Even at the Times!

Posted: May 16, 2003 12:00 AM
The big story featuring The New York Times and Jayson Blair is grounds for twittery -- look what happened to the Gray Lady! But the reproaches give satisfaction only because of the high standards of the newspaper, and the sense of it that slippages in such a fortress make for great waterfalls.

Those who worked their way through the four-page recitation of what Jayson Blair did came only, toward the end of the story, to the question that immediately came instantly to the inquirer's mind. It was: Did he get away with it because he is an African-American? Answer: We don't really know.

And the reason we do not is that Mr. Blair is a polished con man. Anyone born Jason who became Jayson entered the world with a little swagger. Any suggestion that affirmative action was responsible for his appointment goes instantly away. A blind reading of his dispatches would see nothing in them to suggest the amateur, let alone an incompetent. He wrote fluently and with an eye for detail, even when it proved that the detail was fiction of his own imagination. Indeed, the filigree established him as especially resourceful, even as the counterfeiter might be so judged who contributes by special ingenuity to the imposture he is engaged in. If every black 25-year-old applying for a reporter's commission had equivalent talent, the Times would have more than its current 5 percent representation of black Americans on the staff.

No, the question had to be of preferment, not election. Jayson is a likable fellow, and his boss, Gerald Boyd -- singled out, at the Times' general, closed meeting, for encouraging him -- replied that he encouraged everybody; that is his manner. Still, there is a cloud of a corporate scandal. We have a young reporter about whom a senior editor warned a year ago that he should not be permitted to write, who went on doing so, ending with a passage of flat plagiarism, but at least it involved a mother who did exist in Texas and whose son was in fact missing.

Having said as much, nobody has concluded that affirmative action does not play a role at The New York Times. Indeed, the executive editor, Howell Raines, acknowledged that it does, and defended the practice in the name of diversity, while insisting that it was not responsible for the apparent immunity of Jayson Blair. What the Times was responsible for, and accepted the blame for, is insufficient superintendence, especially following such warnings as the City Desk had. One thinks of Saudi Arabia and its measures against terrorists. Insufficient.

But the season for inspecting the policies of the Times is open, and there are other complaints that have surfaced. One, done in the closed meeting of Wednesday, complained of the autocratic executive style of Mr. Raines. But management styles don't get passed upon by the Federal Drug Administration, and whatever Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. thinks about Howell Raines is, quite simply, the last stop, like the Supreme Court's ruling on the Florida election. There are those who believe that a blood sacrifice is in order, much as everyone called on Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston to give up his post, not because he was implicated in the priestly scandal, but because he was in charge when it happened.

On the question of affirmative action, one hears an offbeat complaint, this from a seasoned publisher who smiles, though not entirely indulgently, at the Times' sports coverage. "About 11 percent of the readers of sports sections are women. National sports competition is, pure and simple, a man's world." He went on to say that the Times' subscription to equality results in all but equal space given to women's sports as to men's.

That indictment, if correct, is affirmative action athwart journalistic realism, with no Jayson Blairs on the scene, just stolid fem-movement entrepreneurs who will perhaps never be fully satisfied until a woman wins the National Heavyweight Championship.

Well, let it be. The Times will easily survive Jayson Blair, and its devotees will survive whatever neglect there is of all-male soccer.