New York Times was too good to be true
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 May 2003)

Has there ever been such an embarrassing moment for the craft of reporting? Bookstores are about to start selling The Fabulist, a novel in which Stephen Glass, who disgraced the New Republic five years ago by falsifying some 27 magazine articles, depicts a young man, also named Stephen, who re-enacts Glass's mischief at a weekly much like the New Republic. Now the revival of that scandal has been overshadowed by the discovery that a 27-year-old staff reporter on The New York Times, Jayson Blair, manufactured at least three dozen fake stories, even though several of his superiors knew he was not to be trusted.

On Sunday the Times acknowledged this "low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper" with a four-page section running some 7,000 words, the work of five reporters and two researchers. Blair, a Times reporter for about four years, filled even his earliest stories with inaccuracies or inventions, causing the paper to print scores of corrections. More recently, he invented or plagiarized reports on subjects like the Washington sniper and the families of Iraq war casualties. He claimed to have witnessed news events in several regions of the United States that he didn't visit, he reported on interviews that never took place, and he quoted words that the subjects never spoke. He invented anonymous police sources to liven up investigative stories on the sniper case.

Why did he do it? Like earlier offenders, he's offered a few words of psychobabble: "This is a time in my life that I have been struggling with recurring personal issues, which have caused me great pain. I am now seeking appropriate counselling." What matters more is how he did it. The Times describes his many "acts of journalistic fraud," but nothing in its reporting on this internal crisis begins to explain how he got away with it, on what one Times columnist calls "the most rigorously edited newspaper in the world."

Because Blair is an African-American, his fraud seems likely to cast a shadow over affirmative action and the promotion of racial diversity in newsrooms, as the Times' own reporting obliquely indicates. The Times says that Blair's mistakes became so routine that a year ago Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor, sent a two-sentence e-mail to news administrators: "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now." But the opposite happened. He was promoted to national reporter. Landman now says he was against that promotion but admits he didn't protest it.

Here the Times account becomes peculiarly obscure, perhaps betraying anxiety. It quotes Landman saying that the publisher and the executive editor "had made clear the company's commitment to diversity." The Times then declares that Gerald Boyd, "who is now managing editor, the second-highest-ranking newsroom executive, said last week that the decision to advance Mr. Blair had not been based on race." It quotes Boyd: "To say now that his promotion was about diversity in my view doesn't begin to capture what was going on ... He was a young, promising reporter who had done a job that warranted promotion."

This remark appears, of course, in an article lavishly demonstrating that Blair did not at all warrant promotion. The Times seldom contradicts itself in such an obvious way, particularly in a story edited as carefully as this one must have been. What is it trying to tell us? Perhaps those words are a covert plea for understanding: "Give us a break here, in our virtuous efforts to make the staff racially diverse, we were too eager to encourage a black reporter." On the other hand, they could be saying the opposite: "No matter how this looks, we're sticking with our story that we hire only excellence and never, ever allow our diversity program to bring down our standards." Either interpretation could be inferred. Or both.

Yesterday William Safire speculated on the Times Op-Ed page that Blair was apparently "given too many second chances by editors eager for this ambitious black journalist to succeed ... the con artist gamed a system that celebrates diversity and opportunity." But even Safire, who rarely equivocates, came down firmly on both sides. A newspaper, he said, is free to give "black journalists a break if its owners and editors so choose."

For journalists, the Blair story illustrates a chilling truth: News organizations depend at every turn on the automatic honesty of people (some of them strangers, or nearly so) who gather information and bring it together in print or on the air. Unfortunately, there are times when that honesty suddenly disappears, leaving journalism vulnerable to acute embarrassment at best, a serious libel action at worst.

Unexpected dishonesty can undermine even the most careful enterprise. Jack Shafer, an editor at the online Slate magazine, says editors need to maintain a skeptical view of stories and especially of details that sound too good. Perhaps they should be particularly skeptical of writers who have been proven wrong in the past. But, as Shafer concludes, "All that said, it's almost impossible for an editor to beat a good liar every time out."

The Times stories chronicling Blair's frauds have a disjunctive quality that a literary critic would recognize in a second: The style and the content are so unsuited to each other that they convey radically different messages. If you believe the solemn, stiff, and careful style of Sunday's lengthy articles, the Times comes across as a place of probity and stability, governed with wisdom and calm authority. But the content indicates precisely the opposite. The events set in motion by Jayson Blair make the Times sound wildly out of control. It appears that the executives cannot communicate with one another, that standards for new employees are lax or non-existent, and that responsibility is spread so widely, and in such complicated layers, that no manager appears finally accountable for anything. It sounds, in fact, like a huge, unwieldy government department as it might be described in a particularly harsh New York Times feature.

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