Relaxed standards undermine journalism's integrity

John Leo

5/12/2003 12:00:00 AM - John Leo
The New York Times has acted honorably in dealing with the wreckage of the Jayson Blair scandal. It published corrections, 54 in all, on Blair's inaccurate reporting. When at last it became obvious that Blair was plagiarizing stories, making up quotes and filing stories from places he never visited, the Times applied pressure and Blair resigned. And at this writing, the Times is preparing a long article detailing Blair's checkered career. This is the way newspapers are supposed to behave -- put it all out on the table.

But there is an issue that the Times may not be ready to discuss: whether racial preferences are implicated in what went wrong. Blair was editor of the University of Maryland student newspaper. After dropping out of college as a senior, he was installed as a Times reporter at age 23, with little experience, just some free-lancing and brief internships at the Times and The Boston Globe. Question: Isn't this too far, too fast, and would this meteoric rise to staff reporter be likely for a white reporter with comparable credentials?

Mickey Kaus, writing at slate.com, raised the preference issue by offering this analogy: Let's suppose, to promote commerce in Utah, federal trucking standards were relaxed on Utah trucks and a disastrous crash occurred when a truck's brakes failed. Would the press, politicians and the public say, "But non-Utah trucks crash all the time," or "You haven't proved a direct causal connection between the Utah-preference program and this crash"? No, Kaus wrote. They would just demand that preferences be abolished so that all trucks everywhere would have to meet the same standards. This has to happen in journalism, too.

Everybody knows that this argument tends to trigger cries of "Racism!" Let's stipulate that the overwhelming majority of plagiarism cases and journalistic scandals have been the work of whites. As a reminder, look who is back in the news -- Stephen Glass, retired fabricator of gripping but totally false news stories for The New Republic.

But once you create preferences, you run the risk of increasing the number of screw-ups among the preferred group. Relaxing standards or pushing an unprepared candidate into a high-pressure job tends to increase the odds of trouble. All of us figure this out rather quickly when the preferred group is relatives of the boss, or people who went to the boss's college. It's true of identity groups as well.

Another factor is that preference programs carry an implication that lower-quality work will be tolerated. Max Frankel, the former executive editor at The New York Times, admitted this in 1990, though minus the clear reference to preferences. Since blacks are "a precious few" at the Times, he said, "If they were less than good, I'd probably stay my hand at removing them too quickly."

He obviously meant this to be tolerant and generous, as part of an effort to make up for the long years in which blacks were totally absent or very rare in the newsroom. But he increased resentment all around -- blacks knew they were being demeaned in a kindly way; whites heard an announcement of double standards.

It seems as though the Times was inordinately tolerant of Blair. His bosses say they leaned on him repeatedly about his inaccuracies. Fair enough. Blair said recently his work was hampered by "recurring personal issues." Earlier he told his bosses he suffered from the shock of losing a relative in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.

But sources at the Times say Blair's problems go back well before 9/11. One source said the charge that Blair was making up quotes goes back to his earliest days at the paper. Two reporters said protective staff members would do Blair's reporting for him when he didn't show up for work. Another reporter, who refused to work with Blair any longer, told the metro desk about his erratic behavior. My assistant here at US News, Margaret Menge, turned up a Boston Globe article by Blair (April 18, 1999) that contains quotes nearly identical to those published in The Washington Post a week before.

Alarm bells should have been going off at the Times years ago. Or perhaps we should say that the bells were going off, but the Times seemed unwilling to hear or to do anything about what it knew. Last week, Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post interviewed a Times editor who said that the paper had come to realize that Blair was compiling a substandard record.

The Blair scandal is not just evidence that reporters can go off track. It's a reminder that diversity programs can undermine the standards that made great institutions great.