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The New York Times's Meltdown

From the May 26, 2003 issue: What explains it?

May 26, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 36 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Indeed, the way Blair's misreporting escaped detection and chastisement remains the most difficult-to-fathom aspect of the case. There were plenty of warnings. Blair's sniper reporting was doubted by the Times's Washington bureau. Metropolitan editors Joyce Purnick and Jonathan Landman steadily warned that Blair was a scandal in the making. Landman in particular noted that Blair made three times as many mistakes as anyone else at the paper. He wrote a note about Blair's "extraordinarily high" correction rate and forwarded it to Gerald Boyd and another editor with the note: "There's big trouble I want you both to be aware of." According to the paper's own accounting, between 1998 and 2000, corrections were necessary on between 5 and 6.3 percent of Blair's stories. After September 11, his accuracy took a nosedive, with the Times being forced to correct about 16 percent. (This does not gibe with the official Times position that, "when considered over all, Mr. Blair's correction rate at the Times was within acceptable limits.") Blair was warned about his work verbally and in memos. He took a leave of absence after one such dressing-down in early 2002. When he returned and did sloppy work, Landman wrote, in April 2002: "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now."

Landman is the hero of the Times account of the story. But his warnings about promoting Blair have a vatic quality, as if he's talking to himself. Missing are those voices within the paper who insisted on promoting Blair, and against whom Landman is presumably battling. In mid-2002, Blair was put on a "tough-love plan" under Landman's supervision, but quickly sought a way to leave it. He was ready to go to the sports department, which would have provided a diplomatic way to keep his mistakes from being too consequential. Landman warned the sports editor, "If you take Jayson, be careful." But suddenly, in October 2002, the national desk being "understaffed," Blair was assigned to the D.C. sniper case, the hottest story in the country. He would work under national editor Jim Roberts--although Roberts would not be told, as the sports editor was, about Blair's accuracy problems. Roberts didn't find out about Blair's history of errors until Landman told him earlier this year. Raines suggested to Roberts that Blair be tried out for a permanent position on the paper's national bureau. Roberts resisted.

Blair got a spectacular series of scoops--details of interrogations, new evidence--that an all-star team of national reporters from all over the country, including several at his own paper, missed. As Tim Rutten asked in the Los Angeles Times, "Why did no one on a paper that prides itself on its top editors' extensive reportorial backgrounds ever question how a relatively inexperienced young journalist could parachute into a tense, complex, multi-jurisdictional investigation and suddenly find himself in possession of up to five confidential law enforcement sources?" And why was Blair moved from sports desk to sniper story in the first place? And why wasn't Roberts warned?

Such open questions have not stopped Raines from taking credit in public for Landman's whistle-blowing. "As we've gone back through the record," Raines told National Public Radio, "we found that we responded in a very aggressive way. Jayson's supervisor, John Landman, and our training editor, Nancy Sharkey, wrote a large number of memos to Jayson warning him about errors, and not only warning but taking steps to correct them."

The only thing Raines neglects to mention is that Landman wrote memos up the corporate ladder as well as down.

3. The Con Job Explanation

If Jonathan Landman saw through Blair on a textual level, his co-editor Joyce Purnick saw through him on a social level. According to the Times's account, Purnick "recalled thinking that he was better at newsroom socializing than at reporting, and told him during a candid lunch that after graduation he should work for a smaller newspaper." A phrase that comes up in the accounts of the Blair scandal is "especially gifted at office politics." One Times writer told Cynthia Cotts of the Village Voice that Blair was not unrepresentative of his new-generation colleagues: "They're young, they're energetic, they say the right things, they kiss ass--but they don't have the skills to do the jobs they're handed." He was a master schmoozer and an ace brown-nose. In 2001, having just joined the paper, he nominated his boss Gerald Boyd for the National Association of Black Journalists' journalist of the year award. He smoked with Boyd on breaks. The New York tabloids have claimed Blair was in a relationship with the 23-year-old daughter of a friend of Raines's wife.

And he could lie skillfully. When his work began to deteriorate in the autumn and late winter of 2001, he told his bosses he was mourning a cousin who'd been killed in the attack on the Pentagon. The person he named turns out not to have been a relative. On April 6, "covering" an Iraq war funeral at a Cleveland church from his apartment in Brooklyn, he stood up his photographer by telling him he'd had to leave the funeral service early to get his cell phone fixed (which accounted for why the photographer's increasingly anxious calls went unanswered). Pretending to be interviewing Iraq war parents he would never meet, Blair e-mailed Roberts, "I am giving them a breather for about 30 minutes." (The parents wrote a letter to the Times to express how happy they were with Blair's story.)

Jack Shafer of Slate magazine asks us to remember that very few people are capable of seeing over the wall of skillful lies and flattery that gifted con artists can erect. Shafer may be right that "most liars make things up for the simple reason that they don't have the talent or the ability to get the story any other way." One sign of how deeply Raines was taken in is that he seems to believe to this day that the poor guy had two misfortunes in quick succession: first a problem of bad reporting, which he conquered; but then a problem of dishonesty, which sank him. Of course, those are two stages of the same problem--the second problem was the way Blair solved the first. "What we didn't know was that he was developing another problem we didn't know about, a problem of plagiarism and deception," said Raines.

