The Chastening of the Times | The Nation


The Chastening of the Times

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Raines was not the first editor to undertake a "managerial reformation" at the New York Times. Turner Catledge, another son of the South, ran the Times newsroom in the 1950s and '60s, and set down his experiences in a 1971 memoir, My Life and The Times, a book that Raines cites as "essential reading for anyone who sought to understand the resistance to change at the paper." Catledge's Times was financially successful and nationally renowned--yet, he wrote, it suffered from "an unnecessary stodginess in the way the news was reported and written." In the late 1940s, when he was assistant managing editor, Catledge would sometimes suggest improvements to his boss, Edwin James, but "his attitude would be, 'Why change? We're doing all right, aren't we?'" Catledge nevertheless persisted in his crusade to enliven and modernize the paper, and to improve its dreary prose. In 1959 he politely suggested to the publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, that the young Gay Talese be given the "About New York" column. Sulzberger said all the right things--"I'd be glad to see some of Talese's work"--but the column was never authorized. In The Kingdom and the Power--still the most outstanding book on the Times, and a dazzling masterpiece in its own right--Talese went inside Catledge's head to record his true feelings about the institution: "For all its size, the Times was a rather delicate and sensitive monstrosity. It had to be petted, cajoled, prodded gently. It was like an elephant...a slow-moving, heavy creature." One finishes Catledge's memoir with the feeling that he coaxed the elephant to move in a straight line, but not to dance.

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Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman (scottgsherman.com), a contributing writer to The Nation,  is at work on a book about the New York...

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Raines, in his own attempt to force an elephant to behave like a puma, initiated a number of measures to increase the paper's "competitive metabolism." He wanted his national correspondents to vacate their cubicles and travel more for their stories, and he also attempted to rotate some of them to different regions. These modest goals nearly sparked a putsch: At least one national correspondent was reluctant to leave his posting for personal reasons, and Raines was pilloried by the staff for not being family-friendly. Revisiting the episode, Auletta scolds the Times newsroom for jumping to conclusions about Raines's decision-making: "Although the newsroom is populated by reporters, often facts do not intrude on their opinions." On major stories, Raines wanted the paper to "flood the zone"--to use its massive resources to overwhelm competing newspapers. So the Times ran dozens of stories about the Augusta National Golf Club's refusal to admit women--a genuine Raines crusade that reflected his own passions (sports, the South, equal opportunity) and that brought scorn and mockery to 43rd Street. The decision by Raines to flood the zone with blanket coverage of the Enron scandal was likewise ridiculed by those who thought the Times was becoming too political and crusading.

"Sociology" was a word that tumbled frequently from Raines's lips when he spoke about reforming the paper. On Enron, he had a ready answer for his critics: "It's a story of as much sociological significance potentially as the great populist reaction to the abuses of the Gilded Age." Sociology, he thought, could also help to capture the hearts and minds of younger readers. But instead of take-no-prisoners reporting about, say, access to health insurance and higher education, Raines opted for revamped coverage of style and popular culture: "The serial ups and downs of a Britney Spears," he announces in the Atlantic, "are a sociological and economic phenomenon that is...worthy of serious reporting." The Times's page one Sunday feature on Spears (October 6, 2002) was not serious reporting and not sociology, but piffle.

The staff felt bullied and beleaguered by the executive editor. In his forthcoming account of the Times wars, Hard News, which reads like a hastily assembled prosecutorial brief against Raines, Seth Mnookin notes that denizens of certain cubicles began to refer to their boss as Mullah Omar; what one Raines critic called a "guerrilla war" was in full swing. Raines professes to be a Civil War buff, but he was outmaneuvered in his own backyard: He possessed Catledge's reformist longings, but lacked his instinct for self-preservation: Sometimes, Talese notes, Catledge "would stand outside his office door with a pair of binoculars raised to his eyes, bringing everybody in the vast newsroom into close, sharp focus." Raines didn't have binoculars, or eyes in the back of his head. He needed both. One top editor and Raines critic, Jonathan Landman, later told Vanity Fair, "Howell was bound and determined to establish the notion that the paper was full of lazy slugs and he had to kick their ass. What was happening was a kind of undifferentiated rage at big parts of the paper."

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