Bad News

In George Orwell's novel 1984, the authorities trace every act of sabotage, every heresy, every defeat, to a fellow named Emmanuel Goldstein. Little is known about the man except his face, his past and his alleged crimes, but his existence is extraordinarily convenient. If Goldstein didn't exist, his opponents would have had to invent him. In fact, Orwell suggests, they more or less did.

In much the same way, the Howell Raines routinely criticized by right-wing pundits looms suspiciously larger than life. Since Raines took over the top slot at The New York Times a year ago, conservatives have fingered him as the evil mastermind behind any number of journalistic crimes. There's the Times' blanket coverage of the Enron scandals, which pro-Bush pundits insisted was an attempt to damage the administration. There are the Times opinion polls that reflect a decline in George W. Bush's approval ratings -- made to order, it is said, by the dread Raines. William McGowan blames Raines for keeping his anti-PC screed Coloring the News out of the book review. Andrew Sullivan, meanwhile, blames Raines for keeping him out of The New York Times Magazine.

Then there's Iraq. When the Times began exploring the possibility of war with Iraq -- among other things, the paper's reporters dared to note that such a war would put a dent in our economy -- conservatives smelled a conspiracy. Raines "has used the most authoritative front-page in America to run a series of inflammatory non-stories about the impending conflict," claimed Sullivan, preposterously, in the London Times. And when The New York Times' Patrick Tyler and Todd Purdum included Henry Kissinger in a roundup of Republicans criticizing the administration's Iraq plans, pro-invasion pundits -- desperate to paper over an obvious split within the GOP -- exploded in anger. "The New York Times has decided to be what newspapers were 220 years ago, which is a journal of faction," claimed George Will. The Times had "shamelessly mischaracterized" Kissinger's views, charged Weekly Standard editor William Kristol. "Not since William Randolph Hearst ... has a newspaper so blatantly devoted its front pages to editorializing about a coming American war as has Howell Raines' New York Times," thundered Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post.

What's striking about all this criticism is its superstitious quality. None of Raines' critics actually knows whether he opposes invading Iraq, because none of them has bothered to find out. Rather, when the Times' reporting sets back some conservative crusade, it's simply assumed to be the work of Raines' invisible hand. And instead of, say, picking up the phone and calling reporters and editors at the Times, these would-be media critics prefer a kind of phrenology, stroking the contours and bumps of a particular article -- verb choices, story placement, who gets quoted and how -- to arrive at an ill-informed picture of the reporting process.

Through a spokesman, Raines declined to speak to me. But Tyler, the disputed Times article's co-author, notes that the piece "wasn't assigned. I'm in charge of the foreign-policy coverage out of Washington. I came in that morning and saw that Brent Scowcroft had broken ranks with the administration. I walked by the news desk and said, 'That's a story.' It went from there." By the end of the day, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger was on television, echoing earlier criticism from Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas), Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and others. "You could see the outlines of a debate that we now know was getting bigger by the day," says Tyler.

Tyler's account makes intuitive sense. Why would Kissinger have written his op-ed at all if not to challenge the Bush administration? Why would Bush have responded by promising to seek congressional support if his GOP critics weren't influential and important? As for the editor's note that the Times ran two weeks later, amplifying the Kissinger nuance contained in the original story, Tyler says: "I think you have to be Buddhist about these things. If someone believes you've mischaracterized their view, by 10 degrees or 30 degrees -- and I think there weren't many degrees here -- then you go ahead and state that. The issue isn't about us. It's about whether there's a prominent dispute going on in the Republican Party over war policy." Which, of course, there is.

Most of the Times staffers I spoke to were bemused by, if not contemptuous of, the complaints. "The place is much less organized than people give it credit for," says one reporter in the newspaper's Washington bureau. "A front-page story goes through a very open process. No one sits in a closed office muttering, 'My God, we've got to stop this war!' or 'How can we help the Democrats today?'" Indeed, if Raines and his reporters were so dedicated, it's hard to imagine that they would have given top billing in early September to the administration's charge that Saddam Hussein had recently intensified his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, or to Secretary of State Colin Powell's attempts to lurch himself onto the administration's Iraq line. If Howell Raines is running a front-page campaign against invading Iraq, he's not doing a very good job.

