Earlier this week, some of the sharper tongues bearing witness to events inside the New York Times were calling the drama convulsing their newsroom “The Blair Witch Hunt.” By Friday, some of the more mordant had retitled it “The Madness of King Howell.”
Either way, it was a lousy week for the Times, whose self-inflicted wounds continue to bleed onto American journalism as a whole.
Blair, of course, is Jayson Blair, whose unprecedented spree of fabrication, plagiarism and garden-variety deceit triggered the paper’s institutional crisis. Some Times reporters feel the searching internal review the Times has undertaken since discovering Blair’s misconduct, in fact, has assumed an inquisitional character.
This week, according to sources at the Times, at least five staff members, including national editor Jim Roberts, were summoned to answer questions before the 23-member committee chaired by assistant managing editor Al Siegal, which executive editor Howell Raines created to examine the Blair affair and make recommendations for internal reforms. Some of those summoned reportedly have refused to be interrogated.
Are you now or have you ever been a friend of Jayson Blair? Did you ever attend meetings of liars and plagiarists?
“The next thing you know,” quipped one observer, “they’ll be asking people to type into a bottle.”
One of those who found the week’s proceedings less than amusing was Nancy Sharkey, the training and development editor who was one of the first Times supervisors to express alarm about Blair’s conduct. She quit the committee Thursday and, according to an account by Paul D. Colford in the New York Daily News, declined to answer questions. Citing “sources,” Colford reported Friday that Sharkey resigned “because she was concerned the committee had become prosecutorial, sowing fear and confusion in the newsroom.
“Called [Thursday] to answer questions from several other members of the panel and its [three] outside consultants, she voiced a number of reservations before leaving the meeting. When word of her move circulated, she was said to have been congratulated by some Times staffers.”
Blair doesn’t have to concern himself with any of this, since he is busily circulating a book proposal charmingly titled “Burning Down My Master’s House.” Publishing sources who have seen the proposal confirm an account that appeared earlier this week in the Washington Post, which quoted Blair, who is African American, as calling the Times his “tormentor” and “slave master.” In the proposal, the 27-year-old former reporter describes himself as “working in a racist environment as a young, black recovering drug addict. Blair -- who covered the Washington sniper case for the Times -- compares himself to the accused teenage gunman, Lee Boyd Malvo.
“The moment I began to see parallels between his life and mine was the moment things began falling apart,” Blair wrote, according to the Post. " ... The frustrations of black men in this world can explode, crescendo into a huge rage that can manifest itself in some odd and sometimes unclear ways.”
(Don’t be modest, Jayson. There is nothing unclear about your imperviousness to shame, nor in your title’s implications. It isn’t odd that you are attempting to associate yourself with the heroic memory of those African Americans who resisted slavery with physical force. But it is, among all the reprehensible things you have done, perhaps the most disgraceful.)
In a way, though, the Blair affair was only a prologue to this week’s chapter in the Times drama. This chapter’s theme was the conduct of some of Blair’s more senior colleagues, all of whom have at least one thing in common -- the uncommon favor they have enjoyed and the latitude they’ve been allowed since Raines took over the Times nearly two years ago.
The paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning op-ed columnist, Maureen Dowd, reprinted the full text of a quotation from President George W. Bush after critics pointed out that her previous condensation of the remark had utterly distorted its meaning.
Dowd initially wrote: “ ‘Al Qaeda is on the run,’ President Bush said last week. ‘That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated ... they’re not a problem anymore.’ ”
Bush actually said: “Al Qaeda is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated. Right now, about half of all the top Al Qaeda operatives are either jailed or dead. In either case, they’re not a problem.”
The deceptive use of ellipses, however, is more than problematic.
So, too, was the conduct of the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer, Rick Bragg, who resigned Wednesday night after being suspended for writing a highly detailed feature story based on the reporting of an uncredited -- and unpaid -- freelance journalist. Bragg’s story bore an Apalachicola, Fla., dateline, though he apparently visited the town just long enough to pick up notes on the lives of the oyster fisherman there from freelance writer J. Wes Yoder. News stories have quoted Yoder as saying he was happy to go without credit or compensation for the chance to work with Bragg, who enjoys a considerable following among fans of a certain kind of earthy, faux-Faulknerian prose -- Howell Raines among them.
To a number of news outlets, Bragg defended his appropriation of an uncredited stringer’s reportage as standard practice among the Times national correspondents. Within hours, more than half a dozen of his former colleagues had publicly denounced it as nothing of the sort. That retort apparently triggered his resignation. “After a day of tension and acrimony, I decided I didn’t want to have one more day of tension and acrimony,” Bragg told the Wall Street Journal.
Later that night, in a curiously wan memo to the Times staff, Raines confirmed he had accepted Bragg’s resignation. “We know this has been a difficult period,” he wrote. “We have full confidence in our staff and will be talking with you more in short order.”
The next day, in another memo, Raines underlined his faith in the staff and traditional reporting methods.
Sounds like the setup for the next act’s dramatic soliloquy ... “Henry V,” perhaps?