Lessons from the Times Blair Affair
By Ciro Scotti
Contrary to the advice in William Safire's no-more-mea-culpas column in The New York Times on May 12, the unspeakable Jayson Blair Affair needs to be spoken about again and again until the Times and the rest of America's Fourth Estate walk away from this grim episode hellbent on change.
The deceptions and fabrications of young Mr. Blair were so manic and mad, and the management lapses of Times potentates Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd so wholesale and abysmal that it's hard to know where to begin. Perhaps the 20-column apologia and postmortem in the Sunday Times that began to lay bare the pack of lies foisted on the paper's readers by reporter Blair during an almost four-year career is as good a place as any.
In its exhaustive effort to examine the manure after the wayward pony bolted from the barn, the Times revealed a lot about the way the newspaper of now-suspect record operates under the reign of Executive Editor Raines. While it amply demonstrated that truth-telling and courageous journalists (Metro Editor Jonathan Landman, for one) are in no short supply at the Times, the report by the paper's in-house pathologists also made clear that management appears to be shrugging off the burden of blame as it refuses to confront the culture that abetted such a breach of trust. That seemed to change on Wednesday, May 14, when Raines told a town-hall-style meeting of Times staffers: "I know that our institution has been damaged...I accept my responsibility for that, and I intend to fix it."
He might begin by addressing the paper's institutional arrogance. The Sunday story alleges, for example, that one of the tenets of the Times is that the source of derivative reporting must be acknowledged. But that's largely laughable. The Times is notorious for ripping off ideas and storylines and then running them as its own a day or a week or a month later. On hard-news stories on which it's playing catch-up, the Times these days will credit another publication. But its grudging resistance to the notion that it isn't the only game in Media Town has bred the unquestioned bully-boy culture from which sprang Jayson Blair.
More cause for eye-rolling in the Sunday piece was the contention by the Times management that race wasn't a factor in the Blair Affair. For anyone in the New York media, which is always tripping over itself to hire smart young minorities who'll not only deliver diversity to news staffs but also showcase that wholly worthy commitment, the Blair case is extreme but in some ways not unfamiliar.
You can just imagine what happened. Intern Blair arrives at the Times in the summer of 1998 as part of a program to help diversify the newsroom. He's a student at the University of Maryland, and while that's not an Ivy -- or even a hidden Ivy -- the kid is doing pretty good work. So, hey, let's not let him get away. At the end of 10 weeks, he's offered an extended internship but declines in order to return to school. Nine months or so later, he's back, and in management's haste to hire, nobody even bothers to check if he has graduated. (Where the devil was human resources?)
HARD-WIRED FOR ERRORS.
Yes, this was the boom years of the late 1990s when a pulse was all you needed to get a job -- and if you were under-30, African American, and promising, the world was your Bluepoint. Still, this was also the Times.
As an intermediate reporter for the Metro Section, the new hire is fraught with problems and hard-wired for errors. Eventually, he winds up on the national desk where he fabricates his whereabouts, weaves facts out of whole cloth, turns in bogus expense reports, and, in short, makes fellow journo-liar Stephen Glass look like a rank amateur. Glass, the fantasyland writer who took the New Republic and other magazines on a through-the-looking-Glass ride that ended in 1998 and who's now peddling a book (The Fabulist) about his close encounters with the truth, was more artful than Blair but not as bold.
In fact, the brazenness of Blair's lies suggest that he understood just how charmed a life he was leading at the Times. And why would that be? Well, folks, the Times is proud as Punch to tell you that Jayson Blair's cakewalk down 43rd Street certainly had nothing to do with the fact that he's black. Yeah, and I'm Tinkerbell. As Safire understates in the most on-point sentence in his column: "Apparently, this 27-year-old was given too many second chances by editors eager for this ambitious black journalist to succeed."
Asked whether it remained the position of the Times that race didn't play a role in Blair's rise, Times spokesman Toby Usnik said: "This was about a promising young reporter who committed fraudulent journalism -- nothing more, nothing less."
WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
Besides the frantic pursuit of diversity, new reports suggest that Blair's involvement with a young woman close to the Raines family, rampant favoritism, and a cult of youth at the Times may also have contributed to the reporter's ability to fly through the radar. That all may be so. But one of the overarching lessons of the Blair Affair is that throughout American journalism too many unseasoned reporters and editors are hired and promoted simply because they're members of minority groups.
Hell, it's not their fault. If some bigtime newspaper, magazine, or TV operation is wooing you out of J-school -- undergrad or grad -- begging you to come on board, what are you supposed to say: "I'd love to work at the Times, but I'm just not ready yet?"
No, the fault here lies with good intentions (a diverse workforce that reflects the diverse views of a diverse society) that have degenerated into a cynical hunt for minority talent. That does a disservice to the minority journalists who aren't yet ready for prime time, denigrates the standards of the organizations they join, lowers the quality of the product delivered to readers or viewers, and ultimately undermines the important function of American journalism.
PASS THE PIE.
At the end of this trying day, Jayson Blair was revealed to be a troubled young man unworthy of the trust that a journalist should have to earn. But the Blair Affair isn't an argument against affirmative action or diversity in the workplace. Instead, it's an indictment of media Establishment cynicism, management imperialism, and the dangers of the haughty self-importance embodied by the Gray Lady who fell on her face.
There's plenty of humble pie to go around at the Times, and despite Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.'s unequivocal support of Raines and Managing Editor Boyd, maybe a couple of somebodies over there ought to be eating theirs on the curb.
Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views every week in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online