It’s the world’s best newspaper. It’s the only place to find “all the news that’s fit to print.” It’s the New York Times, reverently called the Good Gray Lady of 43rd Street. But today the poor old lady looks like she’s been mugged.
The Good Gray Lady has a big, black eye. And, unfortunately for all who work there, this one is self-inflicted.
In an unprecedented, four-page mea culpa, the Times admitted this week that one of its hotshot reporters, 27-year-old Jayson Blair, was a fraud. They apologized to their readers. That’s the good news. But they also admitted that, even though many people warned about Blair’s disregard for the truth, they kept him on the staff and promoted him. That’s the bad news.
Martin Luther said: Sin boldly. Jayson Blair did. He falsified expense accounts to make it look like he was traveling, when he never left home. He was forced to make 50 corrections in three and a half years: a high rate for any newspaper. And in at least 36 out of 73 articles documented by the Times, he invented stories and details so juicy every news junkie wanted to read them ? and every editor wanted to print them.
For example, in a heart-warming interview with George Lynch, father of rescued POW Jessica Lynch, Blair described the bucolic view of tobacco fields and grazing cattle from the porch of their West Virginia home. The truth is, there’s no tobacco or cattle within miles of the Lynch residence. And Blair never went to West Virginia. He did it all by cell phone.
In last fall’s Washington sniper case, Blair reported that a U.S. attorney had abruptly halted an interrogation of suspect John Muhammad just as he was about to confess. Law enforcement officials publicly declared the Times “dead wrong,” but Times executive editor Howell Raines congratulated Blair for his “great shoe-leather reporting.”
Blair’s string of lies finally unraveled when editors of the San Antonio Express-News complained that he had plagiarized its account of a Texas woman whose son had been found in Iraq. But it’s disgraceful that his reign of error didn’t end sooner. Top Times managers ignored one red flag after another, including a blunt April 2002 e-mail from metropolitan editor Jonathan Landman: “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.”
What happened? Why was Blair hired? Why was he promoted? Why wasn’t he fired long before the Times forced him to retire? According to my MSNBC partner, Pat Buchanan, that’s a no-brainer: “Like the purloined letter, the answer is right in front of us,” Buchanan recently wrote. “Jayson Blair is black. The New York Times worships at the altar of diversity. So, Times editors cut him all the slack he needed.”
Well, leave it to Pat and other opponents of affirmative action to play the race card. But they’re dead wrong. Blair did not screw up and get away with it because he was black. He screwed up because he got lazy. He got away with it because his superiors were asleep at the switch.
And he’s not the only journalist to disgrace his profession recently. Two senior CNN producers were fired for falsely reporting that the U.S. forces deliberately sprayed deadly toxins during Vietnam. The New Republic’s Stephen Glass was fired for fabricating all or part of 27 stories. Two reporters from the Salt Lake City Tribune were fired for feeding false information about Elizabeth Smart’s family to the National Enquirer.
Notice the difference. Because they are white, their cases were reported simply as examples of good people somehow gone bad. Only in Blair’s case, because he’s black, was diversity blamed. Nonsense. Yes, Blair is an embarrassment to the New York Times – just like Clarence Thomas is, to the Supreme Court. But neither proves there’s anything wrong with diversity in the workplace.
No doubt, being black helped Blair get a job. But once in the door, he should have been held to the same rigorous standards demanded of every other reporter, black or white. Sadly, he was not. But don’t blame Blair’s skin for being black. Blame his bosses, Gerald Boyd and Howell Raines, for not doing their jobs.
Jayson Blair has resigned. That’s a good start. To restore the reputation of the great New York Times, maybe Boyd and Raines should resign, too.