Stopping the next Jayson Blair

Posted: May 27, 2003 12:00 AM

 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.

I think that much of the jaded attitude that many people now have toward the press is the result of knowing stories first hand.  This used to be a rare phenomenon.  But because of cable news and the Internet, it is now common for many people to have seen stories first-hand or to have read the primary source material upon which the story is based.   Therefore, they are able to judge for themselves whether a story is accurate or not, or whether it has a bias that would otherwise be unknown.

This phenomenon first hit me when I went to work in Congress in the mid-1970s.  For the first time, I was routinely able to read stories in papers like the New York Times about events that I had witnessed.  The juxtaposition between what I knew to be the case and the often-distorted picture I read in the paper was a real eye-opener.  But in those days, there was nothing one could do about it.

Today it is different.  One can easily post documents, pictures, audio and video on the web so that people can find for themselves what the true facts are, without having to take the word of a New York Times reporter.  Just recently, a friend of mine who was viciously maligned by an old girlfriend—whose lies were widely repeated in the Washington Post and elsewhere—was able to clear his name by posting documents on the web.  Even one of his political enemies was forced to admit that the accusations were false, as much as he wished they were true in order to discredit my friend.

My friend’s ability to clear himself would not have been possible in the pre-Internet age.  Those wanting to know the truth would have had nowhere to turn.  Hence, the lies likely would have dogged him forever.  In the same way, lies about President Bush, Newt Gingrich and others can now be exposed in ways that were impossible in the past.  That spells the end of bias in the major media and why liars like Jayson Blair will no longer get a free pass.