Howell Raines Replays Augusta
He shanks his way around the course that he shanked in 2002.
Wild overconfidence propelled Howell Raines from reporter to bureau chief to editorial page editor and finally to the top of the heap as New York Times executive editor. But Raines' high self-regard—call it arrogance if you will—also caused him to overshoot his mark, depositing him in the journalistic exile of his Greenwich Village townhouse.
Not even being sacked by Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. in June 2003 did much to reduce his scrappiness. About a month after his firing, he appeared on Charlie Rose to flash his ego and cuff the Times staff one more time.
"The newspapers that we have produced over the past 20 months are the best in the history of the Times," Raines boasted on the show—a claim that, if true, wasn't Raines' to make. Raines went on to reiterate his now-boilerplate opinion that the Times had "settled into a kind of lethargic culture of complacency" and that he, a "change agent," had helped rescue it by raising its "creative metabolism."
When Rose asked Raines about his mistakes, Raines conceded only to having overworked the staff and moved the culture of the Times newsroom "too far too fast." In other words, his mistakes weren't journalistic, they were managerial.
Raines remains an unchanged man in Alan Shipnuck's The Battle for Augusta National: Hootie, Martha, and the Masters of the Universe, a well reported account of activist Martha Burk's campaign against the men-only Augusta National Golf Club and its Masters tournament in 2002-2003. In a chapter about press coverage, Shipnuck describes how critics in the press and on the Web (Press Box included) took the Times and Raines to task for overplaying the newspaper's coverage of Burk's campaign.
Raines thought of "Sports" as one of the Times' weaker sections, Shipnuck writes, and regarded the Burk controversy as "the perfect story for Sports to shed its parochial traditions." Raines tells Shipnuck:
My major interest in sports as a journalistic subject runs in a sociological direction. It's such an important part of American life. It's such a force in social standards. It's such a business force. So what I envisioned is a sports section that was more national in scope, and while you record the events in sports, you write about the world of sports in a serious, journalistic way.
While this formula might have stimulated Raines, I wonder if he ever ran it by sports fans, for whom sports sections are supposedly written. With all that sociology and business hogging the ball, how much of the clock did Raines intend to allot to the games themselves? Even a dunderhead knows that fans swelter in summer's bleachers and bundle in December's cold out of a love for the contests, not for sociological or business deconstructions.
By mid-November 2002, the Times had flooded the zone with Augusta National coverage that made Raines proud, running almost daily dispatches about the dispute and giving them good placement. The paper even published copy in sections outside of Raines' control (the editorial and op-ed pages), with one editorial calling on Tiger Woods to boycott the Masters on gender discrimination grounds. On Nov. 17, Shipnuck writes, the paper published almost as much Augusta National coverage as it would during a day in Masters week. The Times'Augusta National obsession, which often strained to equate the men-only golf club with whites-only drinking fountains of the Jim Crow era, crescendoed in "CBS Staying Silent in Debate on Women Joining Augusta," a Nov. 25, 2002, Page One story, ostensibly about the TV network's determination to cover the tournament. (For a contemporaneous critique of the story, see this Press Box entry.)
Like many, Shipnuck, a Sports Illustrated staff writer, finds the "CBS" story wanting: "The article was supposed to be a probing think piece, but the story was a muddled amalgam of different themes, regurgitating the broad strokes of the membership controversy, awkwardly working in the results of a Times opinion poll, and laboring to provide insight into CBS's predicament. … Given how little the article advanced the narrative of the membership controversy, it was a head-scratcher that it wound up on A1."