The Chastening of the Times
"He had the drive, moxie and talent to succeed at 43rd Street." That's how one Times editor described the young Jayson Blair. But Blair soon began to unravel under the weight of drug addiction, alcohol abuse and--if one chooses to believe his memoir, Burning Down My Masters' House--mental illness. Blair's behavior was peculiar, and his work frequently had to be corrected in print. On April 1, 2002, one of his supervisors, Jonathan Landman, drafted an internal memo that vanished into bureaucratic limbo. "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the New York Times," he declared. "Right now." The paper's own investigation of the Blair affair--released to the public in July 2003 and known as the Siegal report--shows how Blair continued to receive promotions and salary increases, thanks in large part to the largesse of Gerald Boyd. It was Boyd who chaired the recruiting committee that promoted Blair to "regular full-time staff" reporter; and it was Boyd who, despite Landman's warning, first suggested that Blair be assigned to one of the biggest stories of 2002: the Washington area sniper case.
Raines was shad fishing with John McPhee on the Delaware River the day the Times published its 14,000-word exposé on Blair. "It was a foggy day," he recalls. "As we floated along in a McKenzie River drift boat, bald eagles flushed from the shoreline timber and flapped away downstream. I read the story in sections as the day unfolded, and I knew at that point that I was unlikely to survive." The exposé sidestepped a matter of crucial import for the executive editor: What did he know about Blair's history, and when did he know it? Raines says he knew about Blair's substance abuse (which, he insists, was hardly an unusual problem at the Times), but had never been informed about "Jayson's pattern of playing fast and loose with the facts": The famous Landman memo had never reached his desk. If that's true, Raines's career may have been undone by a single bureaucratic oversight.
Raines returned from his shad-fishing trip a wounded man. The staff was already in revolt against his top-down managerial style, and the guerrillas now had a golden opportunity. In desperation, Raines consulted one of the political shamans on his payroll, William Safire, and half-seriously requested some of the "high-priced survival advice he used to give Nixon." Cancel the upcoming staff meeting at the movie theater, Safire insisted. The storm was moving out to sea, and the meeting would only embolden Raines's detractors. That he didn't heed the columnist--the meeting was a tumultuous "disaster"--is something Raines now regrets.
At that gathering, the publisher assured the staff that Raines's job was secure; but as the weeks passed and the media firestorm raged and the guerrilla war continued, Sulzberger wavered. Raines says he heard from Arthur Gelb that "the cousins"--that is, future stockholders from the Sulzberger family--were edgy: "Gelb said they couldn't abide hearing Jay Leno and David Letterman telling jokes about the Times, and they were worried about the dinner-party chatter they were hearing in Manhattan." (Gelb does not mention that conversation in City Room.) On June 4, 2003, Raines was dismissed by Arthur Sulzberger Jr.; Boyd, too, was taken to the gallows. Declares Raines: "Arthur believed that if I stayed there would be 'too much blood on the floor.'"
The man who penned the Atlantic essay is a man who seems at peace with himself: "I do not miss the daily grind of newspapering or the ephemeral nature of newspaper writing." Perhaps Howell Raines has earned his tranquillity: The student who lacked the courage to march in Birmingham in 1963 eventually mustered the cojones to compose a memorable adieu to the New York Times. And what of his "managerial reformation"? The Siegal report, says Raines, "shows an institution in denial." Its conclusions are a "hymn to the old status quo, drafted by the very people who most strongly resisted the idea of a more vigorous and inclusive way of producing the paper."