At Large

End of a Raines

They fired the wrong guy.

By 6.6.03

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Someone had to pay, and so someone did. Howell Raines, executive editor of the New York Times, and Gerald Boyd, the managing editor, resigned yesterday in what the Times media reporter, Jacques Steinberg, called a "hastily arranged ceremony" at the Times "five weeks to the day after the resignation of a wayward reporter named Jayson Blair set off a rapid chain of events that exposed deep fissures in the management and morale of the newsroom." Blair, of course, was the unattractive little man who gave affirmative action a bad name as he fabricated datelines, quotes and whole stories while under Raines's protection.

But forget about Blair now -- he has had his fifteen minutes of fame, the cover of a recent Newsweek, actually -- and go on to Raines's resignation. (Boyd, one suspects, was only an add-on: If the executive editor had to go, then he had to go, too.)

Meanwhile at the hastily arranged newsroom ceremony, Steinberg wrote, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said he wanted to "applaud Howell and Gerald for putting the interest of this newspaper, a newspaper, we all love, above their own.'' In other words, they had fallen on their swords, and done the decent thing; they would no longer taint the Times. All the bad things that had happened at the paper was their fault.

"There is so much to say," Sulzberger went on. "But it really boils down to this: This is a day that breaks my heart, and I think it breaks the heart of a lot of people in the newsroom."

And possibly that was true. Dozens of Times staffers were in the newsroom when Raines announced his departure, and "many" of them, according to Steinberg, "sobbed audibly" when he told them, "Remember, when a great story breaks out, go like hell."

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Arthur Jr.'s father, was also at the newsroom ceremony, although apparently he was silent. Most likely he was wondering what the hell had happened to his newspaper.

In fact, what happened is that the Times is no longer just a newspaper; it is part of the New York Times Company, which has some $3 billion in revenue, 48,000 shareholders, and $7 billion in publicly traded stock. Meanwhile the company branches out in many directions -- the Boston Globe, the International Herald Tribune, the Discovery Channel, and so on, and flogs its precious brand name. As the company's annual report said sternly:

"Content of the highest quality and integrity is the basis for our reputation and the means in which we fulfill the public trust and our customers' expectations."

Or as Arthur Jr. said after Raines had fallen on his sword:

"Now our task is to go back to doing what we're here to do -- publish this great newspaper."

Raines, of course, was always a poor choice to be executive editor. He had been editor of the editorial page, and he should have remained that. He is, at heart, a polemicist, and his liberal views skewed Times coverage. But he gave Arthur Jr. exactly the great newspaper he wanted: glossy, opinionated and faux sophisticated. The Times has many fine reporters, and we would be much the poorer without it, but it is now edited for people who make $400,000 a year, or hope to soon, and have a horror of missing any new trend, no matter how silly.

There is not much reason to think this will change, although the paper's circulation has fallen recently, and that may be a good thing. The Times Company is controlled by a Sulzberger family trust, and perhaps some of the other trustees will now have a heart to heart talk with Arthur Jr. Meanwhile the Times has recalled Joe Lelyveld, who retired two years ago as executive editor, to temporarily replace Raines. Lelyveld is a sounder journalist than Raines ever was, but even that may be incidental. Arthur Jr. is still publisher. His father kept his distance from the newsroom, and seldom tried to influence the coverage. Arthur Jr., however, does it all the time, and even the densest Times editor knows what he likes. Who do you think inspires all those stories about oppressed women, gays and minorities?

But canny Times readers will continue to pick and choose, and look for trusted bylines. The congressional coverage in the Times still beats that of the Washington Post; also the Times is serious about its foreign news coverage, and it can't force you to read Maureen Dowd or Paul Krugman if you don't want to. And who knows? If the circulation keeps falling, maybe the Times will reclaim some of the old verities of journalism. There are still people there who once worked for Abe Rosenthal.

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.