â€šÃ„ÃºIâ€šÃ„Ã´m a political reporter,â€šÃ„Ã¹ Howell Raines writes in his new memoir, The One That Got Away. â€šÃ„ÃºI can read an audience.â€šÃ„Ã¹ Only half of this is true: Raines was a political reporter, and, at times, a very good one. But in the final years of his career, he showed he was horrible at reading an audience. In the days after September 11, Raines, whoâ€šÃ„Ã´d been the executive editor of The New York Times for less than a week when the Twin Towers collapsed, took pride in the fact that his staff, as he once pungently put it, had been “rode hard and put up wet.” After hundreds of Times journalists performed truly heroic feats of journalism, Raines took all the credit for himself. And when Jayson Blair was outed as a plagiarist and fabricator, Raines misinterpreted anger directed at him as the griping of a complacent newsroom.
This passage in The One That Got Away is of particular interest to me because itâ€šÃ„Ã´s where he takes a swipe at my own reporting and reputation. Referring to what he calls â€šÃ„Ãºa Bermuda triangle of angry druggies,â€šÃ„Ã¹ Raines writes, â€šÃ„Ãº[T]he guy hammering me in Newsweek had been treated for heroin addiction. â€šÃ„Â¶ I had passed on a chance to hire this guy earlier in his career because I believed he was too easily spun by his sources. If I had known about the heroin, I might have hired him, too.â€šÃ„Ã¹
This sentence is a beautiful example of Raines’s M.O.: start with some basic facts and twist them in a way that’s both inaccurate and demeaning. It was an approach executed with aplomb in Raines’s semi-hysterical settling of scores in his Atlantic Monthly article of May 2004, when he started with some undeniable premisesâ€šÃ„Ã®that the Times‘s cultural coverage needed to be updated, for instanceâ€šÃ„Ã®before misstating facts in order to create a new reality in which Raines’s predecessor at the paper had led a lazy and incompetent staff and he had been the savior cast off by bitter ingrates.
In the section I quoted above, Raines refers to me dismissively as a junkie, implies that my critical coverage of him had stemmed from the fact that he hadn’t hired me, writes that he would have hired me out of pity had he only known about my past, and disparages my reporting. I was, at one point, a heroin addict; that’s no secret. And I had sent in some clips to the Times in the fall of 2001, after Inside.com and Brill’s Content shut down. But if Raines had ever even seen those clips, he would have known about my personal story: I included an essay I’d written about my treatment and recovery because, as I said in my cover letter, I wanted to give prospective employers “the broadest sense of my abilities” and not have them caught off guard. In fact, Raines had not “passed on a chance” to hire me; as I later confirmed, my clipsâ€šÃ„Ã®which I sent to Adam Moss, then the editor of the Times‘s Sunday magazine, Dave Smith, then the Times‘s media editor, and Trip Gabriel, the editor of the Times‘s Style section, had never made their way up the ladder. (Neither Raines nor anyone else at the Times contacted me at the time about a possible job.) And to the extent that I had a reputation in 2001, it was for being hard on my sources, something Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker discovered when, in my final story for Brill’s, I wrote how Whitaker had bungled (and possibly prevaricated about) the handling of a story detailing Bob Kerrey’s role in a massacre of Vietnamese civilians. Whitaker, to his credit, hired me soon after. What is undeniably true is that I had hammered Raines both before and after I sent clips in to the Timesâ€šÃ„Ã®for the very things that would lead to his downfall. I’d written critically about Raines since before he had taken over the paper, when, as the media reporter for Inside, I had written about the anxiety in the newsroom related to his appointment. After Inside closed, I reported on Raines’s roiling of the Times‘s national staff for New York. Then there was my coverage of Raines in Newsweek and in my book, Hard News.
By the end of his career as a journalist, Raines had come under fire in many quarters for letting his personal agendas get in the way of the real story. Three years after he was fired for this and for his mishandling of the best newsroom in the country, it’s clear not much has changed.