Defending Howell Raines.

Media criticism.
May 13 2003 7:10 PM

Defending Howell Raines

He didn't catch Jayson Blair. You didn't either.

Howell Raines
It's a Howell hater's heyday out there

The hanging posse has noosed New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines and is calling for his resignation and a public stoning in Times Square. (Afterward, the mob will dress a streetlight with Raines' corpse.) Mickey Kaus, Andrew Sullivan, many of my colleagues, and most memo-writers to Romenesko remain unmollified by the Times'7,400-word explication and 6,600-word annotation of Jayson Blair's con job.

In addition to Raines' resignation, many in the posse want a more detailed accounting of the Times disaster: Who round-filed the e-mail from metro editor Jonathan Landman to newsroom administrators ("We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.")? Did Managing Editor Gerald Boyd tell national editor Jim Roberts about Blair's "problems," as he maintains, or not, as Roberts insists? Is Raines covering his own behind or that of Boyd, whom Blair attached himself to at the newspaper? In varying degrees, Jim Sleeper, the Washington Post's Richard Cohen, and City Journal's Heather Mac Donald blame the debacle on the Times' aggressive affirmative-action policies. (Blair is black.) The Village Voice's Cynthia Cotts cites management's susceptibility to Blair's brown-nosing skills.

But would the denunciations be so personal and vociferous if Saint Joseph Lelyveld, who approved the promotion of Jayson Blair to reporter, were still Times editor? When Lelyveld ruled, iced lattes flowed from the newsroom drinking fountains, and comely lads and lasses dispensed free massages during business hours to reporters, editors, and news aides. Lelyveld officiated at employees' weddings, played Santa Claus at company parties, and traveled as far as Hoboken to baby-sit when staffers were in a bind on Saturday night.

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Well, maybe I stretch the truth a tad, but Lelyveld did create a relatively happy and productive newsroom, an unprecedented journalistic feat. When Raines replaced him in September 2001, he snuffed the Lelyveld enlightenment and began packing the house with loyalists. He waved bye-bye to or marginalized whatever reporters and editors wouldn't hop to his command and divided the newsroom into us (Raines' people) and them (everybody else).

The blunt and cocksure Raines tends to rub folks on both the left and right like 150-grit emery cloth. From his last Times position as editorial editor, he accrued political enemies with his strange amalgam of Clinton-bashing tirades and knee-jerk liberalism/populism, much of it pompous and over the top. All newspaper editors suffer from arrogance, but Raines seems to enjoy the arrogance he needlessly directs at people, especially the untermenschen below the exalted level of a New York Times assistant managing editor. He kept such a studied distance from the Times newsroom before his appointment as executive editor that one top editor described him as a "Martian" in Ken Auletta's June 2002 New Yorker profile.

Divorcing the week's attacks from Raines' personality and back story is fairly impossible. No small part of Andrew Sullivan's animus, for example, derives from the passive-aggressive fashion in which Raines cast him from his New York TimesMagazine slot. (Note to managers everywhere: When you let somebody go, let them go with a smile, a handshake, and a wad of cash wrapped in a non-disclosure agreement.)

The Sullivan blog's serial maiming of Raines isn't just payback, of course. The Raines regime deserves much of its dressing down. But when Sullivan goes on and on about how the Blair scandal isn't about "an overwhelmed, twenty-something young reporter" but "how he wasn't stopped, and despite crystal-clear warnings, was actually promoted at the behest of the highest authorities in the place: Gerald Boyd and Howell Raines," one can only offer two words: Ruth Shalit. As editor of the New Republic in the mid-'90s,Sullivan protected and defended the young Shalit in an almost identical fashion as she sloppily cribbed and plagiarized again and again after being busted in public again and again. (See Lisa Depaulo's definitive feature in the February/March 1996 George for all the incriminating details.) Of Boyd and Raines, Sullivan writes, "They weren't just AWOL for this calamity; they compounded and magnified it, by promoting Blair again and again, despite their own editors' ferocious objections and a fast-accumulating record of inaccuracy and deception." Talk about glass houses!

