The Un-Howell

Bill Keller, the new executive editor of the Times.Photo: Courtesy of the New York Times

People in the New York Times newsroom have taken to holding their breath when their publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., speaks. It’s more dread than anticipation: What might come out of his mouth? Will it be another un-Times-like note, the result of some deep tone-deafness to the sensibility of writers and editors, that sends the whole miserable and endless Jayson-Howell saga careening in an ever more discordant and hapless direction?

The big worry when he came down to the third floor last week to bestow the executive editor’s job on Bill Keller was that he’d invoke the moose again—his mascot for corporate togetherness and communication. After Jayson Blair, the moose may be the most humiliating thing for many Timesmen—Jayson Blair is history; the moose, and all it implies, lives on. But thankfully, Arthur didn’t mention the moose.

He seemed chastened. At least he was wearing a tie, Times reporters noted, when he announced Keller’s ascension.

Afterward, newsroom personnel debated whether Arthur had made the sign of the cross when he finished his remarks, which was taken as a possible indication of both his chastening and, again, his inappropriateness—not to mention the heightened scrutiny of his every motion. (There was discussion about whether he’d made the sign of the Roman or the Eastern cross.)

He was, of course, trying to make the best of a very bad and very weird situation.

For one thing, there was this amazing corporate discomfort. Two years ago, Arthur did not just choose Howell Raines to be the Times’ executive editor over Bill Keller but rejected Keller. Keller stood for something that Arthur had decided against—even cast out.

First, Keller was the choice of Joe Lelyveld, the retiring executive editor, and Arthur was proclaiming a new day. Second, Keller was a cautious, thoughtful, self-deprecating, modest sort (it was often hard to know what he was thinking, which the transparent Arthur must have found disconcerting).

Arthur wanted a slap-you-upside-the-head executive editor.

Indeed, if there is something manic about Raines (and, for that matter, Arthur himself), there is something depressive about Keller.

So Keller was passed over; then he was sent into internal exile. He stayed on as a consolation-prize columnist and magazine writer, apparently not understanding that corporate etiquette suggested he resign. His continued presence became rather an embarrassment. A Siberian freeze enveloped him.

In Times style, people who had attended him when he had the potential to be the next executive editor now avoided him. He was whispered about at parties.

But now he had been transformed into a nearly moral force, and Arthur, who had rejected and exiled him, was awkwardly welcoming him back. It was nearly Sakharovian.

Of course, the other highly uncomfortable factor here was that everybody knew that Arthur was being forced to welcome him back.

“With its latest story-length correction, the times has made itself a mark for every sonofabitch with a lawyer who thinks he deserves an apology and retraction.”

Arthur had lost two major battles: He’d been forced to fire Raines, and now he’d been forced to hire the opposite of Raines. It was not just that he was having to replace a key manager but that he was having to repudiate his own management vision. In Howell Raines, Arthur had hired, in management parlance (and, indeed, in Howell’s parlance), a change agent; now, in Bill Keller, he’d hired a change agent to undo the changes of his own agent.

Who had forced him?

This was now the substantial question in journalism: Who was running the New York Times?

People in the Times’ third-floor newsroom—as opposed to the fourteenth-floor executive offices, or the tenth floor, where Bill Keller had been exiled—were actually asking this question in even more aggressive ways: Who really owned the New York Times?

Who, as one Times reporter put it last week, had custody of the brand?

Certainly, the deposing of Raines and the revivifying of Keller were third-floor victories. Even more: It was a rank-and-file third-floor victory. Reporters and editors and clerks had literally faced down Raines—and the publisher had been too worried about the mood downstairs not to hire Keller. Indeed, in some sense, there has been a sort of work stoppage at the Times. Or a concentration slowdown. Even with Raines gone, the central subject of the Times is its own vast unhappiness and dysfunction—which, its share price notwithstanding, has got to have scary economic implications. How many talent hours have been lost to this?

There may always have been unhappiness and dysfunction at the Times (the world’s best newspaper has long been acknowledged to be the world’s unhappiest paper), but when everybody expresses his unhappiness at once and out loud, that’s something like rebellion.

Still, the success of the rebellion was not so much that a line had been drawn between the third floor and the fourteenth floor—after all, in papers across the country there is endemic hostility between the newsroom and corporate managers—but between the third floor and the publisher himself.

