More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
This is an excerpt of an article appearing in the May 2004 Atlantic, available on newsstands April 13.
The Atlantic Monthly | May 2004
t has been almost a year since I was dismissed as executive editor of The New York Times, a casualty of the turmoil that followed the forced resignation of a troubled young reporter, Jayson Blair, who had fabricated or plagiarized facts and quotations in scores of news stories. I am not going to spend the rest of my life going over the details of the Blair scandal. My intention here is to perform a final service for the newspaper that I worked for and loved for twenty-five years, by revealing the real struggle that was going on behind the scenes at the Times as the Blair scandal played out.
A year after the Jayson Blair scandal, the deposed executive editor of The New York Times answers his critics, acknowledges his mistakes, deconstructs the events that ended his tumultuous tenure, and provides a no-holds-barred assessment of what he sees as a great newspaper in crisis
by Howell Raines
To do so requires me to put on the record both the revitalization strategy that my closest colleagues and I were pursuing at the Times and the underlying analysis of the paper's vulnerabilities that gave us a sense of urgency. This strategy had the support of our publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., who throughout his career has pushed for a Times that guarded its traditions but also sought to make itself smarter, livelier, and more appealing to the geographically diverse and demanding national audience on which its future depends. We believed that the paper's long-term viability required significant improvements in the quality of its journalism—from the calcified front page our new leadership team had inherited on September 5, 2001, to the neglected, underfinanced "soft" sections at "the back of the book." A quiet but intense factional war was going on within the Times, between the senior editors who endorsed these improvements and traditionalists on the newsroom floor and among mid-level managers. The latter group wanted the paper to stay the way it was and took as an insult the animating idea behind our strategy: the idea that "the world's greatest newspaper" is not nearly as good as it could be and ought to be.
Despite the unfortunate ending of my career there, I remain devoted to the Times, because it is in every sense an irreplaceable American institution. The Times not only occupies a central place in our national civic life but also plays just as important a role as the ethical keystone of American journalism. It misses the point to say that the Times is an "elite" publication. It is the indispensable newsletter of the United States' political, diplomatic, governmental, academic, and professional communities, and the main link between those communities and their counterparts around the world. And yet a harsh reality of our era is that if the Times ever ceased to exist, it would not be reinvented by any media company now in operation, in this country or in the world. A harsher reality is that its ability to prosper in the modern media marketplace is not at all assured. That is why Arthur Sulzberger has spent much of his twelve-year career as publisher trying to improve the quality of the Times's journalism—an effort that both of us saw as the best way to ensure The New York Times Company's future as a business.
I felt on the day I became executive editor and on the day I drove away from West Forty-third Street for the last time that the Times badly needs to raise the level of its journalism, and to do so quickly in order to survive and make the full transition to the digital age. Today the sad fact is that Arthur Sulzberger, who was my partner in the great enterprise of revitalizing the Times, and who remains my friend, may no longer be in a strong enough position internally to push all the reforms we felt were essential. Although there are signs that the front-to-back improvements we sought are beginning to move forward in a piecemeal fashion, for the time being Arthur and his top editors seem to be picking their way across a minefield, having seen the destructive power of a change-resistant newsroom. After months of deliberation and many invitations to write about the Times, I have chosen this forum to tell my former colleagues at the paper and its many devoted readers exactly where I think the paper needs to go. My views were shaped by a small group of strategists that Arthur had painstakingly assembled. That little round table is now broken, but there's no reason a new one can't be brought together to advance the goals we set. No one inside the Times can speak right now as candidly as I to the full extent of that strategic vision.
Howell Raines worked for The New York Times for twenty-five years. He is the author of three books, including the best-selling memoir Fly Fishing Through the Mid-life Crisis and My Soul is Rested, an oral history of the civil-rights movement. He won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1992.
Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2004; My Times; Volume 293, No. 4; 49-81.