor, he had to direct a massive newsroom full of "lethargy and complacency," a newsroom that often practiced what he calls "mañana journalism": "Some departments hastily and explicitly school impressionable reporters in shrugging off scoops by other news organizations, with the reassuring but dangerously outmoded Times maxim, 'It's not news until we say it's news.'"
Raines became executive editor shortly before the terror attacks on New York City and Washington, and, in The Atlantic, he goes out of his way to effusively praise the staff's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of 9/11 and the Afghan war. But when the dust from those mega-stories settled, Raines sank into despair and disillusionment. He wanted a newspaper that was smarter, leaner, faster, better written, more sophisticated, more competitive and in sync with a youthful demographic. Instead he found himself at the helm of a publication he himself could barely read. In his droll memoir, The Good Times (1989), Russell Baker, whose wit and intelligence adorned the paper's op-ed page for three decades, averred that the Times was "full of writing that made you think of people playing pianos with boxing gloves on." Raines came to feel the same way. "One of our dirty little in-house secrets," he whispers, "was that even we, who were paid to read it, often couldn't hack the Sunday paper."