Jayson BLAIR’S five-year spree of fraud and deceit at the New York Times has pushed that paper into one of recent history’s deepest journalistic scandals.
The newspaper’s response has been admirably speedy and soberly proportionate to the damage done to its reputation. However, a perplexing dualism in the accounting the paper made to its readers and the one it gave to its own staff suggests further turmoil and consequences for the hundreds of Times reporters, photographers and editors, who are among the most able in the world.
For all its independent enterprise and fearless accumulation of damning facts, the more-than-four-page account of Blair’s misconduct, which the Times published Sunday, read rather like a crime report with the 27-year-old Blair cast as the perp. Blair, publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. told his readers, is “the person who did this.... Let’s not begin to demonize our executives -- either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher.”
In other words, Sulzberger, Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald M. Boyd were victims -- along with the Times’ readers and Blair’s colleagues.
Fair enough, but as old cops and crime reporters know, there are victims and then there are victims. An old lady who has her purse snatched while sitting at a bus stop is a victim with a capital V -- simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. On the other hand, a classic con man’s target almost always is victimized because his own gullibility and hunger for a quick buck made him vulnerable.
So, was the New York Times mugged or conned?
As opposed to Sunday’s story, memorandums Sulzberger, Raines and Boyd sent their staff Monday suggest a dawning awareness that the latter may be true. One, signed by all three, included these admissions:
“While we deplore Jayson’s conduct, we also recognize that, however difficult it may be, it is the responsibility of the Times, its publisher, its executive editor and its managing editor to ... prevent such occurrences or, at the very least, to uncover them rapidly. In the case of Jayson Blair, our organizational safeguards and our individual responses were insufficient. Howell, Gerald and I accept the responsibility for that.”
Sulzberger called Sunday’s report a “first step” and wrote, “The second step will be to conduct a management analysis that will lead to recommendations for improvement.”
In a two-page memo of his own, Raines noted that neither he nor Sulzberger nor Boyd had read the account of Blair’s conduct before it was published. “I want to outline for you the steps we are going to take starting today to protect the Times from another such painful occurrence,” Raines wrote.
He went on to describe the formation of an independent committee headed by Al Siegal, a deeply experienced editor who supervised the five reporters who produced the Sunday story and is widely regarded as the paper’s ethical arbiter. Though the committee was not delegated a specific task, Raines said it “will shape its own agenda” and “include outside members.” The executive editor also described a series of consultations with “every interested member of the newsroom staff, in groups of several dozen at a time.... I will also be meeting individually with each desk editor, and in the interest of facilitating a full discussion, I will meet separately with their deputies and principal subeditors.”
During this period, Raines said, Boyd will oversee the daily news report. Raines also wrote that, this week, he will meet individually with all the reporters who reconstructed Blair’s wrongdoing “to hear from them, directly and unfiltered, their conclusions ... and what corrective steps are needed.”
Tuesday, however, in response to staff unrest, Raines canceled the smaller meetings, and announced the entire staff would be invited to “a town hall meeting” today.
In his initial memo, in fact, Raines noted “there is no question that [the team’s] central finding of a lack of communication among desks and editors is on target and offers us a blueprint for corrective action.”
Clearly stated as it was Sunday, that conclusion appeared seven paragraphs from the end of the Times’ sprawling report.
Above it were well-documented descriptions of Blair’s activities that suggest problems well beyond communication. Two of his most damaging fabrications were exclusive front-page reports on the Washington sniper case. Both contained sensational details on the suspects’ alleged confessions and allegations that rival prosecutorial agencies had botched critical interrogation. Both reports relied on unnamed sources.
Prosecutors publicly denied both stories. Despite the fact that every other major news organization in America was working on the story, nobody was able to duplicate Blair’s reporting. Yet neither the national editors supervising the young reporter nor Raines nor Boyd -- each of whom had a hand in pushing him onto the sniper task force -- ever asked Blair who his sources were.
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?
What role, if any, did Raines’ highly publicized overhaul of the Times’ national staff play in creating the opportunity for such fraud? What part did his encouragement of what some veteran Times reporters are calling “an aggressive, scoops-over-all” mentality and his penchant for playing favorites among young reporters have in establishing an environment in which an affable, purposeful and apparently conscienceless con man like Blair could run his scam?
“The truth is our friend, and we are not afraid of it,” Raines wrote in his memo Monday.
Fair enough. Perhaps the question is: What, in the 18 months since Raines and his team took over, allowed Jayson Blair to make the New York Times his mark?