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."
But was Blair rally all that savvy? A graduate of Centreville High School in Northern Virginia, Blair went to the University of Maryland, but never graduated. Yet, at 23, he was hired by the Times. At 26, he was covering national stories, though his reputation was atrocious.
Over 42 months, the Times had had to publish 50 "corrections" of Jayson Blair's stories. A year ago, metropolitan editor Jonathan Landman sent an email to all newsroom administrators. "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now." Yet nothing was done, and soon Blair was being granted plum assignments once given only to the most experienced of reporters.
Who hired Jayson Blair? Who promoted him? Who protected him? And why? Like the purloined letter, the answer is right in front of us. Jayson Blair is black. The New York Times worships at the altar of "diversity." So, Times editors cut him all the slack he needed. And Jayson Blair knew how to snooker "progressives."
Had Jayson Blair been a white graduate of Bob Jones, he would not have lasted past his second correction. Indeed, he would never have been hired. But he was, because Jayson Blair was exactly the right color for The New York Times' guilty conscience.
The Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times is a case of the chickens of affirmative action coming home to roost.
Blair, however, will likely become the Lt. Calley of this atrocity. For higher-ups at the Times are already covering up for one another. Though Gerald Boyd, an African-American editor, promoted Blair, despite his problems, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is already exonerating his editors: "The person who did this is Jayson Blair. ... Let's not begin to demonize our executives."
Raines himself, a caricature of the guilt-ridden liberal Southerner, was asked by NPR if Blair's race had anything to do with his remarkable rise. "No," said Raines, "I do not see it as illustrating that point." He may be the only one who doesn't.
Raines and his co-editors have made the voice of the American establishment an object of mockery and ridicule in Middle America.
Somewhere, today, Spiro Agnew is smiling.