Monday, December 13, 2004


When the hatchet is mightier than the pen

It's not as if Seth Mnookin's evisceration of former New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines was undeserved. In "Hard News" ($25.95, Random House) Mnookin describes Raines' downfall in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal and attempts to define the career-ending catastrophe's impact on American journalism.

Raines appeared to be every bit as arrogant and impressed with himself as Mnookin paints him. A sort of minor Robert Penn Warren or Shelby Foote, Raines saw himself as a modern throwback to those elegant and erudite men of letters. After having published several books and worked his way from The St. Petersburg Times to the ear of New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzburger, Raines soon found himself at the top of the American journalistic mountain.

But his stay as headman at the New York Times was filled with conflict. Mnookin gives readers a virtual turn at the office water cooler by describing the office gossip that Raines' autocracy engendered. He describes in minute detail how Raines manipulated others on way up the corporate ladder. He reveals in incremental detail how Raines favored friends and dogged dissenters.

All that is good journalism, and speaks to what's right about our profession and journalists like Mnookin. The former Newsweek writer is smart enough to know that he has to tell a compelling story to keep readers hooked long enough for him to make his point.

He did that and more, but he didn't stop there. And that's where the book began to lose its texture. From a seamlessly woven bit of fine investigative journalism, the book careens into a well-modulated screed against Raines.

And a screed, however well composed, is still a strident, shrill message that grates on one's ears.
Sure, Raines is not a nice guy. His preoccupation with himself and his prerogatives, as Mnookin deftly reports, caused the Times to falter. But, as Mnookin documents but fails to credit fully, other factors both in the newspaper and beyond conspired to create the crisis. After reading "Hard Times," however, one is left prepared to blame Raines for everything from the Blair scandal to empty towel dispensers in the New York Times washroom.

Mnookin fails to consider how he and others in journalism have distanced themselves from people. One sobering quote I remember from the Blair mess was that uttered by a relative of Jessica Lynch, the GI ambushed, then rescued during the Iraqi War. Blair lied about having interviewed the man, who told reporters later that he thought all journalists made up quotes.

Mnookin portrays the good guys at the New York Times as hard-working, ill-recompensed ink-stained wretches. He'd be right if he were describing the professional antecedents of today's reporters and editors. But New York Times journalists are extremely well paid, are college graduates, and spend much of their time in an environment charged by ideas. In short, they're a minority at variance with the way most Americans live.

Consequently, Times journalists and their peers across the country have lost faith in their ability to connect with their readership. The result? At worst, low-cost journalism that panders to what editors think readers want, sly partisanship in a partial press, or just poorly written reports that highlight the unimportant attributes and underplay or ignore the essence of story.

Raines walked into that situation, promising to find ways to reconnect. Hence, he was less the cause of the scandal than one of many agents of an accident waiting to happen.

In Mnookin’s rush to establish Raines as the reason for the New York Times' slip from grace (and good journalism), he fails to flesh out key players. Blair himself; Rick Bragg, Raines' main man who was later immolated in his mentor's barbecue, and other major actors in the Times Square agony were drawn but not fully illustrated.

Instead, it appears obvious that he was nicest to those who told him the most stuff. For example, there are story lines that span the book describing the persecution, endurance, leadership and eventual promotions of Times employees such as Jill Abramson or Glenn Kramon, both of whom figure prominently in Mnookin's telling of the tale.

Raines was no special monster; more like a bully too big for his britches. We've all dealt, or deal, with bullies, be they the guys who took our lunch money or the bosses who insist it be their way or the highway. Mnookin, however, writes of Raines as if he were a latter-day Grendel, some dread decapitator who destroys fine newspapers. But this isn't Beowulf we're talking about here, just a story about a knucklehead boss who blew it.

Near the book's end, Mnookin is attending a memorial gathering for an esteemed writer and editor who had been killed during the Iraqi War. Earlier, as Mnookin describes in terms of post-industrial shock and outrage, Raines had refused to shake his hand. So in the book's closing passage, Mnookin turns the dagger once more.

"I watched him walk toward the store's escalator with his wife. After a few moments, he disappeared from sight. Behind me, Mike Kelly's friends, colleagues, and admirers were chatting happily. They were sharing bittersweet stories of a beloved writer and editor in chief, a man whose career was cut tragically short years before its time."

James M. Abraham, a syndicated book columnist, can be reached at

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