Big Fish Story

If Raines was watching, he came in presumably after a tranquil day of fly fishing, his passion, and presumably with no great surprise, given his obvious understanding of newspaper culture. In his latest rumination on life and journalism, The One that Got Away, Raines writes of how so many of us newspaper folks fall in love with our newsrooms, promising to feed the glorious beast nearly every day, only to realize far too late that all that we’ve really done is feed it our own lives. His high-profile dismissal three years ago from the center stage of American journalism was ignominious, but the ultimate pain was probably inevitable, whether or not a miscreant fictionalist named Jayson Blair had ever crossed his path and blown asunder what Raines concedes here was a well-orchestrated ascent to the top of the Times (i.e. aggressive apple-polishing of the publisher). Raines presents his reader with a self-image of a misunderstood warrior who sought to revitalize a sclerotic institution that likens to a “eutrophic lake,” a body of water so thick with algae that the supply of oxygen decreases until few other organisms can flourish.

On the surface, this memoir is not primarily about Blair and gross managerial stumblings at the top of the Times. For a second time, the author of Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis (1993) produces an engaging tome on casting lines during one of life’s transitions; this one a sort-of Fly Fishing Through the Pre-AARP Crisis. This promised to be hard slogging for a reviewer whose prime contact with the sea is ordering scallops at Whole Foods, but the author is a lovely and witty writer whose guiding metaphors involve the fly-fisherman’s mantra of catch and release and whose ultimate thesis is the glory of unplanned circumstances, including those of a romantic variety. Whether he’s along the Delaware River or straining to haul in a blue marlin during an apparently epic daylong struggle in the South Pacific, Raines can captivate even a city boy who doesn’t know the difference between trolling and fly fishing, or the color of a certain billfish fly, or the strength of an Orvis Battenkill 10/11 saltwater reel. Take an area off Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean near Indonesia:

Nicely done, and only one of many reasons this will surely be a big hit with those who fly-fish; all the more so for those who can only dream of making it to Raines’s many exotic, pricey locales worldwide. Still, I had the same feeling of unease as I did sitting in the House of Representatives press gallery in 1998 when Bill Clinton delivered his State of the Union address without mentioning the quickly-emerging Monica Lewinsky debacle. Enough of low unemployment, low inflation, decreasing crime, and the passing of Sonny Bono! Give me some sex, dear god! Thankfully, this Alabaman proves far more candid than his fellow Southerner he lambasted ad nauseum as the Times‘ editorial page boss–giving us a few digressions on his professional self-immolation.

What’s here is less rancorous than a post-Blair screed Raines authored for The Atlantic Monthly, in which his anger was far too fresh, but Raines is still not fully detached from the prevailing analysis of his own demise. In sum, it goes like this: He had the smarts and cojones to take on and save the somnolent Times and was kicked in the butt by mighty, underperforming forces of the status quo and by his own virtue. Indeed, he derides the paper’s “entrenched culture of indolence,” its resistance to change and the languor and snobbery he claims the rest of the industry actually prefers. “If the Times gave its readers journalism that was quick, witty and creative as well as intellectually sound and serious of purpose, its example would put too much pressure on the entire newspaper industry and on media companies like Knight Ridder [obviously sold since he wrote this], Gannett and Newhouse that pride themselves on their frugal newsroom budgets.” The Times he fed daily for 25 years presents an “environment of enormous potential and adamantine complacency,” where the young are quickly transformed into young fogies and where the great gap is between daily performance (an “ossified product”) and pretense to greatness.

Well, that is overstated, and downplays the paper’s impressive daily achievement and arguable improvement since his exit. Yes, yes, it’s got vivid imperfections. There’s the inability to serve as a must-read outlet in its hometown, with the sense that covering the White House is a vastly greater priority than covering Staten Island. The paper’s daily household penetration of about 7 percent in its primary New York market verges on pitiful. It needs more juice in its financial and on certain features pages. A homogeneity in section design can leave some snoozy, though there’s been sharp improvement on Sunday. Its beat structure, like that at many papers, needs significant rethinking, and important areas of life, such as religion and education, are largely covered only when there’s conflict to detail. If you really want to know what’s going on in American classrooms, you won’t find out in the pages of The New York Times. Still, there’s probably nobody who plays in its league seven days a week, with its unmatched editorial resources and an increasingly impressive internet operation. Carping by other journalists, or gloating over its daily page two corrections may just reflect pure envy. And its coverage of recent critical events, such as the war in Iraq and domestic spying, has been nothing short of admirable.

Raines is strongest when he goes macro, suggesting that newspapers’ chief problem is less any of the reflexively-cited ailments–the internet, media competition, lack of civic engagement, youth more interested in IMing than reading–than the fact that many newspapers simply aren’t good enough. They’re cutting too many corners, fooling themselves about the perils of editorial disinvestment and woefully meager marketing. And they are not exploiting the growing numbers of educated, sophisticated consumers. They are inept in trying to “internalize the knowledge that the tastes and habits of America’s mass audience were largely irrelevant to the future of newspapers. In other words, we needed to retain as readers, not all the television viewers, just the smart ones.” He cites the Times as Exhibit No. 1. “If you were a Manhattan resident or a Washington diplomat, it was an essential read. If you were an investment banker in Houston, a filmmaker in Hollywood or a physics professor in Oregon, you could get by without if it you had to or wanted to.”

So what happened to all of Raines’s great notions of saving the place he had served so ably (including the record seven Pulitzer Prizes won for 9/11 coverage on his watch as executive editor)? They went down the tubes in the Blair mess. Predictably, Raines attributes his own downfall to the high-minded ordering of an unvarnished front-page investigation into Blair’s career and the failure to nab the rogue reporter (referred to at points by Raines as “the dwarf”) amid ample warning signs. He discerns his only real misstep as one of political misjudgment, the calculation “that I would get enough credit for openly addressing our mistakes to survive as executive editor.”

When the story ultimately was published, predicated on what he chides as a “theory of the case” which had him and his top aide being inattentive to criticisms leveled at Blair, he says he knew he was probably cooked. And when he went down, he believes he entered a singular realm whose members include John Augustus Roebling, the German-born civil engineer whose wire rope suspension bridge designs included the historic Brooklyn Bridge. Huh? Well, the theory of this seeming self-delusion arises from Roebling, whose foot was crushed by a ferry during the Brooklyn Bridge’s construction, dying of tetanus precisely because he insisted his wounds not be treated with antiseptic so that he could somehow quickly return to work. Roebling thus had the “consolation, such as it is, of dying from following his own prescription instead of ignoring it.”

Thus, Raines views himself as victim of his own impatience, decisiveness, and honor. In the process, he seems to have only fleetingly considered how his stock could have dropped so low during his brief, Pulitzer-laden tenure at the top that he could not survive Jayson Blair. Other editors have survived Jayson Blairs. For reasons only barely alluded to, he was like bone-dry kindling in an Oklahoma brush fire. Recalling the day he was canned by the publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., he reveals, “I had run enough people off the paper to know that going on about why and what-ifs is tedious and undignified.” Imperious managing styles can undermine even the most visionary. What goes around, comes around. Catch and release. The fish, like a newspaper, can come back to bite you.

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