AJR  Columns :     FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   June 2003

The Jayson Blair Affair   

Can the New York Times learn important lessons from its plagiarism/ fabrication scandal?

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

Related reading:
   » All About The Retrospect

We've been here before. Too often.

There was Ruth Shalit, the young New Republic writer who was Washington journalism's It Girl in the mid-'90s, until she imploded with a couple of high-profile plagiarism episodes and a powerful but error-riddled assault on the Washington Post's approach to race.

Then there was Stephen Glass, also of The New Republic, whose stories, packed with amazing, dead-on detail, seemed too good to be true. And were. Glass will long be remembered as the guy who would build a Web site to corroborate his fabrications.

Now it's Jayson Blair, the 27-year-old New York Times national reporter who destroyed his career in a stunning conflagration of pilfered material, outright fiction and just plain bizarre behavior. (See "All About the Retrospect")

The Times has a well-earned reputation for circling the wagons when its reporting comes under attack. It often chooses not to respond to questions about its coverage, as if it were above scrutiny. It did own up to some serious shortcomings after the Wen Ho Lee train wreck, but in a grudging, defensive Editor's Note rather than a forthright mea culpa.

Not this time. Once the San Antonio Express-News brought a clear-cut case of piracy to its attention, the Times unleashed a posse of reporters and editors to put Blair's national desk oeuvre under a microscope. It played the devastating findings of Blair's serial crimes against journalism at the top of page one, with four open pages inside.

So give the Times its props for an extraordinary airing of some very dirty linen. That's a courageous--and appropriate--thing to do. Now it faces the harder challenge.

Because the Blair report exposed a frighteningly porous management structure, one that allowed a truth-challenged journalist to not only survive but thrive, despite a blinding array of warning lights.

In April 2002, the Blair problem was so severe that Metropolitan Editor Jonathan Landman wrote in a memo, "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now." Blair was warned he was in danger of losing his job. He took a leave to try to straighten himself out. But--astoundingly--by December he was the national staff's lead reporter on top-of-the-charts news: the sniper story. For the New York Times.

Worse yet, the national editor and Washington bureau hadn't been told of Blair's pothole-strewn track record. So no alarm bells went off when serious questions were raised about two of his sniper scoops. Editors didn't even ask the young reporter to ID the anonymous sources on which they were based.

While the Times report pummeled Blair unmercifully, it wasn't quite as tough on the institution that allowed him to do his damage undetected. "The person who did this is Jayson Blair," said Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Times publisher and chairman of its parent company. "Let's not begin to demonize our executives--either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say it, the publisher."

No, let's not demonize them. And, no, there's no way to stop unscrupulous people from doing bad things. But there's got to be a way to catch them more quickly--particularly when there are so many clues.

The Blair fiasco has furnished ample ammunition to people who don't like the Times in general and Executive Editor Howell Raines in particular. Raines has been a bÍte noir of conservatives since his days as Times editorial page editor (although he was an equal-opportunity scold--his page was brutal in its criticism of Bill Clinton). Many on the right have claimed that Raines used the Times' front page to promulgate his opposition to the war in Iraq. And, internally, he has broken a lot of crockery in the Times newsroom, particularly in dealing with the national staff.

You can already hear the beginnings of the Howell-must-go drumbeat.

Yet there's no denying that the Times has done some splendid journalism in his 21-month tenure. Its performance after September 11 was nonpareil. Its coverage of the war in Iraq was very strong. And Sulzberger has made it clear that Raines is still his guy.

The rosy scenario would be if Raines, an enormously talented journalist, took away--and to heart--some important lessons from this debacle. If he harnessed a much more inclusive, much less top-down management style and a more open attitude toward his audience to his formidable skills and drive, the result would be a stronger New York Times.

And that's the most important part of this story. Sadly, unethical journalists will come and go. The critical issue here is the health of our most important news organization.