Nytimes reporter trail deception
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A Journalist’s Hard Fall
The New York Times confronts an embarrassing trail of deceit—and difficult questions about its own culture
By Seth Mnookin
May 19 issue — On Sunday, the front page of The New York Times featured a uniquely embarrassing article: TIMES REPORTER WHO RESIGNED LEAVES A LONG TRAIL OF DECEPTION. The internal report took up four full pages of some of the most valuable real estate in American journalism to recount the sorry history of Jayson Blair, a 27-year-old African-American who resigned from his job as a Times reporter on May 1.
A TEAM OF FIVE reporters, three editors and two researchers uncovered dozens of errors in stories the Times had printed under Blair’s byline; the corrections for the stories between October 2002 and April 2003 alone ran almost two full pages, with offenses divided into “whereabouts,” “denied reports,” “factual errors” and “plagiarism.” The second sentence of the story read, “The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”
Since he began his career in journalism, Blair has been known for two things: being able to play the internal politics of an institution with uncanny skill and having a problem with accuracy. Those two traits combined in a horrible confluence for the Times. Blair’s remarkable fraud had come unraveled in late April. The editor of the San Antonio Express-News had officially requested that the Times investigate a story about the family of a missing soldier that carried Blair’s byline, a story that seemed almost identical to one the San Antonio paper had run. After being asked to produce receipts showing he had, in fact, traveled to Texas, Blair resigned; in a letter to the Times’s top editors, he apologized for a “lapse in journalistic integrity.”
Sunday’s story honestly detailed the startling breakdown in communication among Times editors about Blair’s extensive—and well-chronicled—history of problems with accuracy and sloppiness. The paper was unflinching in its description of how the Times failed to track Blair’s expense reports and missed glaring warning signs along the way—like the time a national editor saw Blair in the newsroom hours after he had supposedly filed a story from West Virginia. Times metro editor Jonathan Landman was quoted as being particularly vocal about Blair; in April 2002 Landman, the Times story reports, sent a two-sentence e-mail message to newsroom administrators: “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.”
But there’s plenty that the Times report, which ran under the rubric CORRECTING THE RECORD, didn’t fully explore, namely how a troubled young reporter whose short career was rife with problems was able to advance so quickly. Internally, reporters had wondered for years whether Blair was given so many chances—and whether he was hired in the first place—because he was a promising, if unpolished, black reporter on a staff that continues to be, like most newsrooms in the country, mostly white. The Times also didn’t address an uncomfortable but unavoidable topic that has been broached with some of the paper’s top editors during the past week: by favoring Blair, did the Times end up reinforcing some of the worst suspicions about the pitfalls of affirmative action? And will there be fewer opportunities for young minority reporters in the future?
“We have, generally, a horribly undiverse staff,” says one Times staffer. “And so we hold up and promote the few black staffers we have.” That’s a point other news outlets have made since Blair resigned. Executive editor Howell Raines, who declined repeated requests for an inter-view with NEWSWEEK, told NPR, when pressed about whether Blair was pushed along because of his race, “No, I do not see it as illustrating that point. I see it as illustrating a tragedy for Jayson Blair.” (Blair, whose voice mail at the Times was still active as of Saturday evening, did not respond to a message left there or on his cell phone; several sources at the Times say he is currently in a hospital setting dealing with personal problems.)
Blair’s close mentoring relationship with Times managing editor Gerald Boyd, who is also black, was not explored in depth in the paper. Blair wrote Boyd’s biographical sketch in the Times’s internal newsletter when Boyd was named managing editor. Blair was known to brag about his close personal relationships with both Boyd and Raines, and the young writer frequently took cigarette breaks with Boyd.
Questions about Raines’s management style—his penchant for giving preferential treatment to favored stars, his celebrated fondness for “flooding the zone” on big stories, severely stretching resources—weren’t addressed at all. Indeed, more than one Times staffer pointed out that the paper’s national staff would not have been in need of the services of an untested young reporter with a spotty track record had a number of veterans not been pushed out by Raines last year.
Of course, plagiarism, and even outright fraud, can occur at any news organization, and certainly the lion’s share of the blame for this scandal should fall on Blair. As commentators have noted, the normal journalistic checks and balances are put in place with the assumption that everyone—reporters, editors and readers—shares an interest in getting to the truth. “The per-son who did this is Jayson Blair,” Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said in Sunday’s story. “Let’s not begin to demonize our executives.” As the Times seeks to come to grips with how this could have happened, there is bound to be a lot more soul-searching in the months ahead.
© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.