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An editor intoxicated by power

June 07, 2003|DAVID SHAW

The executive editor of the New York Times is the most powerful journalist in America.

I'm sure that was true even before I became a firsthand witness to that power when I started writing about the news media in the mid-1970s, and it will remain true of whoever succeeds Howell Raines, who resigned Thursday amid mounting criticism of his role in championing and protecting Jayson Blair, the serial plagiarist and boastful liar who dishonored the nation's most honored newspaper.

I know, I know. Most people get most of their news from television, not newspapers, these days, so how can a newspaper editor be that powerful?

Where do you think network television news shows and newsmagazines get most of their ideas and priorities? From the New York Times. The same is true of many local newspapers, which are heavily influenced by what's on Page 1 of the New York Times -- and which, in turn, influence what local radio and TV stations think is news. And in the media-cultural-financial heart of the country -- the echo chamber that is New York City -- no voice resonates more loudly than that of the executive editor of the New York Times.

Such power -- and the pressure it inevitably brings -- is intoxicating ... and even for men of honor and integrity, it can ultimately prove corrupting.

Abe Rosenthal was a brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter before climbing the editing ranks at the New York Times, and it could be legitimately argued that his creation of several advertiser-friendly feature sections literally saved the paper from financial ruin in the mid-1970s. But by the time he was dragged into retirement in 1986, his success and the increased power it brought -- combined with the odd interplay of ego and deep-seated insecurity -- had turned Rosenthal into a tyrannical, irascible boss who ruled by fiat, fear and favoritism.

Max Frankel, who succeeded Rosenthal, took over with one mission and one mandate -- to tranquilize and stabilize the Times. Frankel never seemed altogether comfortable as the executive editor. As much as I liked and respected him, he always seemed too cerebral and too aloof for the job of supervising the entire news-gathering operation and herding more than 1,000 individual sensibilities through the rough and tumble of daily journalism.

But as near as I could tell as an outsider who visited the paper several times a year to interview reporters and editors, he did succeed in restoring order and civility to a newsroom that under Rosenthal had become part combat zone, part primal therapy treatment center.

Joe Lelyveld succeeded Frankel in 1994. He too was cerebral and aloof. No, not aloof. Quiet. Measured. Under him, the Times was better than it had ever been.

I interviewed Lelyveld many times during the seven years he was executive editor, and invariably found him decent, down-to-earth, responsive and insightful. Some Times insiders had one criticism or another of Lelyveld, and -- like all bosses everywhere -- he had a few staff favorites whose rise to prominence was resented by some of their colleagues. And it was during his editorship that Blair was hired and given his early, good assignments.

But I never heard anyone call Lelyveld a tyrant or accuse him of ruling by fear. He did not seem to be either intoxicated or corrupted by his power.

Then, in September 2001, came Raines.

When the Blair scandal first broke, I thought immediately of two telephone conversations I'd had just a few months after Raines took over.

"He's conducting a reign of terror at the paper," a friend and colleague called to say. "He's arrogant. He's playing favorites. He doesn't care about reporters' personal lives or their families. He just wants to make his mark on the paper as fast as he can, and he's going to force some of the paper's best national reporters to quit in protest."

My friend had good firsthand knowledge of the inner workings of the New York Times, and her comments were seconded in a phone conversation I had the same day with a reporter who works at the paper.

This wasn't terribly surprising. Similar complaints about Rosenthal had been commonplace. Complaining about the top editor is almost every journalist's favorite pastime -- nowhere more so than at the New York Times.

Although Raines is a superb journalist -- a Pulitzer Prize winner who worked at the paper for 25 years in various capacities before becoming executive editor -- I knew from having interviewed him over the years that he was arrogant and rigid. And I had a strong feeling that his awareness of the high regard in which Lelyveld's New York Times was held would drive him to extremes to put his own imprint on the paper so that he would not be seen as merely a caretaker of the dynasty.

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