Russ Lewis, the Times’ CEO (he holds that title even though Arthur is the paper’s top executive), Janet Robinson, the paper’s president, and Michael Golden, Arthur’s cousin and the vice-chairman, were said to have given up on Raines long before Arthur did, and to have told Arthur that he had no alternative but to bring back Keller and mollify the newsroom—whatever that might mean for Arthur’s vision of brand growth and transformation.

But if Arthur had lost the ability to name his own most important executive (and kept his job mostly by dint of the advantages of primogeniture in a family-run corporation), and, it would seem, his ability to lead the organization, that did not necessarily mean that leadership had passed to the newsroom.

The newsroom was in a post-revolutionary state of anger and recrimination. Keller was not even the main topic of conversation last week. Raines was still the main subject—prompted by the interview he’d just given on Charlie Rose and the incendiary, practically blasphemous things he had said. After that, the second big topic was the extraordinary story-length correction that the paper had run last Monday—another scarlet letter. Keller was only third on the topics list.

Now, it is hard to fully understand why the Raines interview would be so infuriating, other than that Times people still assume he has meaning and power. But they were all shaking their fists. For Raines to brand the newsroom “lethargic” and “complacent” and “undemanding,” to have singled out its “entrenched folkways” and its lack of energy and old-boy metabolism … well, in addition to a collective “Fuck him” there was, too, the certain sense that he was hardly alone in thinking this, and that the newsroom would have to dig itself further in. It would have to go on defending its own entrenchment—a moral entrenchment—from the change agents. Defending itself from Raines even without Raines present could well become its basic mission.

And then there was this most recent correction—another 2,000 words of deep, cutting self-criticism. Another purity moment. A Maoist purging—if you weren’t flagellating, you weren’t loyal to the cause. A business story had gone awry—arguably no more awry than a certain portion of all the Times’ never-so-savvy business coverage. A record executive was said to have lost control of his company. The Times flatly retracted this—although one could not read this story without having some appreciation of the murkiness of the control issues of this particular business. This same record executive was accused of being litigious—the Times categorically retracted this, one might assume, because it had been threatened with litigation. (And, too, the Times felt compelled to correct the fact that the theme song from The Brady Bunch appeared on the second volume of an album in question and not the first.)

What you have here is a need to confess, to come clean, to make yourself, and your own virtue, the center of attention. In doing so, of course—more dangerous than inaccuracy to a journalistic organization—you become a mark for every sonofabitch with a lawyer who thinks he deserves an apology and retraction.

Bill Keller is supposed to calm this mess, this “trauma ward,” as he’s called it (he said “trauma ward” was an exaggeration, but when you have to explain that something is an exaggeration … ).

On the face of it, he might seem to have the cred to do it. The blow he took—“knocked sideways,” in one person’s description—when he didn’t get the executive editor’s job the first time around was not just from losing out but from losing out to Howell, who was everything Keller did not think an editor should be. Howell was the big, flowery, bombastic, schmoozy, showy, crazy-competitive entertainer—as good a description as any of what Raines was supposed to make the Times itself become. Keller, on the other hand, an Upper West Sider with young children, is something of a social liability, with a belief in the virtue of not being larger than life and with a certain sort of moral antipathy to those who are—or think they are. Unlike Raines, who did a brief and apparently not so enthusiastic stint abroad, Keller is by temperament as well as experience a foreign correspondent—an outsider, a listener.

At the same time, you could just slightly reposition this description and see him also as the consummate Times company man. From the old mold—and with some of the old moldiness. The reason he has been the newsroom’s choice is that he represents the Times’ own sense of … well, pathos—the third floor’s sense of its own passivity and thwarted ambitions. Keller, in this view, is the candidate and the hope of the Times functionaries, its wretched Gogol characters—rather than its stars, who were Raines’s people.

The first message Keller sent was surely un-Rainesian and un-Arthurian. The priority was not to go forward and make the Times greater and better but to go home and spend time with your family. Which is either an extraordinarily noble sentiment or a really banal and ho-hum one.

For Arthur, making Howell Raines editor was certainly a tactical error. But if he still believes, as he constantly says, that the Times has to be remade, re-created, redacted in some new media sense, then Keller may be a strategic error. And Arthur may have lost his war (after all, Keller, who is 54, will very likely be around till the mandatory retirement at 65).

On the other hand, all this blah-blah about change and platforms and national footprint and internationalism is surely powerful, too. And so the war may really have just begun.

The Un-Howell