Almost everyone at the New York Times hates, simply hates, executive editor Howell Raines, and morale at the Times is just awful. Reporters and editors say Raines is nothing but a big bully. Raines, however, says he's not that way at all; it's more that his "passion comes across as a harshness," or that his "intensity gets mistaken for an adversarial or aggressive instinct" that he really doesn't possess. Anyway he is sorry about all the misunderstandings and hurt feelings, and is working hard now to win the hearts and minds of Times staffers.
Or so says an article in the new issue of the New Yorker, and while I have not read the article I have read a story about it. Howard Kurtz summarized the New Yorker article in his media column in the Washington Post, and since Kurtz is always reliable there is no need for any of us now to read the New Yorker. The big news in the New Yorker, apparently, is that things were so bad at the Times that Jill Abramson, the Washington bureau chief, even threatened to quit. It seems she felt "disrespected."
Let me put this in some perspective.
There was a morale problem at the Times when I first went there as a copyboy, and there was a morale problem when I left years later. Unhappiness was as much a Times tradition as Bookman italic type. People at the Times were unhappy because their abilities were unrecognized, or their stories butchered, or their talents misdirected by the less able. The best of them, however, were unhappy because the Times was not as good as it should be. Occasionally this led to broken furniture, or, more commonly, shouts, screams and drunken binges. At the same time there was disdain for the editors. Good reporters simply disliked editors as a matter of course.
But the Times is under a different management now, and the newsroom ethos has changed. Kurtz writes that, according to the New Yorker, Washington bureau chief "Abramson was humiliated by the daily speakerphone conferences with New York, when editors would give her marching orders instead of asking what stories the bureau was developing."
In other words, Abramson's feelings were hurt, and in attempt to patch things up, managing editor Gerald Boyd flew to Washington to have lunch at the bureau. And then, Kurtz writes:
"On a park bench afterwards...Abramson told Boyd she felt 'disrespected,' and that if nothing was done she would resign."
The next day Raines, who says he was surprised to learn she was uncomfortable with the speakerphone conferences, called Abramson and told her she was a "star." Apparently this bucked her up considerably, for as Kurtz also writes:
"At the next such [speakerphone] session, Abramson asked to speak first, and when a Manhattan editor interrupted her, she declared, 'I'm not finished.'"
Talk about high drama! The "disrespected" Abramson really let the New York editors have it. She probably said, "I'm not finished," in a very icy tone of voice.
On the other hand, this may seem a little bloodless, and certainly it's a long way from shouts, screams and drunken binges. But the Times, as I said, is under a different management than before -- with Raines as executive editor, and Arthur Sulzberger Jr. as publisher -- and there are new rules for personal and professional behavior. The New Yorker also notes that Raines delayed and then tried to bury a reporter's exclusive story about a New Jersey study that found that blacks were more likely to speed than other drivers. The study contradicted, of course, the nonsense routinely found in Times editorials and on the op-ed page about racial profiling.
Meanwhile I suspect, even if the New Yorker does not, that at least some of the newsroom disenchantment about Raines has more to do with his politics than it does with his abrasive style of management. His politics determines his news judgment. Raines is an old Southern boy -- Alabama, actually -- who has spent most of his professional life proving that, despite his background, he's ever so liberal, especially on racial matters. He once wrote about his days in Washington during the Reagan Administration that "reporting on Ronald Reagan's successes in making life harder for citizens who were not born rich, white and healthy -- saddened me."
Anyway Raines is now the executive editor of the Times, and Arthur Jr. loves him, and there you are. Meanwhile the Times has the resources and talent to do extraordinary things journalistically, and sometimes it does them. At the same time, you really can't take the Times seriously.