Howell Raines, who edited the New York Times from September, 2001, until his firing last year in the scandal over Jayson Blair's false reporting, thinks that nobody knows the trouble he's seen. We don't have any idea how bad things are at the Times, and Raines wants to tell us. He believes the world should understand that he fought valiantly against incompetence, complacency and a crippling union contract. He tells this melancholy tale in "My Times," a passionate and remarkable article, 22 pages long, that will run in the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly. (It appeared yesterday on the Internet, available to those willing to buy an Atlantic subscription.)
Unionized reporters and editors at the Times, so long as they avoid committing some truly outlandish crime, have lifetime tenure. They win this prize much faster than anyone in the universities, which are so often criticized for tolerating tenured drones. A Times journalist who survives a probationary period of just 14 weeks is guaranteed employment till death or retirement, because the union contract makes dismissal almost impossible.
In 1971, a former Times editor, Turner Catledge, complained: "No one was ever fired ... God was our personnel director." Until He chose to take a reporter, the reporter stayed at the Times.
Some years after Catledge's retirement an editor forgot the 14-week rule.
Having decided to fire a new staffer, he missed the deadline. He assumed the new man would not wish to stay, just because of a technicality, in a place that didn't want him. It's OK, said the new man. He could live with it. He remains on the staff today, a quarter of a century later.
With that story Raines illustrates the absurdist comedy involved in editing a newspaper governed by rigid rules and customs, most of them apparently designed to prevent anyone from working too hard. He says the paper runs on "management by mendacity": Editors routinely lie to maintain morale or maybe just to keep the peace. Great work gets great praise, but routine work is called excellent and sloppy work is considered adequate.
Raines, trying to change all that, drove the staff hard. He didn't know how much he was resented until the Blair scandal broke. "I had no reservoir of goodwill on which to draw," he says.
He says it's forbidden to discuss the complacency that pervades the paper, but he breaks that rule and several others. He says about the American Newspaper Guild what most editors mutter in private but few will state in public: That it encourages mediocrity.
Having run up against the destructive power of change-resistant editors who had "only a firm grasp of the obvious," Raines decided the Times splits into two cultures, the culture of achievement and the culture of complaint.
He believes his dismissal was a victory for the culture of complaint and a defeat for his plan to inject new life into the paper, raise standards in all departments, and divert it from "its glide path toward irrelevance."
Unconsciously, Raines reveals a major reason for the doziness that so annoyed him -- an overweening sense of self-importance that afflicts anyone associated with the paper. He says that the Times (even the Raines-less Times) is irreplaceable, the ethical keystone of American journalism and a central part of American life. "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." Raines leaves us with the strong impression that when the Times folds the United States will collapse immediately afterward, followed by Western civilization.
His style, not the least interesting aspect of his piece, combines the military and the folksy with the literary. He uses radar, battlefields, field-grade officers and line troops as metaphors. "Target selection and execution are the essence of strategic editing," he remarks at one point.
Elsewhere he shifts to the southern populist drawl of his Alabama youth; he says an earlier Times editor, James Reston, was "tough as goat guts" in his analysis of staff weakness. He borrows from W.B. Yeats to describe the "the foul rag-and-bone shop" of daily newspaper competition.
Sometimes Raines looks uncomfortably like a typical executive constructing an alibi. He takes full responsibility for the failure to catch Jayson Blair, but only after making it clear that the real fault lay with underlings and his predecessor. He's self-centred as well as smug (once a Times man always a Times man), but this unprecedented article nevertheless performs a valuable task for those who care about journalism and also for those who cherish excellence in any collective endeavour.
He won't lack for readers this spring, and my guess is that for the next generation or so "My Times" will continue to be read in the universities, not only in journalism and mass media courses, but also in any seminar considering the management of big, unwieldy but essential enterprises. He discusses the ailments of one American newspaper, but his experiences and conclusions will resonate in the halls of government and private institutions all over the world.