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.
The other emblematic embarrassment of the Times in the Raines era was the paper's blustering, super-biased crusade against the Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the Masters golf tournament, for not having female members. So it didn't take long for anyone following the Blair fiasco to suspect that Sulzberger, Raines and Boyd -- the Identity-Politics Police -- let the scandal deepen to give a celebrated minority staffer a fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh chance.
National Public Radio's Melissa Block ended an interview with Raines by producing a fascinating quote from Raines speaking before the 2001 convention of the National Association of Black Journalists: "You specifically mentioned Jayson Blair as an example of the Times spotting and hiring the best and brightest reporters on their way up. You said, "This campaign has made our staff better and, more importantly, more diverse.'" He clearly left the impression that quotas came before quality.
Reporters usually love pouncing on a question that a cornered source won't answer. Raines sidestepped this final question on NPR. Raines sidestepped this (also final) question on PBS's "NewsHour," too. It still needs an answer.
No one should buy the NABJ press release's assumption that conservatives think this calls into question the general reliability of black journalists. No one outside David Duke's loony orbit believes that. Obviously, hundreds of other black journalists could have done a better job for Raines than Blair did.
But it's clear that Blair's meteoric rise -- a young man who didn't even graduate from the University of Maryland, who went from humble internships to the national desk in four years -- was not following the average career trajectory of an American reporter. Many journalists work their whole lives dreaming of someday joining the New York Times. It's time to ask whether Blair would have ever been promoted into the position where he caused maximum damage if race wasn't a factor in his career.
Another real diversity problem remains unaddressed by the Times: the utter lack of conservative reporters. It hasn't changed since John Corry recalled in his book My Times that he knew of only one other Reagan voter in the entire Times newsroom. That's a diversity the Times will probably never embrace. Who cares if the Times newsroom "looks like America" if they all think like Howell Raines?