Howell Raines was executive editor of the New York Times for 21 turbulent months before being forced out in June 2003, felled by the journalistic malpractice committed by a young reporter he supported, Jayson Blair, and his personal callousness and autocratic management style, as well as launching a feminist crusade against the Augusta National Golf Club (home of the Masters golf tournament) that embarrassed even fellow liberal journalists.
In retirement, the admitted "liberal to radical" Raines has settled into a Captain Ahab role against his sworn enemy, that two-headed white whale in charge of Fox News: news chief Roger Ailes and the network's owner, News Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch.
Back on February 1, Raines made his first appearance in the Times since leaving with a column ostensibly about the Greensboro, NC civil rights sit-in, but also about the deviltry that is Fox News.
Today, however, there's no denying that traditional reportage of political and social trends seems almost as out of date as segregation. Surely the civil rights movement would have been hampered by the politicized, oppositional journalism that flows from Fox News and the cable talk shows. Luckily for the South, that kind of butchered news was left mostly to a few extremist newspapers in Virginia and Mississippi and to local AM radio talk shows that specialized in segregationist rants.
His 2006 autobiography, "The One that Got Away," included this charming paragraph:
Fox, by its mere existence, undercuts the argument that the public is starved for 'fair' news, and not just because Fox shills for the Republican Party and panders to the latest of America's periodic religious manias. The key to understanding Fox News is to grasp the anomalous fact that its consumers know its 'news' is made up. It matters not when critics point this out to Foxite consumers because they've understood it from the outset. That's why they're there. Its chief fictioneer, Roger Ailes, had been making up news in plain sight for a half century.
And this coming Sunday he will take to the pages of The Washington Post to drum Fox News out of the journalistic conversation entirely. From a 1,300-word column set to run in Sunday's Post: "Howell Raines: Why don't honest journalists take on Roger Ailes and Fox News?"
One question has tugged at my professional conscience throughout the year-long congressional debate over health-care reform, and it has nothing to do with the public option, portability or medical malpractice. It is this: Why haven't America's old-school news organizations blown the whistle on Roger Ailes, chief of Fox News, for using the network to conduct a propaganda campaign against the Obama administration -- a campaign without precedent in our modern political history?
Through clever use of the Fox News Channel and its cadre of raucous commentators, Ailes has overturned standards of fairness and objectivity that have guided American print and broadcast journalists since World War II. Yet, many members of my profession seem to stand by in silence as Ailes tears up the rulebook that served this country well as we covered the major stories of the past three generations, from the civil rights revolution to Watergate to the Wall Street scandals. This is not a liberal-versus-conservative issue. It is a matter of Fox turning reality on its head with, among other tactics, its endless repetition of its uber-lie: "The American people do not want health-care reform."
Fox repeats this as gospel. But as a matter of historical context, usually in short supply on Fox News, this assertion ranks somewhere between debatable and untrue.
Raines then admitted Fox could actually be correct about the plan's unpopularity, but blames Fox for that as well:
It is true that, after 14 months of Fox's relentless pounding of President Obama's idea of sweeping reform, the latest Gallup poll shows opinion running 48 to 45 percent against the current legislation. Fox invariably stresses such recent dips in support for the legislation, disregarding the majorities in favor of various individual aspects of the reform effort. Along the way, the network has sold a falsified image of the professional standards that developed in American newsrooms and university journalism departments in the last half of the 20th century.
Raines wants Fox News mogul Rupert Murdoch drummed out of the press corps:
Why can't American journalists steeped in the traditional values of their profession be loud and candid about the fact that Murdoch does not belong to our team? His importation of the loose rules of British tabloid journalism, including blatant political alliances, started our slide to quasi-news. His British papers famously promoted Margaret Thatcher's political career, with the expectation that she would open the nation's airwaves to Murdoch's cable channels. Ed Koch once told me he could not have been elected mayor of New York without the boosterism of the New York Post.
This next part is a real laugher, considering the pro-Obama, anti-conservative slant evident on every major network and cable outlet save Fox News, not to mention the Times' own liberal crusading before, during, and after Raines' reign as executive editor:
For the first time since the yellow journalism of a century ago, the United States has a major news organization devoted to the promotion of one political party. And let no one be misled by occasional spurts of criticism of the GOP on Fox. In a bygone era of fact-based commentary typified, left to right, by my late colleagues Scotty Reston and Bill Safire, these deceptions would have been given their proper label: disinformation.
Raines concluded with this paranoid explanation as to why he's the only one shouting in the wilderness (as if) about the evils of Fox News.
As for Fox News, lots of people who know better are keeping quiet about what to call it. Its news operation can, in fact, be called many things, but reporters of my generation, with memories and keyboards, dare not call it journalism.
Update 4:42 PM: A Fox News spokesperson responded to Raines's rant:
We find it ironic that Howell is dispensing advice to other journalists after he nearly single-handedly destroyed the journalistic credibility of the New York Times.