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Times Watch for June 5, 2003

Raines of Error: Howell’s 21-Month Times Editorialship

Howell Raines served as executive editor of the New York Times from September 2001 to June 5, 2003.

Prompted by the elevation of Howell Raines to executive editorship of the New York Times, after years as editor of the paper’s liberal editorial page, Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson asked a now-prophetic question in his column of August 29, 2001: "Does anyone believe that, in his new job, Raines will instantly purge himself of these and other views?" Raines’ management of the Times over the next 21 months would give Samuelson and other skeptics a most affirmative No.

One of the first signs something was awry at the Times came on Nov. 18, 2002, with a Times editorial suggesting three-time Masters’ golf tournament winner Tiger Woods boycott Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, for its refusal to admit women as members. The Times anti-Augusta crusade eventually got the attention of Newsweek when in December reporter Seth Mnookin wrote “The Changing 'Times,” a two-page story including the subhead: “A hard-charging editor’s crusading style is coloring the Gray Lady’s reputation.” Mnookin noted that Raines’ paper had run 32 stories on whether the Augusta National Golf Club would admit women.

Raines’ Augusta crusade soon caused the paper even more grief. New York Daily News columnist Paul Colford revealed Dec 4, 2002 that the Times had spiked columns by two sports columnists who had written columns disagreeing with the Times editorial stand on Woods. (After outcry, the columns were eventually run in revised form.)

Bloodied but unbowed, Raines continued to deny liberal bias in 2003, accusing instead his critics of a “disinformation” effort “of alarming proportions” to “convince our readers that we are ideologues” while accepting an award at a National Press Foundation's awards dinner Feb. 20. Raines worried “those of us who work for fair-minded publications and broadcasters have been too passive in pointing out the agendas of those who want to use journalism as a political tool,” meaning conservatives. Raines also denounced the “attempt to convince the audience of the world’s most ideology-free newspapers that they’re being subjected to agenda driven news reflecting a liberal bias.” Rejecting any culpability for why anyone would perceive a liberal bias, Raines accused those who document liberal media bias of being advocates for “biased journalism.”

The beginning of the end for Raines may have come in late April, when a reporter for a San Antonio newspaper noticed that a Times story by a reporter named Jayson Blair was almost identical to one she had written the week before. Accused of plagiarism, Blair eventually resigned, causing a firestorm and involving the paper in more negative press.
On May 11, the Times ran an exhaustive, 7,200-word mea culpa titled “Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception,” documenting Blair’s many fabrications. But Publisher Arthur Sulzberger raised eyebrows when he was quoted as saying: “The person who did this is Jayson Blair. Let’s not begin to demonize our executives -- either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher."

As the New York Sun commented: “Far be it from us to suggest how the publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., ought to run his business, even if his editorial columns have spent much of the past year telling others how to run theirs.”

The scandal encapsulated what many considered Raines’ autocratic refusal to listen to his staff, and his propensity for playing favorites. At a Times staff meeting held May 14, he admitted that as a “white man from Alabama,” he may have given Jayson Blair “one chance too many” because Blair was black, an admission that did little to invite confidence. In fact, Raines had specifically boasted of Blair’s hiring in front of the National Association of Black Journalists in 2001, saying: “This campaign has made our staff better and, more importantly, more diverse.”

Then came the controversy over feature writer Rick Bragg, who resigned after complaints that he’d gotten too much help from uncredited freelancer reporters.

On May 14, Times Watch revealed that Maureen Dowd had dishonestly quoted President Bush to make him look wrong about the dangers posed by Al Qaeda terrorists. The Times ran no correction (Dowd merely reprinted the Bush quote accurately in a later column), although several papers who had picked up the column did.

The last words of Raines’ February speech to National Press Foundation turned out to be predictive: “Your award says tonight, says to me that you think we had a good newspaper last year. We’re gonna try to make it better in 2003.” With Raines’ resignation, the Times has come closer to achieving that goal.

See Howell Raines Related Items


Hussein Overthrow Cripples the Fake Passport Industry

The Times is getting creative at finding the downside in post-Saddam Iraq. The paper’s stories alleging mass looting of artifacts may have been vastly overblown, but reporter Sabrina Tavernise has found a unique angle.

In the post-Saddam era, fewer Kurds are trying to flee Iraq. But instead of writing about the Kurds’ relief from repression and fear, Tavernise ponders how the development is hurting the fake passport trade. That’s the subject of her Thursday story, “Thriving Kurdish Trade in Fake Passports Slumps as Fewer Choose to Flee the Region.”

A man known as Sarhang used to do a bustling business in fake passports on the border of Iraq and Iran. “But now, two months after the war, things have changed,” Tavernise writes. “Sarhang's business has dropped off precipitously. There are no clients for his wares. He spends his days in the empty shop playing a Sony PlayStation. Kurds, it seems, are now choosing to stay at home.” A caption for a picture accompanying the story reads: “In the central market of Sulaimaniya, Iraq, in the Kurdish-controlled zone of Iraq, shops that used to sell false passports to people trying to flee to other countries have fallen on hard times.”

It’s nice for the Times to sympathize with struggling entrepreneurs in Northern Iraq, but a little perspective would seem to be in order: If people are choosing not to flee a country, isn’t that a good thing?

For the rest of Sabrina Tavernise’s story on the Kurds, click here.

E-mail TimesWatch Director, Clay Waters, with TimesWatch feedback at