The autobiography of Howell Raines.

Media criticism.
March 24 2004 7:42 PM

The Autobiography of Howell Raines

Guess who's the hero.

The world according to Howell
The world according to Howell

As long as you keep in mind that all autobiography is history written by a liar, Howell Raines' feature in the May Atlantic Monthly about his 20-month rise and fall as executive editor of the New York Times is a valuable addition to the growing literature about his crack-up. Of course, almost none of autobiography's practitioners set out to deceive. They look in the mirror. They consult their diaries. They talk to their friends and review their correspondence. They swear an oath to the truth. But given enough paper and enough time to write a personal story, even the best of us will construct an unreliable account.

Raines' 20,000-word piece, "My Times," proves this rule on every page. Like most autobiographers, he exaggerates his importance, selectively picks his facts, punishes old enemies and constructs new ones ("neoconservative editors" on his own staff!), contradicts himself, pretends to critically reassess the circumstances of his major setback, and simulates self-criticism. Like every autobiographer, he even concludes with a goodbye-to-all-that summation that plots a sure route to the sunny days to come. "At sixty-one, I'm young enough to invent an entirely new chapter of my life rather than perpetually re-reading the old ones," Raines writes.

Anybody who viewed Raines' July 11, 2003, disaster of an appearance on Charlie Rose will recognize this Atlantic piece as that performance writ large and long. He's every bit as bitter, conceited, and clueless here as he was in that TV moment. Raines writes that he had "twenty-five great years at the Times—and one bad month," namely the Jayson Blair scandal, although the warning signs of his demise were apparent for months before Blair exposed his flank. He testifies that he was a positive "change agent" at the Times,cut down by the coasters and complainers at the paper. And Raines all but comes out and writes that his predecessor, Joseph Lelyveld, produced shite.

It's a very selective account. Among the inconvenient facts and anecdotes that Howell Raines, Master Reporter, excises:

  • He takes credit for revitalizing the photo department, which went on to win "Pulitzers for news and feature photography," but wastes not a word on the alleged (by the Times)staging of a Lackawanna, N.Y., shot by a staff photographer.
  • He bellyaches about Times reporters who don't want to travel to report stories and then writes nothing about his good friend, Rick Bragg, who sent an unpaid intern out to do the legwork for an Apalachicola, Fla., story and then sneaked into town to claim the dateline for the story with a quick toe-touch.
  • He maintains that "one bad month" undid him, ignoring the earlier newsroom turmoil that followed his heavy-handed coverage of Augusta National. As Alan Shipnuck writes in his excellent new book, The Battle for Augusta National: Hootie, Martha, and the Masters of the Universe, all the "errors in judgment, breakdowns in the chain of command, scathing public criticism, internal turmoil, self-flagellation" that characterized the Times'Augusta National embarrassment were echoed in the paper's handling of the Blair affair.
  • He gives Glenn Kramon's "Business" section credit for observing "that the AOL Time Warner executive shakeup of April of 2002 marked a resurgence by Time Warner's old guard," when according to Ken Auletta's July 2002 New Yorker profile of Raines, this was the view Raines "imposed" on the section. From the Auletta piece:

"The old company won," Raines said. "That's the story!" The former political reporter, who is proud of being able to anticipate stories, was convinced that Levin and the Time Warner side of the company had won a battle with the AOL side. This editor-driven account appeared the next day, and it upset several business reporters, who thought the analysis was simplistic—and wrong.

Nobody's tenure is all highs and just one low. Raines' serial blindness suggests a delusional figure worthy of a Saul Bellow novel or at least an episode of CSI: Psycho Ward. Early in the piece, Raines venerates the Times, calling it "a great engine of truth," "an irreplaceable American institution," "the ethical keystone of American journalism," which "occupies a central place in our national civic life." Will somebody please pass me the funny papers? The Times is a great newspaper and all that, but if the Earth swallowed it up whole tomorrow, the Republic would survive. (I might even cancel my subscription to test the premise.)

Raines hoped to take the newspaper global: The nameplating of the International Herald Tribune as the international New York Times was a 90 percent done deal, he writes. And thought that many of the 40 million "like-minded nonreaders" identified in surveys could be converted into subscribers if the product was good enough. So far, so good. But his fantasy to return the Times to the dominance it enjoyed in the early '70s is pure fantasy. The eruption of media that has produced USA Today, three cable news channels, hundreds of all-news radio stations, and Web sites too numerous to count (many of them foreign) publishing news and commentary means that no matter how good the Times may become, it must content itself with sharing a much larger editorial universe than before. His big for instance comes when he gripes about how Entertainment Weekly,not the New York Times, published the definitive Tolkien story. Somebody should tell him that the halcyon days in which the Times was the only purveyor of quality journalism are not only past, they never existed.

Raines erects on nearly every page of his personal history the straw man that he was the champion of improvement and his foes were agin' it, a reductionist and self-serving argument. A sharper manager than Raines would have realized that what he was really observing was the Shafer Principle: 20 percent of employees do 80 percent of the work at almost every institution. Laud Raines for wanting to sack the featherbedders and deadwooders hiding behind Newspaper Guild skirts, but I'd wager that if you let Raines name his own, 20 percent of those employees would still do 80 percent of the work. It's an immutable law of the workplace.

Raines seems not to appreciate that had it not been for the backdraft of 9/11—which blew in six days after he became editor and motivated the staff in a way that no mortal could have—his departure from the Times could have been even swifter. Nor does his sour critique of current Times folkways and mores properly acknowledge that the Pulitzer-strewn journalistic accomplishment that he takes so much credit for was produced in large part by the slackers and half-wits he seems to think he inherited from predecessor Lelyveld (whose front page he says was "calcified"!).

There's enough self-love in Raines' autobiography to earn it a place in the autoerotica section. By the time Raines stops romancing himself in the public mirror, conjures the last mirage of the glory that could have been, and settles his final grudge, you can only conclude that Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. did readers and Times staffers a service by terminating this vain and cockeyed beast.

[Addendum, March 25: Several readers e-mailed, pointing out that the Shafer Principle merely restates the Pareto Principle, formulated by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923). My apologies to Pareto!]

******

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