Blair is reportedly in treatment for some kind of ongoing personal problem. It would be easier to feel a provisional pity had he not, on so many occasions, abused the social position he'd charmed his way into, and acted like a belligerent jerk. During the flush of renown that his fabricated sniper stories won, he bragged to the Washington City Paper, "The [Washington] Post got beat in their own backyard, and I can understand why they would have sore feelings." According to the Times, when he had a run-in with Patrick LaForge, a corrections tallier for the Metropolitan section, he threatened to take it up "with the people who hired me--and they all have executive or managing editor in their titles." In the days after the Times staff meeting, Howard Kurtz turned up Lisa Suhay, a freelance reporter for the Times, who covered a tire-recall story with Blair in New Jersey in August 2000. Blair took Suhay's reporting, altered her quotes, and invented "color"; when she brought up what he had done, he threatened her, Suhay says. "Jayson told me that if I was tired of working for the Times, he would make sure my name was taken off the assignment list. He made it clear that he was in the office every day while I was just a voice on the phone. Who would editorial listen to if he told them not to use me because I was difficult to work with? I backed off."

Why didn't Blair get caught? He kissed up to his superiors, threatened his subordinates, and lied when necessary. And he was lucky. As the Post's Kurtz points out, he filed no expense reports for reporting trips to twenty cities in six states. Some of the expense reports he did file had receipts from chains in Brooklyn that he recorded as located in Washington. As to why his interview subjects didn't blow the whistle on him, we probably need to consider those national polls that show journalists ranked for reliability somewhere down near lawyers and car salesmen. His interview subjects didn't know the journalistic code of ethics a Times reporter is supposed to know like the back of his hand. They seem to have assumed that making up quotes and borrowing them from other papers is just what journalists do. And maybe they're right.

4. The Crisis-in-journalism Explanation

THERE IS a hunky-dory version of what the Blair affair teaches us about American journalism. For Tim Rutten, it is "a lesson in how the speed and implacability of the Fourth Estate's self-correcting mechanisms are unmatched by any other institution in American life." It shows the "intolerance of falsehood" that is the mark of a great industry. Writing in the Financial Times, American correspondent Gerard Baker found almost touching this faith of American newspapermen that they can supply something like the "pure, unvarnished, truth."

That is very old-school. Journalism is changing demographically, and this love of facts for their own sake may be sociologically impossible to maintain. Back when "journalist" was an occupational class roughly equivalent to operating a boiler or running a sewing machine, it may have seemed a plum job to sit outside the school-board building (or in the bar across the street) awaiting accurate information on who the new principal would be. But today, most journalists are college graduates, decidedly white collar. To be at the beck and call of corporate flacks, as so many journalists are, or to simply sit and play stenographer to political blowhards, now appears infra dig to a liberal arts grad.

Germaine Greer was the first to note, thirty years ago, that "the take-over by computers of much vertical thinking has placed more and more emphasis on the creative propensities of thought." A kind of revolt against facts is taking place in society at large, and the news profession is caught up in it. Hence the spate of plagiarism scandals, from the New Republic's Ruth Shalit to the Boston Globe's Mike Barnicle; and fabrication scandals, from the New Republic's Stephen Glass to the L.A. Times photographer who doctored his Iraq war shots. Jack Shafer notes of Glass that he "wasn't really much of a stylist": "Glass' stories read beautifully because [former New Republic editor] the late Michael Kelly poured his genius into them before publication." Similarly, the critic Judith Shulevitz wrote a fascinating short essay on the phony Holocaust memoir of Binjamin Wilkomirski, and how crummy it was as literature once one discovered it to be a fabrication. "I can't help wishing Wilkomirski had been more subtle in his efforts at deception and produced the magnificent fraud world literature deserves," she wrote. So it's not that these con artists are "creative writers." They're just looking for a bit of freedom to be themselves. To express an opinion, maybe.

The New York Times has been anything but immune to this "expressive" trend. It seems to have magazine envy. It respects facts, but finds them less interesting than the feelings and opinions they evoke. In its 7,200-word account of the Blair affair, one passage captured this preference: "For all the pain resonating through the Times newsroom, the hurt may be more acute in places like Bethesda, Md., where one of Mr. Blair's fabricated articles described American soldiers injured in combat." (By the way, what are "places like Bethesda, Md."?)

The Times has been drifting more and more towards front-page stories on trends and passions and tough-to-capture states of mind. This is what leads to all the talk about "resonating pain" and "acute hurt" and (as the Times puts it elsewhere in its Blair account) "emotionally charged moments." Some of these stories are backed up with polling numbers, some with a handful of sources speaking in the abstract. And many are excellent. But they do not stand and fall on facts and they are the farthest thing from all the news that's fit to print. They're the door through which Jayson Blair's devious idea of journalism entered the nation's greatest newspaper.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.