Had the Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg debacles happened on Joseph Lelyveld's watch instead of Howell Raines', would I be writing a column predicting Lelyveld's imminent departure from the executive editorship of the New York Times?
I doubt it. When Lelyveld ran the paper from 1994 to 2001, he held great political stock in reserve and could call upon it in a time of crisis like the one currently muddying the paper. When the Times overplayed the Wen Ho Lee espionage story in 1999, nobody attributed its errors in judgment to Lelyveld personally, even when the paper published a crow-eating, 1,600-word note from the editors in 2000, admitting that, among other things, its stories had unnecessarily "adopted the sense of alarm that was contained in the official reports."
Lelyveld's stock protects him still. Nobody blames him for the Blair and Bragg fiascos, but he's as culpable as Raines. He hired and promoted both reporters and gave Bragg the idea that regular newsroom rules didn't apply to him. Bragg suggests as much in his memoir, All Over but the Shoutin'. Lelyveld, then managing editor, stops at Bragg's desk to discuss his second story for the Times, one that Bragg thought his bosses might reject. Writes Bragg, "I do not remember exactly what [Lelyveld] said, but it was something to the effect of, 'I know we said we would try to get you some gentle editing, but …' and my heart froze. 'But we had to change the comma in your lead.' "
But the fists of fury fall upon Raines, and Lelyveld escapes all pillory. Why?
The blows come from two corners—inside the Times and outside the Times. Outside the Times, Lelyveld is barely known and is regarded as a fair and Christly man. Raines, in keeping with his personality, blazed a butcher's blitz through politics, business, and culture as editor of the Times editorial pages between 1993 and 2001, cornering the market in enemies and ill-will. That few pressmen sympathize with Raines in his time of intense need reflects very poorly on him. If they haven't been needlessly stung by his snarling ego, most journalists know somebody who has.
Lelyveld's success at the Times hearkens back to 1962, when he started building constituencies as a copy boy. Later he served as a foreign correspondent, Washington correspondent, foreign editor, and lastly did time as Max Frankel's managing editor. As a politician, Lelyveld is a benevolent ward heeler. Raines got to the Times relatively late—1978—and never worked inside the 43rd Street newsroom proper until he became executive editor in 2001. Wherever Raines actually ran the show—the editorial page or the Washington bureau—his managerial scale was small. Either by design or accident, he never established much in the way of political capital or a Times constituency—outside of Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.—before becoming editor.
As a politician—and temperamentally—Raines is a dictator. Dictators can be good editors. But when he took over from Lelyveld in 2001, he earned the staff's immediate enmity by centralizing the operation that Lelyveld had so carefully decentralized, consolidating power in his "troika" with Managing Editor Gerald Boyd and Assistant Managing Editor Andrew Rosenthal. The remaining assistant managing editors and section editors lost their autonomy, becoming short-order cooks who prepared whatever the troika requested. Raines stupidly undercut the "Business" and "Sports" sections by telling them how weak he thought they were.
Raines went on to eviscerate the paper's investigative unit, ditching stories that take time and patience to mature in favor of "flooding the zone" with coverage every time a 9/11 or Enron or shuttle or war story appeared. Flooding the zone, of course, leaves the paper drained during non-crisis periods.
In remaking the Times, Raines erected a divide in which he pampered his favorites, including Bragg, Patrick E. Tyler, R.W. Apple Jr., Steven Weisman, Elisabeth Bumiller, Alex Kuczynski, Alessandra Stanley, Douglas Jehl, Felicity Barringer, and David Barstow. Of course, every newspaper has a star system, but Times staffers began to complain that not everybody on Raines' list had gotten there by merit. The same management style drove away at least a dozen (and rising) talented people who preferred hitting the highway to doing it Howell's way: Stephen Engelberg, Melinda Henneberger, Sam Howe Verhovek, Kevin Sack, Michalene Busico, Dean Baquet, Ilene Rosenzweig, Doug Frantz, Buster Olney, Rick Flaste, Tim Golden, and Rick Marin. [Correction, June 4, 2003: Dean Baquet left the New York Times in 2000, before Howell Raines became executive editor in 2001, so he should not have been listed as one of the journalists who departed after Raines' ascension.]
By the time the twin plagues of Blair and Bragg arrived, Raines was so isolated from his own people that the anger heaved on him at the Times employee "town hall" discussion convened for staffers after the Jayson Blair exposé stunned him. Joe Sexton spoke for the paper when he told Raines and Sulzberger, "You guys have lost the confidence of much of the newsroom."