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Behind the fall of Raines Scandal-scarred and resented by a newsroom fed up with his arrogant style, the top New York Times editor finally pays the price.

– – – – – – – – – – – – *By Eric Boehlert*

June 6, 2003 | A long-building controversy over Howell Raines’ leadership of the New York Times ended abruptly Thursday when the executive editor and his second-in-command, managing editor Gerald Boyd, resigned their posts.

No top editor of the Times had ever resigned or been forced out under a cloud of controversy. Raines’ predecessor, former executive editor Joseph Lelyveld, will return to the paper and serve as interim editor, giving publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. the time he needs to pick a permanent replacement. The publisher did not immediately name a new managing editor.

The duo are paying the ultimate professional price for the Jayson Blair scandal. It erupted a month ago when it became clear that the young reporter disgraced the paper by not only plagiarizing work from other newspapers, but also concocting fictional accounts of news events he never covered. Almost immediately, critics inside and outside the Times questioned whether Raines, as an avowed Southern liberal, and Boyd, as the paper’s first black managing editor, gave the young black reporter too many second chances. But in the past month, the story has transformed from one about a troubled reporter into one about Raines’ domineering, often arrogant leadership style and whether he had the ability to remain in the job he has held since September 2001.

In recent days, rumors were rampant that the Wall Street Journal was set to publish yet another damaging story about the Times, raising new questions about newsroom practices under Raines. The Times is notorious for preempting moves by other news outlets to air the newspaper’s laundry in public, and the timing of the resignations on Thursday may have been a way to head off a possible Journal exposé.

It was a stunning turn of events for Raines, considered among the most gifted — and polarizing — editors of his generation. “This is a man who was just saluted for having led the Times coverage of 9/11, which won seven Pulitzer Prize awards, and then it all fell apart,” noted one veteran Times source. “It’s almost Shakespearean.”

Indeed, a year ago Raines was toasted as editor of the year by industry trade magazine Editor & Publisher. He was the subject of a 17,000-word profile in the New Yorker, which came complete with an appropriately weighty, statesman-like headline: “The Howell Doctrine.”

“Jayson Blair was Mrs. O’Leary’s cow,” says Jim Dwyer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Times, referring to the firestorm that’s swept the newsroom in the last month. “His misbehavior, his betrayal, opened up a lot of score-settling, not only inside the newspaper but outside as well.”

Within hours of the resignations, conservative critics escalated their attacks on the paper, demanding that the Times appoint news leaders who were free of perceived liberal bias. “Now that Mr. Raines and Mr. Boyd have resigned, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has a crucial decision to make,” said Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center. “He can either continue to use the Times to promote an arrogant, left-wing advocacy agenda or he can return to the news. The New York Times’ return to respectability is dependent upon whether it presents the news in an accurate, evenhanded manner. ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ is meaningless if the reporting is skewed to promote a liberal agenda.”

Blair himself issued a statement Thursday saying he was sorry for the damage he’d caused to the newspaper. But by many accounts, he may end up profiting from the debacle, with a book deal that could approach or exceed $1 million.

The story of Blair’s corruption and fall, and the extraordinary aftermath at the Times, is a cinematic tale of ambition and power practiced on a grand scale, a story of vision and success, arrogance and venality. And for the past month, reporters — and critics — have swarmed to the story. Rival newspaper journalists, some no doubt anxious to dent the Times’ national standing as the most important daily newspaper in the country, continued to circle the paper looking for fresh evidence of Raines’ mismanagement, while an army of angry staffers who felt misused under Raines were grousing openly (if anonymously) about their editor.

And there seemed no end in sight.

The bridge that turned the Blair story into a Raines story was constructed last week with the revelation that Pulitzer Prize- winning Times reporter Rick Bragg, a close friend of Raines’, had been suspended for not crediting the work an unpaid intern had done on a story that appeared with Bragg’s byline. As the story mushroomed, Bragg’s response was, essentially, that everyone at the Times does it; when that provoked open revolt among some of his colleagues, Bragg called his good friend Raines and resigned <