Jewish World Review May 16, 2003 / 14 Iyar, 5763
The Old Grim Lady gets covered
How kind of the Almighty New York Times to pump up a slow news week by airing its own dirty laundry on Page 1.
The cable chat shows and the Internet blogosphere are still humming, thanks to Sunday's four-page correction of the entire journalistic career of Jayson Blair, an ex-Times reporter who turned out to be a frequent fictionalizer, repeat plagiarist and serial liar.
Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report each cover the Times' 7,200-word in-house investigation of Blair's impressive five-year, 700-story spree of fraud and deceit.
Time's ace writer, Nancy Gibbs, nicely spins out the basics of the story: Young, ambitious, talented but inexperienced black reporter who really knows how to schmooze his bosses and attract powerful mentors rises through the ranks and becomes a star, despite numerous factual mistakes.
Some sub-editors complained about his errors and work habits. One issued an unheeded warning that "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now."
But Blair had friends in very high NYT editorial places, including top editor Howell Raines, and Blair ended his career doing Page 1 stories about the D.C. sniper attacks and soldiers returning from Iraq, which were often riddled with errors or stolen goods.
Gibbs notes, as does Seth Mnookin in Newsweek, that Blair is guilty of the worst sin of journalism -- betraying everyone's trust and deliberately dealing in untruth, which, as he and others have proved, is frighteningly easy to do and hard to catch at even the highest levels of journalism.
Gibbs' story barely touches on the politically loaded charge that Blair got special slack because he was black -- and because the Times' liberal bosses are so desperate to diversify their staff.
Mnookin is slightly more pointed about this hot race issue. But it is conservative columnist John Leo of U.S. News who dares to ask, "Would this young African American's meteoric rise to staff reporter be likely for a white reporter with comparable credentials?"
Leo stipulates the obvious: "The overwhelming majority of plagiarism cases and journalistic scandals have been the work of whites" such as Stephen Glass, who fictionalized dozens of news stories for the New Republic.
But Leo, a pioneering critic of affirmative action and diversity programs, says you always ask for big trouble when you create any preferred group -- a racial group or a group of the boss's relatives -- and relax the standards for hiring them or push them into high-pressure jobs.
"The Blair scandal is not just evidence that reporters can go off track," Leo says. "It's a reminder that diversity programs can undermine the standards that made great institutions great."
Meanwhile, over at the Web site of City Journal, Heather Mac Donald says the Times has skewered itself on the horns of a liberal dilemma.
If the Times says it coddled Blair and tolerated his "malpractice" for racial reasons, she argues, it is admitting its journalism standards were in fact compromised by the goal of diversity.
But if it says its treatment of Blair was "merely ordinary," it is admitting that "the Blair fiasco was a product of universally applied Times standards" -- which means the newspaper most journalists and liberals adore "has gone to the dogs."
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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald