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Fishing With Howell

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Liptak and Barstow represent the best of the Raines system. Liptak might be moldering at his desk as a lawyer for the Times to this day were it not for Raines. And as for Barstow, he won a Pulitzer Prize the year after Raines left for an investigative series on workplace horrors that Raines had encouraged him to do.

Raines was obviously upset, but he wasn’t letting anyone in. Here were two guys he’d lifted up, and they’re both doing great. And he has fallen from the highest perch in journalism. Whose heart wouldn’t go out to him?

“I will be forever grateful to that man for doing the things he did for me, giving me the green light, giving me the space, giving me the time. And more than that, being completely behind a story that would absolutely hurt him in his hometown, Birmingham,” Barstow says. “I can’t think of a story that I took less pleasure in [than the investigation of Blair in May]. I hated every minute. The only good things that came out of that were the unbelievable bonds I formed with the guys I worked with. But if Howell thinks that our theory of the case is what did him in, he is a man who has not come to grips with himself.”

Raines sensed my interest in his feelings. “I once told Gail Sheehy—this was not an original insight on my part, I read it somewhere—that football is the perfect metaphor for American corporate life. You have to inflict pain and sustain pain for the good of the organization . . . So to suddenly—for a halfback to suddenly jump up and say, ‘Hey, I got tackled and it hurt!’ it’s just not on. Maybe that’s a silly example.”

Of course, these days, after a big game, coaches and players come out to a big room to face the press. The ones who let it hang out are the ones who get fawned over. But Raines was living by an old code. I found this out when I pressed him about the several oblique references in his book to his time as a romantic freelancer in Manhattan.

“I wanted to experience that liberated aspect of life in New York in the same way that if one suddenly found oneself transferred to Paris, one would want to experience the romance of Paris.”

I asked Raines if journalism could still be a progressive force. “I leave that for the next generation to figure out,” he said. “I’m on another journey now.”

“So, did you make it with a lot of girls?” I asked, being blunt.

Raines scowled. “I’m not going to . . . There’s no way a gentleman can answer that question.”

I said, “I guess you just demonstrated the difference between a gentleman and someone who’s not.”

“One of the definitions of a gentleman is that a gentleman has an acute sense of propriety. Full stop.”

As the Times part of our conversation went on, I began to identify with Times staffers who had said that they were afraid to cross him. Raines and I had gotten along well for days; he was hugely entertaining. Now his broad, dark face was full of storm. He said I’d picked up a caricature of him that was out there. It was something that happens when you get a big clip file, and he wasn’t going to try to correct it. “I still know who I am, I know who the real me is, I know my strengths and my weaknesses . . .”

At the height of the Blair scandal, on May 14, the Times held a town-hall meeting for over 1,000 staff members in the Loews cinema in Times Square, and hardheaded newsmen rose in the seats to accuse Raines of undermining basic journalistic values. “You saw Times lifers who in a million years were not the type to get upset, erupt in anger or tears,” one writer recalls. “Sam Roberts, Susan Chira—these are nice, solid, intelligent Times loyalists, not revolutionaries.”

They said that Raines had driven them hard only on stories that would get the most attention or that reflected his concerns. The normal checks and balances of an institution had given way to an intense, headlong, individualistic culture. One editor rose to say that Raines had lost the newsroom’s confidence. When reporter Alex Berenson asked, “Have you considered resigning?” there were stunned murmurs throughout the hall.

Raines came away from the meeting staggered. “He was in shell shock,” says Glenn Kramon, an assistant managing editor. “He couldn’t believe people felt so strongly.” Over the next three weeks, Raines had meetings with staff, trying to win them back. “He was desperate to survive,” Kramon remembers. “He said, ‘I can change,’ and ‘What do I need to do to regain your confidence?’ But people didn’t help him. It was too late. And he never really said, ‘I was wrong.’ ”


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