Editor’s note: Michael Ackley will have an additional column on this topic tomorrow.
Yours truly spent seven years as a daily columnist for the late, lamented Sacramento Union, and during that time one of my rules was never to write out of anger.
My columns, particularly the essays, were humorous, because I believe humor can be more effective than invective in exposing truth and deflating stuffed shirts.
When righteously irate, I would go ahead and write a rip-snorter of an essay, giving vent to my outrage. Then I would set the piece aside for a few hours or for a day, then go back and rewrite it funny.
I’m following that process with my commentary on the New York Times /Jayson Blair scandal, but for a change I’m going to vent a little emotion.
The Times’ 7,000-word apologia for the affair Blair is one of the most infuriating pieces of self-serving tripe I ever have encountered – and saying so defames tripe.
I have worked for a number of newspapers in my career, from small weeklies to medium-sized dailies like the Sacramento Bee and the Sacramento Union. At none of these newspapers would the likes of Jayson Blair have lasted more than a couple of months.
All the editors with whom I have been associated – and most of the publishers, bless their penurious hearts – understood that newspapers traded on their credibility and that credibility was a fragile commodity.
Blair, in just four years at the Times, had to publish 50 corrections – FIFTY!
I don’t think I had much more than a 10th that many in 30 years as a journalist.
I don’t remember the corrections I had to make, but I do remember the feelings associated with getting a name wrong or flubbing some fact: guilt, remorse, determination never to slip up again. It was perfect contrition, believe me.
Nobody as sloppy and careless as Blair would have made probation at any paper I worked for, and certainly not at the small daily where I was editor following the Union’s demise.
At the Union, I recall a probationary reporter telling the city editor that some numbers in a story that didn’t add up were “close enough.” That reporter, whose previous errors had been caught by the desk, was gone the next day.
A cavalier attitude toward fact simply was not tolerated, and the newspaper wasn’t in the business of ethical rehabilitation. Firing was the best lesson for that writer – as it would have been the best lesson for Jayson Blair.
Many lines in the Times’ screed would set real journalists’ teeth on edge, but perhaps the most vexing was the assertion that “statistics about corrections are only a rough barometer of journalistic skills.”
(Suppressed expletive!) They are the best barometer of journalistic skills. The ability to get the facts right is the be-all and end-all of journalism.
The Times, in its whining mea culpa, not only failed to cleanse itself, it besmirched an entire profession.
Then there are the denials that Blair was retained and promoted because this black American added diversity to the Times’ newsroom. Let us be charitable to Executive Editor Howell Raines and suggest he is merely in denial.
Of course Blair was a diversity hire – there could have been no other reason to keep such a gross incompetent.
They want us to believe that the “best” newspaper in the country couldn’t find a minority writer better than this guy. I, for one, cannot be charitable regarding the implied defamation of every able African American journalist in the United States. (Larry Irby, if you’re out there, grinding your teeth, I feel your pain.)
Times executives “wanted him to succeed.” They kept him because he was “promising.” Promising what? The record shows nothing but promise of doom.
The Times would have been luckier if Blair had simply run it into a major libel suit.
There are other irritating lines in the Times’ “explanation.” It dumps on Blair as a “troubled young man,” tries to get the newspaper off the hook by implying it was compassionate, suggests that the villain (Blair) was preternaturally sly and manipulative, fooling all the brilliant minds above him.
Then it ends with the announcement that Raines is forming a task force of newsroom employees to identify lessons for the newspaper.
When you want to spread the blame, form a committee.
And speaking of committees, the Times’ smarmy apology was composed by five staffers, so nobody had to take a solo byline on it.
We can’t blame them. It must have been difficult for them to type their assigned sections, each with one hand holding his nose.