2003-05-22 / This Week's Attitude

This Week’s

AttitudeAll The News That Fits
By Neil S. Friedman
This Week’s Attitude By Neil S. Friedman All The News That Fits — Whether It’s Factual Or Not

All The News That Fits — Whether It’s Factual Or Not

For the influential, respected 152-year-old newspaper, it’s certainly not the best of the Times. However, until the current scandal fades away, it is the worst of the Times.

The recent disclosure that an up-and-coming New York Times staff reporter had fabricated and plagiarized dozens of stories is not only a humiliation for that highly regarded "newspaper of record," but is also a blemish on the entire newspaper industry.

Pervasive journalistic fraud, such as this, is rare. Yet, when it’s uncovered, it’s a distressing setback for a business that prides itself on its professionalism. Nonetheless, it traditionally suffers from public mistrust and sometimes resorts to an excess of sleaze and celebrity gossip while giving insufficient attention to relevant matters.

Since last fall when Jayson Blair was transferred from the Metro to the National desk, the Times revealed that nearly half of the articles he wrote were deceptive and fabricated. The Times also admitted his work had been subject to doubt before the transfer. During his nearly four-year tenure, Blair fictionalized scores of stories, injecting false facts, fake interviews and portions lifted directly from other publications without attribution.

The degree of plagiarism and dishonesty pulled off by the 27-year-old reporter is an unprecedented embarrassment for the Times. A liberally bent newspaper that readily dissects and condemns others for deception and transgressions, the scandal has put the Times squarely in the unwelcome glare of dishonor. Prior reverence and past honors, including dozens of Pulitzer prizes and an array of journalism accolades, will no longer matter if the Times doesn’t take the same measures against those who overlooked the long-term hoax, it editorially demands of others.

The Times admitted that several editors and staffers, who were familiar with Blair’s reporting, questioned his facts for years. Despite numerous warning signs, Blair was continually handed top assignments, including last year’s Washington, DC area sniper shootings, for which editors praised his reporting while investigators in the case were skeptical of some his facts.

Blair, who worked for the Times since 1999, abruptly resigned several weeks ago, avoiding, I presume, his imminent dismissal. His future in journalism should be ruined, unless he takes a job at the disreputable National Enquirer. Blair’s writing talent may also be more suited to fiction.

It’s speculated the disgraced journalist may be on the verge of a substantial offer to write a book detailing his calculated blunders. If and when it is published, will it be found on fiction or non-fiction bookshelves?

One thing discerning readers assume when they open a newspaper — whether it’s a reputable daily or a reliable 82-year-old community weekly, such as the Canarsie Courier — is that they’re reading fact, not fiction. After all, a journalist reports what he/she learns from sources, hoping they have been candid and the information accurate. However, it is not uncommon that the truth may be imprecise when reporting two sides of the same story. It is, therefore, a reporter’s responsibility to sort out and report the assorted facts to the best of his/her ability.

For years Jayson Blair reported with a reckless disregard for the truth, all the while duping several experienced Times’ editors, particularly his mentors, Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd, who perhaps allowed the young man’s style and zeal overshadow their ultimate responsibility.

In order to maintain its estimable reputation, The New York Times must determine accountability and dispense discipline to all those responsible for its current dilemma. Unless that is the end result, the Times’ identifiable front-page slogan, "All the News That’s Fit to Print," will have little significance.

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