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Howell of pain
Seth Mnookin’s book on the New York Times shows how an editor’s narcissism nearly destroyed the world’s greatest newspaper

AS TOLSTOY MIGHT put it, functional newsrooms are all alike; dysfunctional newsrooms are all dysfunctional in their own way. USA Today made Jack Kelley a star because no one gave the paper any respect, and because Kelley put it on the map with incredible stories about Jewish vigilantes and the heads of Israeli terror-bombing victims rolling down the street. The New Republic encouraged Stephen Glass because he brought back amazing anecdotes about wild sex-and-drug orgies at a Young Republican get-together and whackjobs who worshipped George H.W. Bush by refusing to eat broccoli — and because Glass seemed like such a nice, well-educated young man.

The New York Times put up with Jayson Blair as long as it did because of Howell Raines, whose brief, disastrous reign as executive editor was brought to an end as a result of Blair’s misdeeds. Empowered by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to shake up what both men saw as a culture of complacency, Raines instead unwittingly tore apart the institution he loved. As Seth Mnookin describes it in his fine new book, Hard News: The Scandals at the New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media (Random House), within just a few months Raines had managed to drive out good reporters, disenfranchise his veteran midlevel editors, and change an environment in which everyone felt invested in the paper to one in which the only real hope, the only reason to keep coming into work every day, was that Raines would somehow self-destruct.

That Raines did. Factor in the Times’ iconic status as well as the ever-complex politics of race (Blair is African-American), and the fall of Blair — and of Raines — stands as perhaps the most widely publicized media scandal ever. The Times itself has only begun to recover, and its woes continue to be invoked whenever the sins of the mainstream media are laid bare — most recently in the matter of CBS News, whose report this past September on George W. Bush’s spotty National Guard service turned out to have been partly based on phony documents that had barely been vetted.

The Jayson Blair scandal was never about Jayson Blair. Mnookin compares Blair to Gavrilo Princip, the Serb nationalist who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, thus setting off a chain of events that led to World War I. "The real cause of the tumult that gripped the paper," Mnookin writes, "could be found in the ways in which Raines’s narcissistic personality had manifested itself in his leadership."

If Princip’s act had not taken place within the context of a thoroughly corrupt and dysfunctional European order, it never would have led to what was, up to that time, the bloodiest war in human history. Likewise, if Blair hadn’t written fictional and plagiarized articles for editors who were overworked, frightened, and boiling over with resentment, his misdeeds likely would not have multiplied to the point where they ended Raines’s reign; seriously set back the career of his managing editor, Gerald Boyd, who, like Raines, was forced to resign; and severely tarnished the reputation of what is still the best daily newspaper in the country, if not the world.

AT THE TIME the Blair scandal was unfolding, there was a lot of talk about what Blair’s misdeeds had to teach us about the supposed sins of affirmative action. This was simplistic at best, racially clueless at worst; as Glass, Kelley, Mike Barnicle, and others have demonstrated, white journalists are every bit as capable of making up stories and plagiarizing the work of others as African-Americans. Somehow, though, when a journalistic scandal involves someone who’s black — Janet Cooke, Patricia Smith, Jayson Blair — conservatives nod sagely that none of this ever would have happened if they hadn’t been hired because of their race.

But if Blair’s story is most definitely not a cautionary tale about affirmative action, his race is, nevertheless, relevant to what happened at the Times. That’s because Raines himself was unusually susceptible to the charms of an ambitious young black reporter. A liberal who grew up in segregated Alabama, Raines was a lifelong crusader for racial equality; his sincerity was unquestioned, even if it occasionally came across in a condescending manner. Blair did get his foot in the door at the Times through a minority internship program, but affirmative action hardly explains what happened once he was put on staff. In Mnookin’s telling, though, how Blair’s race may have played to the sensibilities and insecurities of the Times’ white Southern editor explains a lot.

In 1992, Raines won a Pulitzer Prize for an article he’d written for the New York Times Magazine called "Grady’s Gift." It was a tribute to the black housekeeper he had befriended when she was a teenager working in the Raines home and he was a young boy growing up in 1950s Birmingham, a place where segregation was "enforced with unremitting brutality." Raines attributed his own lack of racism, and indeed his dedication to eliminating racism, to the lessons Grady had taught him about growing up black in Alabama. It all sounds terribly cloying and sentimental, but it wasn’t. Raines wrote about this in a straightforward and clear-eyed manner, even pointing out how his well-meaning family didn’t have the imagination to help Grady attend college and thus realize her own dreams.

At one point in "Grady’s Gift," Raines writes that "the dishonesty upon which such a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism." Raines was specifically describing life in the segregated South. But there are moments in Hard News that serve to bring home the extent to which Raines was a prisoner of his own background. For instance, Mnookin notes that Raines, in his self-congratulatory 20,000-word postmortem published in the Atlantic Monthly last May, wrote this about his decision to promote Boyd, who’s African-American, to the managing editor’s job: "I also wanted to see, as Arthur [Sulzberger] himself needed to, what Gerald Boyd could do in a high-demand situation." Thus did Raines manage to demean Boyd as — yes — an affirmative-action hire even as he was making him the second-most-powerful person in the newsroom. (Or, should I say, well after the fact; Mnookin does not say whether Raines’s condescension toward Boyd was evident during the time they were running the paper together. Mnookin does offer evidence that Raines treated Boyd badly, but no worse than anyone else.) Mnookin also mentions that, among some of the Times’ African-American staffers, "Grady’s Gift" was snickeringly known as "Driving Mr. Raines."

All this came to a head at a disastrous movie-theater staff meeting several weeks after Blair’s departure. Raines, Boyd, and Sulzberger sat on the stage while their enraged employees unloaded vitriol upon them. "Where I come from, when it comes to principles on race, you have to pick a ditch to die in. And let it come rough or smooth, you’ll find me in the trenches for justice," Raines said on that day. "Does that mean I personally favored Jayson? Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama with those convictions, gave him one chance too many.... When I look into my own heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes."

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Issue Date: November 26 - December 2, 2004
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