Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Howell Raines, executive editor
Those of you who read our daily memos here probably are familiar with the name of The New York Times editorial-page editor, Howell Raines. I’ve known and admired Howell for his work for about 15 years and read his political correspondence for several years before that. It was not much of a surprise to me when I read that Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., announced this week that Howell would be the new executive editor of the world’s most important newspaper, succeeding Joseph Lelyveld who is about to reach the mandatory retirement age of 65. Having spent most of my early life dreaming about becoming a journalist, then studying journalism, and finally becoming a journalist with Dow Jones & Co., I developed an eye for talent in the field. There are a great many good journalists in the national press corps, but very few great ones. Long before Howell ever thought he might wind up on top of the top, I guessed he would. When I left my post as associate editor of The Wall Street Journal in 1978 to found Polyconomics, becoming a consumer of news instead of a producer, I realized how few journalists there were on all the papers I read upon whom I always could rely. In 1985, I decided to publish an annual MediaGuide, which would select the best reporters and columnists in the print media, at a time when there were several conservative organizations producing commentaries on the worst and most biased of the media. Here is what we said about Raines in the 1986 MediaGuide:
The seemingly minor but significant move at the Times bureau in '85 was [Bill Kovach's] naming of Howell Raines, Jr., as his deputy. Raines, a political writer himself, produced some of the best accounts of the 1984 presidential race: pungent writing, casual observations that on reflection were dazzling insights, an effortless gathering of information, but most of all an objectivity that almost glowed in its starkness. News gourmets know it when they see it, and Raines had it. The impact on the Times' Washington bureau has been palpable: A majority of our ratings have been upgraded during 1985. Raines became deputy in April. Because we're aware of the profound influence editors have on their reporting staffs, often in subtle, ineffable ways, we take this as not merely a coincidence. Until we're persuaded otherwise, we give the Kovach-Raines team a big share of the credit for the bureau's vintage year.
A year later, in our 1987 MediaGuide, we noted that “Kovach’s talented deputy, Howell Raines, 43, was named London bureau chief. Raines, who had been the bureau’s national political correspondent, helped establish the eminence of the bureau in recent years after a long period in the [Washington] Post’s shadow; London may round him out for even loftier positions.” In the 1988 MediaGuide we judged Raines’s output in London: “relentless in delivering brilliant analytical insights and rich, economical reporting that made us feel right at home across the British isles,” and awarded him ****, the top rating, which he repeated in the 1989 MG: “another sterling year abroad before returning home to become Washington bureau chief.”
The 1990 MediaGuide noted that Max Frankel, then the Times executive editor, had “more or less picked his successor,” in naming Lelyveld as managing editor. But “Washington bureau chief Howell Raines is still in the running, and in any case would still have six years left in him after a Lelyveld tour. Insofar as the Times is still very much an Upper West Side liberal, Democratic newspaper, Lelyveld can be described, as we’ve hear, as two small clicks to the left of Frankel, Raines a click to Frankel’s right. In such matters, little clicks mean a lot.” In commenting on Raines work as Washington bureau chief, we remarked that we had been fans of his “from the earliest MediaGuide in 1986. The quintessential journalist, Raines manages to submerge his political, social and cultural tastes the way few can. He also has a keen sense of what is important and what is not, which enables him to economize on his resources. A soft-spoken Alabaman, Raines had been deputy then, moved to London as bureau chief where he earned two consecutive four-star ratings. Frankel brought him back to Washington in 1988 as bureau chief, with a mandate to end the dissension that had emerged in his absence.”
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What now? It will be a several months before we might detect any changes at the Times in this new Raines regime. There is always room for improvement, but Raines inherits a paper that probably is better now than it ever has been in its long and illustrious history. He’ll have to work hard to improve it. There was a time, back in the 1970s, when the newspaper had gone haywire, painful to read as it embraced what was then called “advocacy journalism,” with news columns becoming editorials and editorials become screeds of the loony left. All that changed with the arrival of A.M. (Abe) Rosenthal, who began the process of returning the paper to first principles. Rosenthal handpicked Max Frankel as his successor and Frankel picked Lelyveld. In Howell’s case, it seems most likely that Sulzberger himself always had reckoned that he would be asking Howell to take the wheel at this time -- the first executive editor named in this third millennium. In the universe of communications, this is the most Archimedean of all positions. Whether you or they realize it, Raines will make a difference in one way or another to the lives of every one on earth. At the Times, little clicks mean a lot.