I have to say I was still surprised by the news of Howell Raines’ and Gerald Boyd’s resignation. It wasn’t because they didn’t deserve to resign. What has happened to the country’s paper of record in the past two years has been nothing short of horrifying. From blatant imposition of left-liberal spin, to fabrications, to corner-cutting by Raines favorites to the trashing of the NYT brand, it has been an extraordinary story of how one person could do that much damage in so short a time. But I still feared that the close relationship between Mr. Raines and the publisher of the Times, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., would ensure his survival. I was wrong. How thrilled I am to have been wrong.
What did him in was the revolt of the staffers themselves. They knew how their paper was being viewed; they resented the power-drunk way in which Mr. Raines managed the news and the newsroom; they saw before the rest of us did the results of Rainesian meddling and personal pettiness. This victory is theirs. And it is also a victory for decent and fair journalism.
But something else was at work too. Only, say, five years ago, the editors of the New York Times had much more power than they have today. If they screwed up, no one would notice much. A small correction would be buried days, sometimes weeks, later. They could spin stories with gentle liberal bias and only a few eyes would roll. Certainly no critical mass of protest could manage to foment reform at the paper. And the kind of deference that always existed toward the Times, and the secretive, Vatican-like mystique of its inner working kept criticism at bay.
But the Internet changed all that. Suddenly, criticism could be voiced in a way that the editors of the Times simply couldn’t ignore. Blogs — originally smartertimes.com, followed quickly by my own blog, andrewsullivan.com, and kausfiles.com and then Timeswatch.com and dozens and dozens of others — began noting errors and bias on a daily, even hourly basis. Some of us paid a price for such criticism. Over a year ago, I was politely urged to stop the criticism or else my own contract with the NYT magazine wouldn’t be renewed. I didn’t stop. Mr. Raines mandated that I be banned from the paper. I stepped up my scrutiny even more — and the Internet alone allowed me to do so. Insiders encouraged me to stay on the trail. And the blogosphere in general created a growing chorus of criticism that helped create public awareness of exactly what Mr. Raines was up to. We forced transparency on one of the most secretive and self-protective of institutions. We pulled the curtain back on the petty man behind the curtain. We did what journalists are supposed to do — and we did it to journalism itself.
We scored major hits. First, we revealed how many of the NYT’s polls were skewed in the way they presented or spun data. Then we broadcast the revelation of how leftist columnist Paul Krugman’s had once had lucrative former ties with Enron. We exposed blatant lies on the frontpage — from allegedly soaring temperatures in Alaska to the fabricated cooptation of Henry Kissinger into the antiwar camp in August 2002. We were relentless. Even the fabulist Maureen Dowd couldn’t get away with doctoring quotes from the president to make a partisan point. All this helped lay the ground for the regime change that happened with the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal and the Rick Bragg abuse of stringers’ copy. We refused to let these stories die; we kept up the pressure on Raines to resign. We helped foil every clever PR move by the Times’ top leadership to avoid responsibility for the slide in the New York Times’ reputation.
Only this week, Mickey Kaus instituted a death-watch for Mr. Raines’ position at the New York Times. The day he quit, I predicted a 75 percent chance that he would. No, the blogosphere did not achieve Mr. Raines’ resignation. That was a consequence of his own unforced errors and the newsroom he abused for so long. But without blogs, without the external pressure, he might have been able to endure.
Even in its earliest stage, the blogo-sphere has shown its ability to shape opinion and move the news. It turns out that the blog-induced resignation of Trent Lott was not a flash in the pan. This week, another Southern extremist — cut off from the present, reliving old political fantasies and exercising raw power — has been forced to take responsibility for his actions. If the Lott saga showed the blogosphere coming of age, the Raines saga shows how it is now a mature and increasingly influential medium. And you ain’t seen nothing yet.