RIO DE JANEIRO – Actually I'm in Brooklyn right now, but I'm counting on my employer to follow the strict fact-checking methods in operation at the New York Times. Under the excellent system of checks and balances at the Times, reporter Jayson Blair kept turning in reports with datelines from places like West Virginia and Maryland – while submitting expense receipts for the same time period from Joe's Bar in Brooklyn. You can't blame him. He couldn't very well turn in articles with the dateline "My Mom's House."
In the current Newsweek magazine, Seth Mnookin reports that Blair was forced to resign from the student newspaper at the University of Maryland, The Diamondback, for precisely the same misconduct he engaged in at the Times – phony reporting, plagiarism, irresponsibility and fantastic lies. Once known as "the Newspaper of Record," the Times is now trying out the motto: "Almost as Accurate as the Maryland Diamondback."
Editor Howell Raines ignored Blair's repeated, brazen mendacity. He ignored his editors' urgent demands that Blair be fired. He ignored press conferences in which public officials remarked that Blair's stories for the Times were full of lies. Raines ignored it all – until finally one day, another newspaper caught Blair plagiarizing one of its stories and blew the whistle on the Times.
And then Raines claimed to be shocked to discover that Blair was engaging in "a pathological pattern of misrepresentation, fabricating and deceiving." After all, the Times had issued Blair a series of warnings. One sternly worded memo urged Blair to be "more black." (That's a joke. In the immortal words of Jayson Blair to Newsweek: People should not "believe everything they read in the newspapers." He really did say that.)
This episode is considered a low point in the paper's 152-year history. Not as low as when it endorsed Jimmy Carter, but still pretty low. As has now been widely reported, publisher Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger responded to the meltdown at the Times by bringing a stuffed toy moose to an internal meeting with reporters to discuss the burgeoning scandal last week.
Also at the meeting, Raines finally admitted the blindingly obvious fact that he engaged in egregious mismanagement because Blair was black. Raines said: "Does that mean I personally favored Jayson? Not consciously, but you have a right to ask if I as a white man from Alabama with those convictions gave him one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the sniper team. When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes." So, for being a warm-hearted white liberal, he wants a pat on the head (much as his black maid, Grady, used to give him).
Raines said he would not resign, and Pinch said he would not accept Raines' resignation if offered. Which brings us to Pinch.
While we are having a debate about diversity and race-based policies, can't we all agree that no one should be defending nepotism? In one of 4 billion columns attacking President Bush this year, Times columnist Maureen Dowd accused him of getting into Yale only because he was a legacy. She sneered at the argument of White House aides that Bush also earned a degree from Harvard Business School though no Bush family member went there. Dowd responded: "They seemed genuinely surprised when told that Harvard would certainly have recognized the surname and wagered on the future success of the person with it."
I believe Sulzberger is a pretty well-known name, too. The Sulzberger-Ochs dynasty has controlled the Times for a century and a half. A college admissions committee would not have to wager on young Pinch's future success. It was his birthright to run the most powerful newspaper in the world someday. No messy elections could stand in his way. And yet, it appears that Harvard managed to turn him down. He was a legacy at Columbia University, but they didn't want him either. (Those must have been some low SAT scores.) Maureen might want to stay mum on the subject of dumb rich kids, at least for the next three or four decades.
Like Raines, Pinch blithely washed his hands of the stunning mismanagement at the Times, saying, "The person who did this is Jayson Blair." Commenting through his spokesman, a small stuffed moose, Pinch made the Churchillian pronouncement: "We didn't do this right. We regret that deeply. We feel it deeply. It sucks." Uday Hussein had more right to be in charge of Iraq's Olympic committee than Pinch Sulzberger does to be running a newspaper.
Under the race-based admissions at the University of Michigan, applicants are given four points for being a legacy and 20 points for being black. Does anyone think Pinch got only four points to be publisher of the Times? Couldn't the Sulzberger family just buy him a boat?