So it's tempting to ascribe the criticism to a combination of paranoia, self-pity and intellectual bankruptcy. But the real problem is structural. While a few conservative pundits -- Robert Novak, Fred Barnes, Paul Gigot -- got their start in daily journalism, most have spent the bulk of their careers in politics and political advocacy. Kristol was Dan Quayle's chief of staff. The National Review's Kate O'Beirne was a lobbyist for the Heritage Foundation. Krauthammer was a psychiatrist and then a speechwriter for Walter Mondale before joining The New Republic during the 1980s. And nearly anyone who ever set foot inside the White House under Ronald Reagan or the elder George Bush, it seems, now holds down a syndicated column, from Linda Chavez to Mona Charen to Oliver North.

For that matter, few conservative journalists have spent serious time in a newsroom. Most advance through a network of movement magazines, journals and think tanks: summers at the National Journalism Center, internships at the Heritage Foundation and articles in the National Review (followed, for the lucky ones, by a lucrative book deal with the Free Press and a cushy sinecure at the American Enterprise Institute). By contrast, a typical reporter starts on the metro desk, bounces around to a few domestic bureaus and may even spend time overseas before getting to cover the White House for a paper like the Times. Editors also come up through the reporting ranks. Raines earned his stripes at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution before coming to the Times as chief of the Atlanta bureau in 1979.

That doesn't mean that the Times' critics are all mindless partisans. But most of them are divorced from the professional culture of journalism in general and large metropolitan newspapers in particular. Like most conservative activists, they tend to think of mainstream and establishment media organizations, such as the Times, as less professional and more nakedly partisan than they actually are.

Those assumptions are mirrored in conservatives' own institutions. Take The Washington Times. When it was founded in 1982, managing editor Wesley Pruden, now editor in chief, quickly became known for fiddling with the leads or headlines of front-page stories to give them a pro-Republican or anti-Democrat slant. Times staffers even came up with a nickname for the process: "Prudenizing." (Sample headlines from recent weeks: "Economy's Woes Tied to Clinton-Era Fiscal Abuses"; "Atlanta Jews Seek to Defeat Rep. McKinney's Father.") Especially during the paper's early years, when a good portion of the paper's staff were professional reporters recruited from the shuttered Washington Star, staffers regularly quit over Prudenizing disputes. In 1988, for instance, editors altered a story to suggest that presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis had visited a psychiatrist in the late 1970s, changing the quote of a Dukakis relative from "it is possible, but I doubt it" to "it is possible." Reporter Gene Grabowski promptly resigned. Quick: Name a reporter who's quit The New York Times because an editor slanted his or her stories. Ever heard of a Times staffer complaining about "Howellizing"?

When right-wing journalists don't fall into line, they're considered traitors, not professionals. In the late 1990s, The Weekly Standard's Tucker Carlson was nearly banished from the conservative movement for being too critical of strategist Grover Norquist. Meanwhile, The New Yorker's Sid Blumenthal was banished from journalism for being too close to Bill Clinton. To generalize, conservative pundits assume that establishment media such as the Times are partisan because that's how their own journalists are expected to operate. They believe Howell Raines runs The New York Times the way they know Wes Pruden runs The Washington Times.

Mainstream newspapers are prejudiced, but not in the way the right thinks. Most reporters do vote Democratic, and that can influence the stories they choose to cover and the kinds of questions they ask. But the deeper biases of the professional journalist are not those of the professional ideologue. Journalists, especially at the elite level, labor under only one diktat: Break news. The reporter who lands a big scoop wins promotions and accolades. In the absence of hard material, such as a leaked document, reporters often turn to soft scoops -- for instance, a spate of op-eds by prominent Republicans dissenting from the White House's plan on Iraq.

Even when it comes to the editorial pages, the Times' dogma is less liberal than journalistic: critical of old-fashioned corruption, passionate about transparency and fixated on process. This helps explain why when Raines, a liberal, ran the Times' editorial page, the paper savaged Clinton with exceptional regularity and intensity. Clinton's politics and seeming invincibility provoked the right, but it was his administration's methods that offended The Times -- the secrecy, the spinning, the petty graft, the envelope-pushing fundraisers. That, and not Howell Raines' "bias," is why the Times eviscerated Clinton and also why the paper has been so tough on Enron, Dick Cheney's energy task force and the administration's cover-up of the preĀ–September 11 warnings.

At the Times, professional ideology trumps political ideology. For the Bush administration, that's the real bad news.