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The New York Times from 30,000 Feet

by JOHN L. HESS

Howell Raines, the fallen editor of the New York Times, likens his relationship with Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, its publisher, to a marriage. His account of their divorce leaves little doubt that he was the wronged party. But I do believe that his plaint in the Atlantic Monthly, under the title “My Times,” is more damaging to his image than I was in the book “My TIMES: A Memoir of Dissent.”

I pointed out that the pathological lying by Jayson Blair had harmed nothing but the reputation of the Times, whereas the paper had routinely spread lies by official sources that got us into war. For his part, Raines says none of it all would have happened if anybody had shown him a memo about Blair’s prior fabrications; he would have fired him outright. He quotes a colleague as saying that he was a “control freak who doesn’t like details.”

He and Arthur, he says, surveyed the Times battlefield as copilots from an altitude of 30,000 feet I am impressed at how much what he saw supports my own observations from the trenches below. (Raines: “For people who have worked at other newspapers, the biggest shock upon coming to the Times is that the level of talent is not higher than it is.” Hess: “A first immersion ..had to come as a shock to anybody who had worked in a normal news shop.”)

After the fall, Raines enraged many Timesfolk by saying that Sulzberger had promoted him in order to jazz up a lethargic staff which let big stories get by and let the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today offer coverage that was more attractive, entertaining and useful to the elite national and even worldwide audience that they were seeking. (I recount the same failings in more detail, and I think more entertainingly, concluding that the Times was never “the greatest newspaper in the world” or even a very good one, except in spots.) Yet Raines never drew the obvious inference that something was wrong upstairs.

He tells us that a whistleblower bearing a front-page scoop was turned away by news clerks. News clerks deciding what was fit to print! But as I recount. bigger scoops, such as Watergate and My-lai. were turned away by two of Raines’s predecessors, Max Frankel and A. M. Rosenthal. They are among the few Timesfolk who got passing grades from Raines, though they, after all, hired the army of slackers and incompetents that he decries. For their shortcomings, he blames the Newspaper Guild. Nonsense. The Guild has virtually no role in the hiring, promotion or assignments. A contract requirement that new job openings be posted is an office joke; when one is posted it is generally assumed that the job has been filled. Raines imagines that his staff couldn’t be out weeding the garden and planting roses because it was tied up, full time, with arbitrations It’s true that discrimination or dismissal without just cause may be appealed (who would wish it otherwise?), but management has more than ample time to try out applicants. If the Times is rife with mediocrity at all levels, it’s because there is mediocrity at the top.

My own memoir sought to keep hope alive for improvement under the new publisher, but Raines dashed it. He recounts that the first “retreat” Sulzberger held for key staffers began with a daylong instruction on how to fire people; “lean and mean” was the corporate goal in those days. Raines thought that was weird. His goal was to hire more people, to multiply the number of special sections and staff them with high-paid talent, supervised by a new layer of high-paid overseers. His dream, and that of Sulzberger, was to turn the Times into a worldwide media superpower, the equivalent of the American superpower dreamed up by neocons. They set out, sprinting. Then along came Jayson Blair.

In the end, Sulzberger used the lesson he learned at his “retreat,”
and fired Raines. Then he practiced a curious and cruel family ritual: setting up two candidates to compete for a promotion. Significantly, he chose the conservative hawk Bill Keller over the liberal dove Frank Rich. In a further effort to combat the myth that the Times is a liberal paper, he also hired the neocon David Brooks as a columnist, just as Sulzberger’s father hired Bill Safire. Ironically, Brooks was recently obliged to acknowledge that, like Jayson Blair et al, he had “made up facts.” That was in a piece last year in, of all places, the Atlantic Monthly. It’s a small world.

JOHN L. HESS is a former writer for the New York Times, a career he chronicles in his excellent new book My Times: a Memoir of Dissent. Hess is now a political commentator for WBAI.

 

JOHN L. HESS is a former writer for the New York Times, a career he chronicles in his excellent new book My Times: a Memoir of Dissent. Hess is now a political commentator for WBAI.

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