Unfit to print

Thomas Sowell

5/15/2003 12:00:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

The New York Times' famous motto -- "All the News That's Fit to Print" -- has been dishonored by the revelation that one of its own reporters has been printing stuff that he made up or stole from other publications.

Isolated scandals can strike anywhere. But this was no isolated scandal. Those who run the New York Times were warned again and again over the years by their own people that reporter Jayson Blair was doing things that crossed the line.

According to the Times' own account: "He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not." During Jayson Blair's nearly four years as a reporter with the New York Times, his actions included writing "falsely about emotionally charged moments in recent history," including the sniper attacks in the Washington area and the families of soldiers killed in Iraq.

But none of this is a problem that has just recently come to light. That is why this was not just an isolated scandal but a sign of moral dry rot in the leadership of the New York Times.

Again, the paper's own account is the most damning. Far from not knowing what was going on, the Times acknowledges that "various editors and reporters expressed misgivings about Mr. Blair's reporting skills, maturity and behavior during his five-year journey from raw intern to reporter on national news events. Their warnings centered mostly on errors in his articles."

More than a year ago, one of the Times's own editors wrote a memo that said plainly: "We have got to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right Now." Instead, Blair was promoted to national news coverage.

New York Times managing editor Howell Raines has been quoted as having boasted in 2001 about Jayson Blair as an example of the Times' commitment to "diversity" -- because Jayson Blair is black. White reporters do not get promoted for doing what Blair did.

This is such an old story of the fundamental fraudulence of affirmative action, whether in the media, academia, or elsewhere. These stories are full of ignored warnings, arrogant self-righteousness by those who brush aside the warnings, and often the demonizing of anyone who dares to criticize either the policy or the incompetent individuals who got where they are because of the policy.

Jayson Blair is by no means the worst example. Just as Times editor Howell Raines boasted of Blair as a symbol of the paper's commitment to "diversity," so did many liberals (including Senator Ted Kennedy) boast of Dr. Patrick Chavis, who got into a University of California medical school because of affirmative action.

Years later, medical authorities suspended Patrick Chavis' license -- and then revoked it -- after discovering his incompetence and gross negligence when they investigated the suspicious death of one of his patients.

Back in the 1970s, Professor Bernard Davis of the Harvard Medical School warned about lower standards being used there to allow black students to become doctors, saying that it was cruel to abandon standards "and allow the trusting patients to pay for our irresponsibility." Not only were his warnings ignored, he was denounced as a racist.

Mistakes will be made in any institution. Real disasters usually require more than that. A key ingredient in many disasters is utterly blind arrogance in disregarding all warnings and all evidence, in order to persist in some headstrong course of action.

That is what the New York Times leadership has shown before, during, and even after the Jayson Blair fiasco.

The newspaper's publisher now says that there will be no search for "scapegoats" in the Jayson Blair scandal. In other words, holding the responsible officials accountable for what they do or don't do is called scapegoating. Even Blair himself is referred to as a "troubled" young man, rather than as someone who caused huge trouble to others because he knew how to hustle.

Having gotten away with so much, Blair knew that the rules and standards that applied to others would not be applied to him because he represented "diversity." He just pushed it a little farther than it would go.