When a major corporation is caught fabricating its materials to the public, rapid disclosure and abject apologies are required. No one requires that ritual more than the major media. So what happens when the fabricators are the major media? The punishment ought to be even stronger.
Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post started an avalanche when he noted that New York Times reporter Jayson Blair lifted passages of an article from a San Antonio newspaper. Soon, Blair resigned, and the Times published a 7,000-word review documenting a disastrous flow of flaws and fabrications it discovered in Blair's reporting.
Hurray for the Times owning up and getting to the story of its own ineptitude before its competitors. But to expect anything less is a little like arguing that Exxon deserves special praise for cleaning up all the oil that spilled out of the Valdez. Just imagine Blair filing a piece on POW Jessica Lynch datelined Palestine, W.Va., without leaving New York. When he can pull that off without any questions from editors, he makes his editors look like fools.
But the Times isn't really taking responsibility for the Blair fiasco. Incredibly, publisher Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger argued that only one person was responsible for this metastasizing tumor, this credibility canyon. "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."
The captain of this oil-spilling ship is Executive Editor Howell Raines, a partisan best remembered for his arrogant 1994 take on the best president of the last century: "Reagan couldn't tie his shoelaces if his life depended on it." Who looks incompetent now?
Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd cannot plead that their underlings never expressed warnings about Blair. In April 2002, Times metropolitan editor Jonathan Landman, sent an e-mail to upper management saying, "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now." Blair was not stopped. He was promoted to the highest reaches of the paper. That's not Blair's fault. That's management's fault.
Will heads roll? ABC legend Sam Donaldson suggested on the radio that they should, and soon. If the New York Times thinks the world needs to purged of Enron-style fraud, they should remember that Ken Lay and Co. were forced to resign. But Sulzberger's blame-shifting suggests they'll all try to shamelessly ride out the storm. The stain will remain, a new Janet Cooke scandal for the supposed prestige center of the American press.