Thursday, February 28, 2008

HARD NEWS by Seth Mnookin

Hard News is former Newsweek writer Seth Mnookin’s book about Howell Raines’ twenty-one month tenure as executive editor at the New York Times. Mnookin begins Hard News with a brief history of the New York Times, describing the previous publishers and the paper’s evolution, explaining the circumstances in which Howell Raines became a candidate for executive editor and how he was chosen. Mnookin then discusses the effects of Raines’ leadership on the newsroom, giving particular attention to Jayson Blair’s reporting scandal, which was the beginning of the end for Raines.

Mnookin’s narrative is almost always fast-paced and engaging, dragging only occasionally (notably when he gets into the minute details of the team of reporters responsible for investigating Jayson Blair’s reporting). Even so, Hard News is more often downright entertaining. On the back cover, The Washington Post Book World blurb says, “Hard News reads like a thriller”. While this may sound improbable, it is to some degree true.

One of the reasons Hard News is so interesting is that Mnookin’s main characters are larger than life. Howell Raines is interested in using the New York Times to build himself a grand legacy, and so he institutes his own changes, to an extent, for their own sakes. Raines more or less goes mad with power – he isn’t interested in dissenting opinions of any kind. For Mnookin, Raines is a tyrannical dictator of the highest order. Meanwhile, Mnookin paints Gerald Boyd, Raines’ managing editor, as a sycophantic crony who will not stand up for his own convictions. Together, they alienate and lose the trust of nearly everyone on the New York Times’ staff (except, of course, for those who have received favored status), practically without realizing it.

Jayson Blair comes across as a pathological liar, who may very well have some kind of mental illness. He very clearly has no scruples, ethics, morals or principles. He showed no remorse for his catastrophic fraud; he tried to cash in on it with a memoir filled with more fabrications. And when adversity strikes, Blair is the boy who cried “racism!”

Given his long history of journalistic problems and fabrications, Blair’s rapid rise at the New York Times seems unbelievable. Certainly it fits well into the “truth is stranger than fiction” category. Nevertheless, much of the scandal he caused could have been prevented by the New York Times, as the policies Raines had in place allowed Blair the leeway and opportunities he received. If Blair had not been placed on major national stories without merit, his shenanigans would have caused scandal on a much smaller scale.

In Hard News, Mnookin really gives Raines the business. From beginning to end, Raines is the villain of this piece, misguided, arrogant, and oblivious, and the blame for more or less everything bad that happened at the Times during this period is laid at Raines’ feet. Certainly, Raines was the one primarily responsible, and the situation that resulted in his ouster was to a large degree of his own making, but the reader may get the feeling here and there that Mnookin has at least a small axe to grind against Raines. This culminates on page 260 where Raines refuses to shake Mnookin’s hand and then Mnookin immediately draws an unfavorable contrast between Raines and “beloved” (p. 259) journalist Michael Kelly. Overall, the reader may well wonder if Mnookin has portrayed Raines and Boyd as fairly and multi-dimensionally as he ought.

In focusing on the culture at the New York Times during Raines’ tenure, Mnookin presents a large number of on-the-record quotes from Times employees. This certainly adds credibility to Mnookin’s account. In contrast, the paper’s leadership was more or less unwilling to go on the record with him. But Raines can hardly be faulted for refusing to speak with Mnookin for this book. Hard News was not the first account of Raines’ fiascos at the New York Times, and the reader should not reasonably expect Raines to be willing to be put through the wringer every time someone writes something. After all, by this time, Raines’ public image and professional reputation had been virtually destroyed.

Mnookin points out how Raines and Blair were sore losers after this affair (with Raines, he seems to go out of his way to do this). Raines never really took responsibility for the scandal or the culture that enabled it, and Mnookin mentions several instances where Raines wrote incorrect or contradictory recollections of things. Blair, of course, tried to cash in on the situation in any way possible.

Hard News is a terrible title. It’s uninteresting and unmemorable, and doesn’t really describe the book in any substantial way. I myself was unable to remember the title of this book for several weeks after I got it. It very well could have been called How Howell Raines Alienated Everyone and Did His Utmost to Run the New York Times into the Ground. The full title of the book is Hard News: Twenty-one Brutal Months at The New York Times and How They Changed the American Media. Yet beyond commenting on how some media do more in-depth fact-checking (although he also notes that many media still do not fact-check), Mnookin really doesn’t get into how the media changed. Rather, he hints at how these events have changed how the media are perceived by the American people, how they have lost credibility and trust across the board.

On the whole, Hard News is about as gripping as an account as one might reasonably expect to have about this sort of thing. But the reader may well wonder if Mnookin has been fair in his representations of Raines and others and if, in the end, Mnookin has reported all sides of the story.