Howell Raines, Pussyfooter

Howell Raines, Pussyfooter

Howell Raines, Pussyfooter

Media criticism.
Jan. 2 2003 5:07 PM

Howell Raines, Pussyfooter

Why can't the New York Times executive editor come clean about his plans for the International Herald Tribune?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

There are two Howell Raineses. The clamorous Raines quotes Bear Bryant, compares himself to Ulysses S. Grant, and gases on about how he's raising the "competitive metabolism" of his newspaper, the New York Times. The more tractable Raines appears now and again to mouth the sort of round-edged platitudes one expects to hear from the director of Procter & Gamble's HR department, not the executive editor of the New York Times.

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I, of course, prefer Bear Raines, who says what he means, over Pussyfooting Raines, who, alas, surfaces in today's Times story about the completion of the New York Times Co.'s takeover of the International Herald Tribune("International Herald Tribune Now Run Solely by The Times"). Pussyfooting Raines preposterously claims there are no plans to remake the IHT when the article documents exactly the opposite!

The New York Times Co. consolidated its ownership of the IHT after a rancorous bit of negotiating with its business and editorial partner of 35 years, the Washington Post Co. Sell us your 50 percent of the IHT, the Times Co. reportedly told the Post Co.,or we'll start a newspaper to compete against it. The furious Post Co. sold, and the former partners consummated the deal on Jan. 1.

Nobody but a fool ever bought a newspaper with the goal of preserving the status quo—especially after spending $70 million, as the Times Co. did. And nobody would dis a longtime partner, as the Times Co. did the Post Co., for the right to maintain things as they are. So why do Raines and Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the Times Co. chairman, insist on fibbing so transparently in their own newspaper?

Let's go to the story: Raines, who adds to his duties the role of IHT editorial overseer, tells Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick that a "seamless transition" will maintain the IHT as "an international paper of the highest quality." The Times Co.'s Sulzberger echoes Raines' mealy-mouthing: "We are not jumping into this to change the I.H.T. ... We are jumping into this to understand a marketplace that we don't understand the way we should." Sure, Art, and you're spending the $70 million as part of a learning experience.

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The piece all but predicts a complete overhaul of the IHT. Kirkpatrick notes that the Times Co. has removed the top editor from the Post Co., David Ignatius, and replaced him with Walter Wells, a former Times man; the IHT will now draw most of its content directly from New York Times staffers; IHT editors will listen in via telephone on Times editorial conferences; New York Times reporters will be encouraged to file early versions of their stories so they can run in the same-day issues of the IHT (the six-hour time difference makes that difficult today); the Times will add reporters abroad as part of the new effort; IHT editorials will be written by New York Times editorial writers, and some of them will be penned exclusively for the IHT. That sounds like the New York TimesInternational to me, and what's wrong with that?

During a recent visit to Paris, the straight-talking Bear Raines talked to the IHT newsroom for about an hour, telling them how important the success of the IHT was to him personally. He said he has only six more years at the Times before his compulsory retirement, and he knows he'll be judged on how well he shapes the new IHT. If that isn't a declaration of radical change to come, you don't know Howell Raines.

The transformation of the IHT will commence in earnest when the heavy dose of Washington Post copy found in the old IHT vanishes, which is more likely to occur sooner than later. The new IHT will no longer draw Washington Post editorial and news copy directly from the Post, a Times Co. spokesperson confirms. Post copy will now come from the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service. That access is for six months, and the Post Co. can end the agreement after three months with a one-month notice to terminate. It sounds a lot more like shacking up than marriage to me.

The International Herald Tribune is now the Times Co.'s frog. Whether Raines and Sulzberger boil it slowly—thinking that nobody will notice—or flash-fry it in a pyrotechnic display, they're gonna end up cooking the goddamn thing. So why not just say so?

If you like your International Herald Tribune slow-roasted and dappled with a vinegar-based sauce, you're my sort of reader. Place your order at pressbox@hotmail.com.