The New York Times was the nation's "newspaper of record," the "Good Gray Lady of 43rd Street," the gold standard by which all other newspapers were to be measured. So we were taught at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia. And so we believed. For it was true.
In the comprehensiveness of its coverage, accuracy of its reporting, the precision of language, spelling, grammar, the Times was the best. No paper came close. Its reporters, writers and editors were a constant presence at Columbia, conducting classes, lecturing us on how to report, write, edit, criticize, editorialize.
We were a farm club for the Times, though only a few of us ever made its roster. Among our faculty, it was considered the acme of success in our profession to write for the Times. Even copy editors on the "rim" of the copy desk were legends.
Though we were all in a master's program and some had edited college papers, won national awards or worked professionally, it was still an honor to be invited to serve as a copy boy at the Times.
Thus the sordid story of Times' star Jayson Blair is very big. For that story exposed a total collapse of standards at the Times and revealed the corruption of a once-great institution, which has prostituted itself to the commands of "diversity."
How could a kid in his mid-20s have taken the mighty Times to the cleaners? Going back over 73 of Blair's stories in six months, Times' editors found 36 examples of journalistic fraud. Assigned to cover the D.C. sniper case, Jayson broke the story that federal officials had blundered by interrupting the interrogation of alleged sniper John Muhammad, as he began "explaining the roots of his anger. "
The story was false and deeply damaging to the reputation of a U.S. attorney. Yet Times' editor Howell Raines congratulated Blair on "great shoe-leather reporting," and Raines never bothered to ask for any of Blair's "five sources" for the story.
According to the Times' investigation, Blair sat in Brooklyn and used his word processor to hoke up stories from West Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Texas and Maryland. Sent to interview families of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, he made up scenes and quotes, or simply took them, without attribution, out of other newspapers.
How did he get away with it so long? It was, says the Times, the result of a "failure of communication among senior editors ... and (Blair's) savviness and his ingenious ways of covering his tracks."