The Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times has engendered more commentary than any similar press scandal I can recall. Although in substance, the scandals involving Janet Cooke at the Washington Post, Stephen Glass and Ruth Shalit at the New Republic, and Mike Barnacle at the Boston Globe are similar, the Blair scandal seems to have much greater resonance.
In part, this is due to the gross politicization of the New York Times under its executive editor and publisher, Howell Raines and Arthur Sulzberger III, respectively. Editorial opinion and news stories have become blurred to a greater extent than anytime in the paper’s history, most famously in its campaign to admit women to the Augusta Golf Club. So intense was this campaign that the Times even spiked a column (eventually published) by its most respected sports columnist, Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Anderson, because it took a contrary view.
To me, the most extraordinary aspect of the Blair scandal, in which he routinely made up quotes and stories, is that no one seriously complained. Apparently, any number of people saw stories about them by Mr. Blair that were patently false and quotes from them that were never uttered, yet they didn’t even ask for a correction.
Of course, the fact that the Times ignored many of those who did raise concerns is also a stain on the paper’s record. But I find it amazing that so many people who were abused by Mr. Blair just said, “to hell with it” or “why bother.” They may even have felt that this sort of thing is standard at the Times. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz has called this possibility “pretty depressing stuff.”
I’ve never spoken to Mr. Blair, but I have been quoted many times in the New York Times and other major papers. I have to say, I have never bothered to correct a reporter’s misquotation of my words—even when it was grossly in error. In my business, I want to be quoted. As long as they spell my name right, why should I risk alienating a reporter by asking for a correction when no one reads corrections anyway?
It is all done just for the sake of appearance. Papers don’t even bother adding notations to their online editions when corrections are published. I am sure that all of Mr. Blair’s articles will forever remain in the Times database exactly as written, even though the Times now acknowledges them to be false. When memories of the Blair scandal fade, how will future readers--researching, for example, the D.C. sniper story--know that much of the material in the Times archives is a lie? Unless they are especially diligent, they won’t.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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