Raines reflects on journalism, loss and lawyers
July 20, 2006
Howell Raines might have viewed his meteoric fall from journalistic grace as a dead end, but he instead saw a new opportunity.The former New York Times executive editor, who resigned after the Jayson Blair scandal, talked about his new memoir at the Aspen Institute on Thursday. “The One That Got Away: A Memoir” is a tale of fishing, but an allegory for life.Raines strayed from the book to lament the direction journalism is headed in – a path he feels is too strongly dictated by consumerism. He also discussed what it means to be a writer and journalist, and the emotion of loss.”I think loss is the most universal human experience,” Raines said of his exit from journalism and The New York Times in 2003.
But his book is an exploration of “what you do with an event that’s irreversible, and how you decide if it’s a dead end or a doorway.”While he had indeed lost something important, he realized how expendable his editorship was: It was just a job. He could start over as an author.”I had now the opportunity to do something very few people have a chance to do at the age of 60,” Raines said. “I’m very interested in the idea of creativity in the later decades.”His writing style is storytelling, he said, where he tries to write as lyrically as possible “without going over the top.” Much of his influence comes from family members, who recalled stories of farming and hard work in the rural Southern countryside.Raines also explored the purpose of newspapers and how they are changing. At The New York Times, he hoped to bring a more lyrical approach to writing. The old model of simplicity was no longer sufficient for readers.
“The World War II model that you write at a sixth-grade level became obsolete because of changes in society,” Raines said. He noted that readers now are more educated and demand a more sophisticated product.He was also critical of the consumer approach to journalism, particularly media moguls like Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch heads News Corp., which owns Fox News and Myspace.com, among other organizations.”He has perpetrated the idea that there has been a liberal conspiracy in the news business,” he said. “The degradation in the information marketplace is a threat to journalism.”There is a sacred bond between newspapers and readers that promises “we will find out as much as we can and tell you as much as we can,” Raines said.
Newspapers may be shifting to a digital future because of declining readership and ad revenues, but he is hopeful that books will never be read on a computer.”People don’t want to sit at a screen and read a book,” he said.One audience member asked about the role of media leaks. Raines opted not to go in-depth since he no longer is a working journalist, but offered a bit of a leak of his own:”Almost all leakers are lawyers. That’s the bottom line.”Greg Schreier’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org