The Times deceiver’s many enablers

May 19, 2003

I once fired a reporter for making things up. I didn’t know for a long time what he was doing. The quotes he concocted made his sources sound insightful, so nobody complained.

I found out only when another reporter told me about complimenting somebody over comments in the first reporter’s story. It was a great quote, the source agreed, and he wished he’d said it, only he’d never spoken to the reporter.

I made some calls. My reporter apparently invented quotes routinely. I called him into my office and sacked him without severance. He has continued to work as a journalist, since his clips are good and he didn’t list me as a reference.

Editors often don’t know what’s going on outside.

That’s prologue to the tale of Jayson Blair, the 27-year-old New York Times ex-reporter. Blair has created a huge stir since the Times denounced him for stealing or fabricating elements of dozens of articles he wrote during four years with the country’s premier newspaper.

This a remarkable story: Remarkable that such a great paper should have such flimsy safeguards against deceit.

Remarkable that The Times showed such forbearance toward any reporter — whether because of a desire to nurture minority journalists (Blair is African-American) or because he was an accomplished suck-up who charmed the right mentors — that it overlooked persistent warnings about character and performance.

Remarkable how indulgently The Times publicly catalogued Blair’s sins —a Sunday epic of 13,800 words (this column, for comparison, is 950) — without addressing its own spectacular mismanagement.

Remarkable how much help The Times got in coddling a dangerously dishonest journalist: help from rivals who said nothing when Blair pilfered their work, help from people who knew what he wrote was false and did not complain.

This affair may have major political ramifications. The collapse of parliamentary oversight in this country has left The New York Times as the only national entity with the brains, integrity and will to offer an alternative to the Bush juggernaut.

But The Times’ response so far is no alternative to the path well worn by corporate malefactors: Conduct an internal investigation, pledge to not seek scapegoats, lavish blame on the most obvious culprits — far below executive rank.

The Times’ jumbo May 11 post mortem, the work of eight reporters and editors, noted that Blair’s work occasioned some 50 published corrections. “His mistakes became so routine, his behavior so unprofessional that by April 2002 … the metropolitan editor dashed off a two sentence e-mail message to newsroom administrators that read: ‘We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.’”

Instead, after a forced leave Blair was seconded to the prestigious national desk. There, of 73 stories he wrote since last October, 36 had problems.

Yet publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. reassures his staff that wrongdoing was exclusively the reporter’s: “The person who did this is Jayson Blair. Let’s not begin to demonize our executives — either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher.”

Oh? If a paper’s bosses are happy to share credit for the work of good reporters, how can they shed responsibility for scandalous ones? If executives lose their jobs when their negligence drives down a company’s assets, shouldn’t bosses pay when a newspaper suffers grievous harm to its most precious asset, its credibility?

But what’s of even greater concern is the way that falsehoods and plagiarism went unnoticed.

Why did people say nothing when they were fraudulently inserted into Blair’s stories? First, complaining isn’t easy. The Times, unlike some papers, makes no routine effort to solicit feedback from people featured in stories. Second, they likely saw no reason to raise a fuss with the country’s most influential newspaper. Finally, they may have believed fabrications are common journalistic practice.

When the family of Jessica Lynch, the U.S. POW freed in Iraq, read made-up descriptions of their West Virginia home in a story Blair wrote after purportedly visiting them, they chuckled ruefully but told The Times nothing.

But what if they had spoken? After all, when a story about the investigation into the D.C. snipers was excoriated as false by the lead prosecutor, nobody at The Times saw fit to ask Blair the names of the anonymous sources he supposedly used. Instead they took the word of a reporter known for recklessness and inaccuracy.

The affair unraveled not over fabrication but theft, when the editor of the San Antonio Express-News complained that quotes from the family of a soldier killed in Iraq were plagiarized from the Texas paper.

Indeed, The Times’ post mortem is rife with instances of Blair helping himself to words and descriptions published elsewhere. How did he get away with that?

Evidently The Times doesn’t pay much attention to lesser papers. And the news food chain is such that they are so used to having their work pillaged by bigger papers, without acknowledgement, that they rarely complain.

So they become enablers of ever greater fraud.

Underlying the scandal is the problem is that although newsrooms are supposed to be hardwired in to the world outside, they are run by people whose professional contact with the real world is scant.

That’s because news is an intense process, and editors are essentially production bosses who run hard to keep their own reporters on track and on deadline. They don’t get out much. They’re driving a huge train blindfolded, straining to hear guidance shouted from below by reporters, who have their own ideas where to go.

Above the routine din of their own machinery, it takes real effort for editors to hear the people outside. But they ignore those people at their peril.

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