The New York Times is to be commended for ferreting out Jayson Blair, the reporter recently discovered making up facts, plagiarizing other news organizations and lying about nonexistent trips and interviews. A newspaper that employs Maureen Dowd can't have had an easy time settling on Blair as the scapegoat. Blair's record of inaccuracies, lies and distortions made him a candidate for either immediate dismissal or his own regular column on the op-ed page.
The editors have set up a special e-mail address for readers to report falsehoods they discover in Jayson Blair articles. OK, but how about setting up one for Paul Krugman? They ought to claim all those front-page articles predicting a "quagmire" in Iraq were also written by Blair.
The Times has now willingly abandoned its mantle as the "newspaper of record," leapfrogging its impending technological obsolescence. It was already up against the Internet and Lexis-Nexis as a research tool. All the Times had left was its reputation for accuracy.
As this episode shows, the Times is not even attempting to preserve a reliable record of events. Instead of being a record of history, the Times is merely a "record" of what liberals would like history to be – the Pentagon in crisis, the war going badly, global warming melting the North Pole, and protests roiling Augusta National Golf Club. Publisher Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger has turned the paper into a sort of bulletin board for Manhattan liberals.
In the Soviet-style reporting preferred at the Times, its self-investigation of the Blair scandal included copious denials that race had anything to do with it:
"Mr. Boyd [managing editor] said last week that the decision to advance Mr. Blair had not been based on race."
"Mr. Blair's Times supervisors ... emphasize that he earned an internship at The Times because of glowing recommendations and a remarkable work history, not because he is black. The Times offered him a slot in an internship program that was then being used in large part to help the paper diversify its newsroom."
Did Blair write that? If the Times "diversity" program refused to consider Blair's race, then it wasn't much of a diversity program, now was it? This is like job advertisements that proclaim: "Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action Employer." Well, which is it?
In one of several feverish editorials supporting the University of Michigan's race-based admissions program, the Times denounced the Bush administration for imagining "that diversity can be achieved without explicitly taking race into account." Any diversity program that failed to do so, the Times lectured, was "necessarily flawed." But then it gets caught publishing Jayson Blair and the Times demurely insists that its own affirmative action program scrupulously ignored race.
The Times not only expressly took race into account, but also put Blair's race above everything – accuracy, credibility and the paper's reputation. It hired a kid barely out of college. In fact, it turns out he was not yet out of college. He had no professional journalistic experience, except at the Times. He screwed up over and over again and the paper had to print 50 corrections to articles he'd written.
Despite all this, Blair was repeatedly published on the front page, promoted and sent love notes from the editor in chief, Howell Raines. Ignoring the warnings of a few intrepid whistleblowers, top management kept assigning Blair to bigger stories in new departments without alerting the editors to Blair's history because – as Raines said – it would "stigmatize" him. (After this scandal, does the demand for black heart surgeons go up or down?) Raines jettisoned the Times' famous slogan, "All the News That's Fit to Print," preferring the slogan: "The New York Times: Now With Even More Black People!"
If mismanagement at Enron had been this clear-cut, the Times would be demanding the death penalty for Ken Lay. Indeed, taking a page from all corporate scandals, the Times insists that the organization is fine; it was just one bad apple. As I recall, the Times editorial page did not accept that explanation when Merrill Lynch said it about Henry Blodget.
Raines' behavior is far worse than the corporate chieftains. He clearly bears the most responsibility for this fiasco, but when disaster strikes ... he blames the black kid! So far, Raines' response has been basically to say: "You try to help these people ..." (Raines' other great contribution to race relations was his unintentionally comical magazine piece about his black maid, "Grady's Gift.")
Put aside whether race should be used as a hiring criterion. Even people who support affirmative action don't have to support Raines' approach of refusing to hold blacks responsible for anything, from fake reporting to gang-raping a jogger in Central Park. What Raines did to Blair was cruel.
Think of it in a nonracial context: Suppose the owner of a big company sends his kid to learn the business and tells low-level managers to treat him just like anyone else. The managers curry favor with the boss by reporting that his son is doing great and is a natural genius for this business. So the kid keeps getting praised and promoted, until one day he is actually put in charge of something he has no ability to run. That is cruel. And it's the story of Pinch Sulzberger, isn't it?