Feasting on the Times' 'fraud'

Posted: May 15, 2003 12:00 AM

I feel like I'm on "Supermarket Sweep." That's the game show where contestants race through a supermarket trying to grab as many goodies as possible as quickly as they can. That's how I feel writing about the ongoing revelations that The New York Times aided and abetted what it describes as a "journalistic fraud" on its readers. There are so many choice items and such little time to address them all.

Jayson Blair, a charming young black man, was an affirmative action hire who never graduated from college. (The Times claims it didn't know that, but it must have according to the administrators who placed him there.)

His work was never great and it got worse over his career. As he was promoted, his error rate soared, according to an epic-length mea culpa published by The New York Times last Sunday. Blair wasn't just filing bad copy, he was misbehaving at company expense, particularly at the watering hole around the corner.

"His mistakes became so routine, his behavior so unprofessional," admits the newspaper of record, "that by April 2002, Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor, dashed off a two-sentence e-mail message to newsroom administrators that read: 'We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.'"

Senior management of the newspaper had another idea. They promoted him, giving him a coveted spot on the national desk. He covered the Maryland sniper story and the reactions of families of American troops in Iraq, including rescued POW Jessica Lynch.

Now, I could easily get bogged down - like a "Supermarket Sweep" contestant in the frozen food section - just marveling at Blair's behavior and his management's blindness to it. With a cell phone and a laptop, he claimed to be zig-zagging the country although he never left New York City. Blair fabricated quotes, copied details from other news organizations and pretended to interview grief-stricken people he'd never met.

But I don't want to get bogged down in that because everyone agrees that what Blair did was outrageous. The more exciting topic is the self-serving, arrogant, nigh-upon propagandistic apology offered by the Grey Lady.

The Times says that this episode marks a "a low-point in the 152-year history of the newspaper." For Times worshippers, this was an admirable admission of wrongdoing. But we skeptics want to know if this blow to the Times' reputation outranked, say, the newspaper's deliberate downplaying of the Holocaust?

Did this "journalistic fraud" exceed the Pulitzer-winning deception of Walter Duranty, the Times correspondent who explicitly lied about Stalin's purges and forced famines? How about correspondent Herbert Matthews, who promised the world that the rebel-leader Fidel Castro wasn't a communist, even as Castro slaughtered innocents and struck deals with the Soviets?

There's nothing wrong with admitting that this Blair fiasco is a big deal, but no one died because of anything Blair wrote. It seems the egos of a few execs are on par with the deaths of millions.

And speaking of the execs, their apologies come across as buying absolution on the cheap. Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the Times' publisher, insists that this was all Blair's doing and that no one should "demonize" senior management.

OK, but can we blame them? Apparently so, because a reported backlash in the newsroom forced Sulzberger, Executive Editor Howell Raines, and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd, to admit personal responsibility for the disaster in a memo to the staff the Monday after the story broke. Funny how they couldn't find room for that admission in the original 7,000 word apologia.

There's really so much more. Time and again the newspaper insists that Blair's race had nothing to do with this fiasco, angrily denying even the suggestion that diversity might come at the price of quality.

But when Raines addressed the National Association of Black Journalists in 2001, he specifically bragged about Blair's blackness, adding, "This campaign (for diversity) has made our staff better and, more importantly, more diverse." So excellence does take a back seat to diversity at the Times.

The Times is caught in a catch-22. As Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute explains, by "denying that the Blair fiasco hinges on race, the Times has left itself open to a far more serious charge: that winking at journalistic blunders is standard Times practice."

In other words, if Blair wasn't cut slack for being black, such slackness is standard policy. Numerous Times' veterans say in the past even a few minor errors would have cost a young reporter his job.

Actually, I doubt that this is entirely about race. Cynthia Cotts of The Village Voice and others suggest that Raines has hired a new generation of sycophantic youngsters who cut corners and kiss-up.

It's certainly true that white reporters have committed similar frauds. But by refusing to cover the Blair story with even an ounce of an open mind to the race angle, the Times perpetuates its reputation for allowing political agendas to drive its coverage - even coverage of itself. Alas, we'll have to leave it there, with so many more aisles of goodies to go.