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Rainesís folly
The Jayson Blair scandal reveals some unflattering truths about the Timesí hard-driving editor
BY DAN KENNEDY

THE HEADLINE, prominently displayed in the upper-left-hand corner of Sundayís editions, was unlike any in the 152-year history of the New York Times: TIMES REPORTER WHO RESIGNED LEAVES LONG TRAIL OF DECEPTION. The story jumped to two full pages inside, plus a two-page sidebar and an "Editorsí Note."

But for those who had been following the story for the previous week and a half, the news really wasnít about Jayson Blair, the ostensible subject of the story. After all, many of the details offered up by the Times in its epic mea culpa had already been reported by the Washington City Paper and the Washington Post. Rather, the news was about the Timesí top managers ó and especially its executive editor, Howell Raines, who emerged as the enabler-in-chief for his fabricating, plagiarizing former employee.

Indeed, the most shocking information contained in the Timesí 7200-word exercise in self-flagellation was how foreseeable, and preventable, it all was. By last fall, Raines had:

ē Chosen to disregard a plea from his metropolitan editor, Jonathan Landman, to part company with Blair, an erratic, error-prone young reporter. ("We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now," Landman wrote at one point.)

ē Moved Blair to the national desk without fully informing national editor Jim Roberts about his shoddy performance in metro.

ē Stood aside ó and in one instance even sent a note for "great shoe-leather reporting" ó when Blair inexplicably started breaking huge stories while covering the Washington-area sniper story. The biggest ó a scoop that federal prosecutors had whisked away suspect John Muhammad just as he was about to confess to local authorities ó now appears to have been based entirely on five anonymous, nonexistent sources.

"The person who did this is Jayson Blair," publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is quoted as saying in the Times piece. "Letís not begin to demonize our executives ó either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher."

But though itís surely true that Blair deserves most of the blame, it is equally true that Raines himself could have prevented all this from happening. This isnít hindsight; quite the contrary. The most damaging scandal in the paperís history was laid out right in front of Raines before it even happened. At any time during the past few years, as the corrections piled up, Blair could have been quietly let go, or at least supervised with microscopic scrutiny as he attempted to put his life and career on track.

Instead, Blair was encouraged, indulged, and then ó when the inevitable finally came to pass ó decapitated, his head mounted on a stake outside the Times fortress, seemingly as much to protect those inside as to serve as a warning to others.

RAINES'S 21-PLUS months at the top of the masthead have been tumultuous, in both the good and bad sense of the word. The former editorial-page editor and Washington-bureau chief had barely settled into his new job when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 took place. Raines more than rose to the occasion, leading the Times to an unprecedented seven Pulitzer Prizes. He was named "editor of the year" by the trade magazine Editor & Publisher last spring.

The past year, though, has been another story. Rainesís high-handed management style has led to numerous departures, including those of Kevin Sack, who won a Pulitzer this year for his new employer, the Los Angeles Times, and Tim Golden, who reportedly produced several ahead-of-the-curve stories regarding corruption charges against then-senator Robert Torricelli that were spiked by Raines ó and that ended up on a television station instead.

Outside the building, Raines has been under rabid attack from the right. In the view of these conservative critics, Raines has taken a paper that has traditionally been part of the genteel establishment liberal elite and given it a much harsher, more ideological, left-liberal edge. This alleged bias is on display in stories ranging from the Timesí seemingly endless crusade to end the ban on women at the Augusta National Golf Club to its generally skeptical coverage of the Bush administrationís attempt to build a case for the war in Iraq.

Last August William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, went so far as to call Raines part of the "axis of appeasement." And conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in the Washington Post: "Not since William Randolph Hearst ... has a newspaper so blatantly devoted its front pages to editorializing about a coming American war as has Howell Rainesís New York Times."

Unfortunately for Raines, on too many occasions he has given his enemies plenty of material to work with. His Augusta campaign became the object of derision when his managing editor, Gerald Boyd, killed two dissenting columns that were scheduled to run in the sports pages. To add to the embarrassment, management backed down and ran the columns on another day.

On a more serious note, the paperís coverage of Iraq both before and during the war was dauntingly comprehensive, with something to offend every ideological point of view for those inclined to be offended. But the Times misstepped last summer by characterizing a commentary by Henry Kissinger in the Washington Post as being anti-war when it was merely impenetrable. It took Times columnist Bill Keller, who had lost to Raines in the executive-editor sweepstakes, to set the record straight.

Rainesís management style, though, has been characterized not so much by ideology as by a heavy-handed, top-down orientation. Over the past generation or so, the men (and they are all men) who have edited the great metropolitan papers have evolved from such swashbuckling, larger-than-life figures as Abe Rosenthal (at the Times), Ben Bradlee (at the Washington Post) and, locally, Tom Winship (at the Globe) to a quieter, more buttoned-down, CEO-type of approach. Thatís true of Len Downie at the Post and Marty Baron at the Globe; it was true of Rainesís immediate predecessor, Joe Lelyveld, as well.

Yet Raines seems determined to turn back the clock. According to a long profile in the New Yorker by Ken Auletta last year, Raines is fond of sports and military metaphors and likes to call in his editors and a favored few reporters for Scotch in his office ó the sort of old-fashioned throwback that would be endearing if some of the Times women didnít find the good-old-boys approach uncomfortable.

In Aulettaís piece, Raines comes across as a dauntingly intelligent, hard-driving editor with an enormous chip on his shoulder ó the result, perhaps, of being the child of Alabama store-fixture owners in a newsroom dominated by Northern Ivy Leaguers. He likes to wear a Panama hat, and heís given to overheated rhetoric. Of his penchant for throwing every resource the newspaper has at a big story, Raines told Auletta, "If Iím in a gunfight, I donít want to die with any bullets in my pistol. I want to shoot every one." The term that has come to embody the Raines approach is to "flood the zone," which is often attributed to Raines himself ó but which Raines, in his interview with Auletta, said originated with deputy managing editor John Geddes.

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Issue Date: May 16 - 22, 2003
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