April 16, 2004

The Raines Must Fall

Having finally made my way through Howell Raines’ full postmortem of his tenure at the New York Times (it’s only a bit shorter than Neal Stephenson’s The Confusion) I can’t say that I feel any great sympathy for him. Even when he’s making points I agree with about the Times, he comes off fairly badly, writing a weird jambalaya of self-pity, arrogance and gracelessness.

He means to convince anyone reading that he was done in by a cabal of no-talent hacks protecting their jobs—and I walked away convinced that there were in fact entrenched no-talent hacks at the Times when Raines was brought in (this is hardly news)—but he mostly ends up providing convincing confirmation that the sniping criticism of Raines during his tenure was valid. This is not a guy you’d want being the executive of anything, though he might make a good second-banana “bad cop” for a person with real leadership skills.

Raines takes credit, and deserves credit, for shaking up the Times’ utterly arteriosclerotic coverage of culture. In the mid-1990s, it was stunningly irrelevant and stultifyingly boring, both in the daily and Sunday paper. (Even the snotty high culture coverage was often so late, as Raines observes, that the Post, of all papers, was doing a more timely job on the same beat.) Raines helped the paper to figure out that you don’t send a man to do a boy’s job, and got reviewers like Elvis Mitchell to write about culture they both understood and enjoyed. However, the Sunday Arts & Leisure is still a snooze: the revolution is only partially complete.

In fact, the Sunday edition is in general still pretty boring. Raines seems to think he accomplished a lot in this respect, but I don’t see it. The Book Review is mostly predictable, the Week in Review flounders uselessly most of the time, and this was the same under Raines as it was before and since. The Sunday magazine has a better track record for interestingly controversial articles, though, but I thought that was one of the stronger parts of the Sunday edition before Raines arrived.

One small change that I have loved about the Times that I think came in during Raines’ tenure, though he doesn’t mention it (I think) in the Atlantic piece is the back end of the Saturday Metro section, with its really intriguing pieces on current debates and ideas in academic and intellectual circles.

Raines doesn’t talk that much about columnists, and that’s not surprising: the Times went from bad to worse during his tenure, keeping some of the same boring old pissants and adding some new boring younger pissants. Even the people I agree with are boring me. And it becomes clear as one reads along that many of his strongest internal critics were on the news staff, where the Times was in pretty good shape, especially in international coverage, before Raines started his tenure, and from the perspective of many external critics, actually got worse during his time. When I compare the international coverage under Lelyveld to the Times in the 1980s, it’s like night and day. The ideological hacks mostly disappeared, and lightweights like Christopher Wren were mostly swept out, replaced by much more interesting and energetic writers. The Africa coverage went from being something that persistently annoyed me to being something I learned from and found usefully distinctive from anything else in the mass media.

The domestic coverage has been uneven for a decade, but to be honest, all I ask of the Times in that regard is that it be solid, detailed, and fairly comprehensive, because that’s its purpose in my household, to serve as the paper of record. When I want something more, I go read The Economist, the features on the front of the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post for inside-the-Beltway stories, and the Internet.

That’s the first and major thing Raines doesn’t seem to get. He represents himself as coming in all gung-ho to expand the paper’s subscriber base, widen its appeal, reach new audiences, freshen up the Grey Lady. The core readership doesn’t probably want or need the paper to do that in most of its news coverage. I’m very glad to have the Times be more interesting in the places where it was just mind-bogglingly dull and snobbish, but when it comes to news, I demand that it first be respectable and meticulous. This is something that Raines didn't and still doesn’t seem to think is important: his vision, by his own account, was all about making every single part of the paper equally provocative and edgy. That’s not your market niche, man.

Raines ventriloquizes for both actual readers and potential readers and says, “This is what the public wanted, but my do-nothing, hack-job, fusty staff wouldn’t let me.” This reader says, “No, that’s not what I want when it comes to news and the Times.” The Times is not required to be boring, but neither does it require a front-to-back overhaul. I don’t require the Times to get there first, and I don’t require it to get there sexily. I just require the paper to get it right and get it all. If Raines had spent more time worrying about shoring up standards of craftsmanship and meticulousness in reporting and less time worrying about sexing up the writing, he might not have had the Jayson Blair problem.

Raines reports breathlessly on the internal culture of the Times as if he learned for the first time as executive editor how office politics works, and as if the Times is an unprecedented hive of professional cripples. Shouldn’t an executive editor be a seasoned old hand when it comes to issues like unproductive senior writers, recalcitrant underlings, or peer networks that rally to support each other? On banal questions of group dynamics, Raines acts like a sixty-year old spinster being shocked by a first encounter with the birds and the bees.

Aside from that, it’s really hard to sympathize with Raines as he comes off in this piece simply because he sounds like an unlikeable prick. That's a pretty bad sign when you write an exculpatory account of your own behavior and you still manage to come off like an asshole. It's like watching a television commercial for food where they can't even manage to make what they're selling look appetizing. That generally means that the food in question is authentically nasty. Same thing here. He manages to get in some truly graceless shots at his former colleagues, some of them by name, others only indirectly. It’s one thing for a crusader unmistakeably brought down by reactionary forces to shout defiance at his enemies, and another thing to pass the buck as aggressively as Raines does in the wake of a mistake that he at least had titular responsibility for. It makes me wonder if any leader in American public life will ever have the grace to just assume responsibility for failure on his watch and manfully go down with the ship.

At the very least, Raines could say a lot more about his shortcomings: there are very few unqualified or straightforward confessions in the article, and the half-hearted apologies take up a very small amount of the total space in the essay.