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Editor’s note: Michael Ackley’s columns normally appear on Monday and contain satire and parody based on current events and thus mix fact with fiction. He assumes informed readers will be able to tell which is which.
Executive Editor Howell Raines is not the top newsman at the New York Times.
That distinction belongs to Howard Bashford, double secret uber-editor, a man whose office and function were known only to Raines and the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
Bashford agreed to discuss the Jayson Blair scandal with us – if we would protect his anonymity. We agreed, of course, but as the Times now is an officially designated ethics-free zone, we figured, what the hell.
“We’re so sorry to see a promising young journalist’s career destroyed like this,” began Bashford lugubriously.
“Promising?!” I exclaimed. “This guy was trouble from the word go. Judging by the Times’ airing of this thing, he made one error after another – after another, after another.
“The newspaper even gave him time off – more than once – to think about his transgressions. Then, it promoted him.”
“Now, now,” said Bashford unctuously. “We don’t stigmatize people for seeking help. After all, would you junk a Ferrari because its timing got fouled up a couple of times?”
“A Ferrari isn’t trading on the truth,” I said, “and it’s harder to reset a person’s ethics than it is to adjust ignition timing.
“You’re simply not providing a credible explanation for why you kept this guy on. Didn’t your metropolitan editor – what’s his name … Landman – didn’t Jonathan Landman say you should get rid of him?”
“Landman,” mused Bashford. “Actually, we’re thinking about getting rid of him. How much judgment can he have – being publicly right when his bosses were so wrong? It just compounds our embarrassment.”
“Thanks for reminding me,” he muttered, extracting a small notebook from his coat pocket and scribbling himself a note.
I caught a glimpse of it. It said, “Find a way to fire Landman.”
“Look,” I pressed, “there must have been some thought behind the hiring, retention and promotion of Jayson Blair. ‘Fess up. It was the diversity thing, wasn’t it?”
“There has been a lot of cheap talk about that,” said Bashford tartly, “and that’s all it is – cheap talk. I know Howell Raines told that black journalists’ group that hiring minorities like Blair ‘made our staff better and, more importantly, more diverse.’ But that should not lead to the inference that we kept this guy just because he’s black.
“After all, if we had just wanted to hire people of color, well, there are dozens of competent, ethical journalists out there, dying for the chance to work at the New York Times.
“Why, every day we get resumes from African Americans and Asians and Hispanics who would probably be good hires.”
“Then why in the world didn’t you hire some of them instead of Blair?” I demanded. “You must have some of explanation.”
“Actually, we do,” he replied soberly, “and we’re sure it would help erase the ethical blot on the Times’ escutcheon. We just haven’t decided whether releasing it would do more harm than good.
“Given the totality of circumstances, we’re sure the public would accept it and understand the upper-management problem that led to this disaster.”
“Will you please stop beating around the bush and just tell me?” I begged. “What made you keep this clown when it became clear he wasn’t just ethically challenged, but flat out unethical? What possible explanation would ring true with a skeptical public?”
Bashford looked around furtively, as though there might be spies lurking in the shadows of his darkly paneled office, or cameras secreted in its coffered ceiling.
He leaned forward and whispered in a voice so low I could scarcely hear him, “The reason is – and I’m pretty sure the public would buy this – we’re all pretty stupid.”