The Blair Affair has turned the New York Times into the kind of place a hot-blooded Alabama boy could hardly expect to feel comfortable.
Indeed, even before executive editor Howell Raines resigned last week, another colorful Southerner, reporter Rick Bragg, bid good-bye to the Gray Lady, when the paper suspended him for his habitual dependence on stringers.
Ever since the Blair scandal surfaced in early May, the Times’ response has been heavy on ceremony but apparently weak on confidence-building for the staff.
It’s not exactly the environment for a man known to say what he thinks, and make it known whom he likes — and doesn’t. In essence, Raines was a general who lost the support of his troops.
Fittingly then, Raines’ own exit was the first sign of action in the simmering saga that has been the New York Times in recent weeks.
Times managing editor and Raines loyalist Gerald Boyd, who was also a mentor for Blair, also stepped down.
No successor was named, though the well-respected but introverted Joe Lelyveld, Raines’ predecessor, was brought back in to helm temporarily.
The only direction articulated for the Post-Blair era was stated in a staff memo from publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. about “providing recommendations for strengthening our newsroom management systems” and “tightening some of our journalistic practices.”
With Raines out of the picture, the focus on West 43rd Street will inevitably turn to the man behind, but very much in control, of the scene, Sulzberger, whose reputation arguably had more to do with Raines’ exit than Raines’ own.
“I think Arthur made a calculation that if this gets worse, it was going to become naturally focused on Arthur himself,” says Michael Wolff, media reporter for New York magazine. “It still may.”
The main question for Sulzberger is how many of Raines’ initiatives to pursue. These include revamping the national staff and reinventing the cultural coverage under guru Frank Rich.
Also to be decided is who will fill Raines’ shoes. It is alien to the Times’ tradition to go outside the paper to fill such a high post, as the L.A. Times recently did.
Two names that have surfaced to sit in the big chair include Bill Keller, 54, who was passed over when Raines got the job, and Martin Baron, 48, editor of the Boston Globe, which is owned by the N.Y. Times.
Their ages, however, might present a problem, since the executive editor post is historically the last stop at the Times, and it’s a job that typically endures until the paper’s mandatory retirement age of 65. The preference is for not having executive editors serve too long.
As for Raines, while he may have been pummeled into politeness in recent weeks, the Birmingham native left with a characteristic flourish.
At a hastily convened staff meeting on his last day of work June 5, he let loose a Bear Bryant-like exhortation: “Remember, when a great story breaks out, go like hell!”