Jewish World Review June 10, 2003 / 10 Sivan, 5763
The seeds of Raines' destruction
From beginning to end, the Greek tragedy that has played itself out at the New York Times over the past five weeks was really about the brilliant, autocratic, passionate, arrogant, hard-driving "Martian" who was its executive editor, Howell Raines.
Last Thursday, Raines and his managing editor, Gerald Boyd, resigned from the Times after highly embarrassing revelations that Times reporter Blair had both invented and repeatedly plagiarized stories and that Pulitzer Prize winner Bragg had vividly described events he had never witnessed by relying on uncredited stringers to do his reporting.
Both reporters resigned, but it was not inevitable that Raines and Boyd would follow. After all, when the Washington Post suffered through the Janet Cooke scandal in 1981, nobody demanded that Post editor Ben Bradlee fall on his sword.
But Bradlee was beloved, and Raines was not; Bradlee was the Post in a way that Raines was not The Times. And therein lay the seeds of Raines' destruction.
Raines, who had joined The Times in 1978 and had spent much of his career relentlessly driving toward the top, seemed to have adopted the policy that it didn't matter how nice you were to people on the way up the ladder as long as you didn't intend to come back down the ladder.
But even though he achieved his dream in September 2001 of becoming the leader of The Time's 1,200 editorial employees, Raines found it very lonely at the top, and when the ladder began to shake, there was virtually nobody willing to steady it for him.
If there was anything as shocking as the resignations, however, it was the speed with which they came about.
While Raines and Boyd felt they had time to create a new, friendlier atmosphere in the newsroom and were working toward that end, in fact, time had run out for them.
The troubles at The Times were being whipped into a crisis by a number of factors: relentless attention by journalism Web sites and late-night TV comics, widespread rumors that other newspapers were about to break new revelations about mismanagement at The Times, and disquiet within the owning family of The Times, the Sulzbergers, that with new government rules allowing large media corporations to grow even larger this was no time for the Times to be in disarray, even for a few weeks.
There may not have been a single tipping point that sealed the fate of the two men, but a meeting Tuesday between publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and the Times Washington bureau played a critical role in their professional demise.
Though Sulzberger was well aware of both traditional and current tensions between the bureau and New York, some say he was surprised at the depth of the animosity he found.
About 30-40 reporters and editors in the bureau gathered in a conference room a floor below their newsroom about two blocks from the White House at 12:30 p.m., a half hour earlier than the meeting was supposed to begin.
The bureau members were happy that Sulzberger was coming in person to listen to them -- the meeting had been scheduled before the Blair fiasco broke -- but some wondered why Raines had not yet found the time to do the same thing.
After Sulzberger arrived, he informed the bureau that he was giving Raines a second chance and had no plans to ask for his resignation. But as the reporters vented their criticisms -- a top-down management style, a disfunctional star system and an executive editor who ruled through fear and intimidation -- Sulzberger's mood darkened.
And while some reporters told Sulzberger that Raines was improving, Sulzberger appeared shaken when others said, "there was almost nothing (Raines) could do to regain the confidence of the newsroom." Says one staff member in attendance: "Sulzberger seemed to back away from the position that Raines was still his man."
As Sulzberger left the bureau, he struggled to open the glass doors that led to the elevator, unaware that he had to push a button to release the lock. One editor joked to the publisher that they were "trying to keep you."
After the meeting, it appeared that nobody was trying to keep Raines, however. And Thursday, Sulzberger stood in the newsroom and announced he was accepting the resignations of Raines and Boyd.
He also made an extraordinary statement about how newspapers should operate. "The morale of the newsroom is critical," Sulzberger said. The ability of the reporters and editors "to perform depends on their feeling they are being treated in a collaborative and collegial fashion."
There is some talk that Raines, who won a Pulitzer for his own reporting and writing, transformed the Times editorial page and presided over the winning of seven Pulitzer Prizes last year, may have been forced to pay too high a price for newsroom happiness.
Yet Raines, who loved quoting Paul "Bear" Bryant, the legendary University of Alabama football coach, was probably familiar with what Bryant once said: "If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it."
Things went bad at the Times under Raines. Which means he did
it. And now he is gone.
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