One clue that the outrage has less to do with the crime committed on Raines' watch than schadenfreude can be found in the story of fabricator Christopher Newton. Last fall, the Associated Press fired Newton after learning he invented sources and quotations in at least 40 stories, an act of journalistic malfeasance equivalent to Blair's. Who called for the resignation of the editor of AP or the heads of Newton's editors? (Can you name the editor of the AP? I can't, either.) Nobody cried for blood, as far as I know, even though the AP is as important a journalistic institution as the New York Times. Why the silence? It may be because nobody outside of the organization holds a grudge against the excellent but nameless wire artists who produce the AP.

The Jayson Blair story provides nearly everybody who reads the Times with an angle for their ire. Raines haters can dump on Raines. Right-wingers who hate its politics and elitism can unload. Affirmative-action critics can rip affirmative action not just at the Times,but across the country, even though thousands of minority programs seem to have produced only one Jayson Blair. Meanwhile, nobody would ever think of attributing the troubles at the NewRepublic with Stephen Glass and Ruth Shalit to philo-Semitism.

Where did Blair acquire his genius for deception, and how did he attract the intense, undeserved loyalty of his superiors? The Times'tick-tock of his misdeeds indicates that he shrewdly exploited his bosses' sympathy for his psychological problems. Although his precise difficulties remain shrouded—he announced last week that he would seek "appropriate counseling"—excessive commiseration on the Times' part seems to have played a major role in making Blair's problem their problem. Writing in the Narco News Bulletin, Al Giordano notes the psychobabble quality to the Times'chronicle of Blair's deception: Blair was referred to a "counseling service" after a "two-week break"; a "letter of reprimand" and "another brief leave" were followed by "a tough-love plan" with a "short leash approach" and "lectures about the importance of accuracy." Was his problem too many Cheetos or something more exotic?

I wouldn't deny anybody the joy of pillorying the Times, but don't automatically assume you'd have policed the Blair beat any better. My friend Dennis Cauchon, a national reporter for USA Today, no softie when it comes to his scorn for the Times' handling of the episode, kicks himself for not uncovering Blair's fictions. Cauchon writes via e-mail:

We covered two of the same stories: MIA Jessica Lynch in Palestine, W. Virginia, and MIA Brandon Sloan in Cleveland. I commented to USA Today colleagues that it was odd that I didn't see a New York Times reporter—I always look—at the scene and how the New York Times stories were full of inexplicable errors. In Palestine, he described the road to Lynch's house as a one-lane gravel road when it's a narrow two-lane paved road. How do you get that wrong? I wondered. And he got the name wrong: it's Mayberry, not Mulberry. How do you get that wrong when Mayberry is so much better? He described a church service in Cleveland that I attended with four other reporters. When I read his account eight days later, I thought, gee, he must have kept a very low profile because the church wasn't that big and I didn't see him. Good for him, I thought. And good for him for getting an interview with the minister father who refused to talk that day, other than receiving line chit-chat, saying it was a day of worship. The story had factual errors, including that the service happened a week earlier than the story indicated. But I chalked it up [to] ... well, nothing. I just thought it was odd.

That Blair hoodwinked Cauchon, as doubting a skeptic as you'll ever meet, proves to me how unwilling we all are to believe that a trusted reporter would lie, lie again, and lie some more.

The obvious parallels between the Jayson Blair caper and the spy escapades of Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen should sober the gotcha patrol currently buzz-bombing Howell Raines. Accomplished liars will beat polygraphs, mislead interrogators, and hoodwink the most sophisticated security regime.So hate Raines as much as you want, and denounce the Times to your heart's content, and demand as much genuflecting from the paper's editors as you desire. Just remember the last time you were conned.

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I read e-mail, fictional and factual, at pressbox@hotmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.