Blair Niche Project: A Disservice To All

The aftermath of that notorious New York Times ‘ case of journalistic fraud has prompted a predictable and exhaustive reaction from the Times . It went on the offensive with an unprecedented page-one explanation and expiation of the Jayson Blair affair. With two jumps, the mother of all mea culpas ran to some 7,200 words. An editor’s note also pledged internal inquiries.

Ultimately, however, the public will forgive and forget, even forgetting what it forgave. How many folks — other than hand-wringing media mavens and Ben Bradlee — still remember Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter-fabricator Janet Cooke? Anyone still care that it was a New York Times editorial writer, Herbert Matthews, who was duped into romancing the rebel that was Fidel Castro? The Times in time will metaphorically remove that New York strip steak from its black eye and go about its business as America’s newspaper of once-tarnished record.

But talk of “lessons learned” will continue apace. Here are two that should be among them.

The media, especially the New York Times , are serious business, albeit a unique, First Amendment-charged one. There’s a bottom line on the ledger, and there’s a bottom line on employee behavior and ethics.

The media aren’t immune to the venal side of human nature; that’s not the unconscionable part. That the 152-year-old, iconic Times had all the oversight of a mom-and-pop enterprise is. Between October of 2002 and April, Blair filed stories claiming to be from 20 cities in six states. No one noticed — or seemingly cared — that the self-promoting, plagiarizing Blair hadn’t submitted any receipts for hotels, rental cars or plane tickets. Heads besides Blair’s should have rolled.

In addition, no one questioned Blair’s blatant overuse of anonymous sources. They were not just unnamed — but unnameable — and the Times never asked.

Second, and even more important, however, is allowing any priority — including diversity — to trump responsibility to readers, who frankly don’t notice — or much care about — bylines. The Times has been particularly vulnerable on this score. Its track record on hiring minorities in the newsroom has never been a bragging point. It’s always been easier to champion affirmative action than to implement it.

The 27-year-old Blair was fast-tracked since he came to the Times in 1998 as part of an internship program designed to improve the paper’s racial diversity. He had studied at the University of Maryland, but didn’t graduate. He also had done interning at the New York Times -owned Boston Globe . Those are credentials? Reporters at papers much less prestigious than the Times often begin their careers at weeklies and small dailies to learn the journalistic ropes. It can be as humbling as it is educational. Journalists need both.

Blair bypassed such incubators and crucibles — and was soon carving out a reputation for errors, suspect skills and immaturity. But he seemed to have enough enablers, including a black managing editor who apparently acted as a mentor.

The Times readily admits that Blair’s duplicity was a betrayal of trust to readers and acknowledges a need to “examine the newsroom’s processes for training, assignment and accountability.”

What the Times also should have admitted was that it was using Blair. His “scoops” were giving him an increasingly high-profile. He started to appear on camera as well as on page one. He was becoming a promotional coup and a marketing tool. Blair was proof positive that the Times wasn’t just kick-butt aggressive, but it was also “walking the walk” of inclusion.

Ultimately the Times did Blair no favors by allowing him to bypass a meaningful apprenticeship. Worse yet, it ill served the other 375 reporters at the Times, as well as journalists everywhere — especially all hard-working, lower-profile, highly competent newsroom minorities who don’t have to weave a trail of deception to get noticed.

Moreover, the Times’ lousy faire attitude toward accountability only reinforced the troubling trend in the media for news reporters to morph into news celebrities. Ashleigh Banfield was bad enough.

Imagine, the Times expended more than 7,000 words to explain and apologize for itself — and still left stuff out.

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