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News at the brink
The New York Times scandal is just the latest in a long line of stories about journalists behaving badly. And they’re eating away at the media’s credibility.
BY DAN KENNEDY

IF YOU WERE to wade through the mountains of commentary on the New York Times scandal, you would think that nothing like it had ever happened before — or, at least, hardly ever. And yes, perhaps there was something unique about the egregiousness of former reporter Jayson Blair’s fabrications and plagiarisms, and of the indulgence shown to him by executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd.

Yet far from being an isolated incident, the Times catastrophe is actually just the latest and most notorious in an ever-accelerating series of journalistic misdeeds. From bribery in the deserts of Utah to photo manipulation in the deserts of Iraq, from a faked slave boy in Ivory Coast to the most inventive faker of them all, Stephen Glass, now raising a bony hand out of the crypt of his former career, we are witnessing a news media beset by a crisis of credibility.

The saga of Jayson Blair has gotten far more attention than any of these other stories for a few obvious reasons: the reputation and prestige of the Times; its status as a target of right-wing critics; and the fact that Blair is an African-American. That last bit has given entree for critics of affirmative action to cluck piously over the hazards of hiring unqualified young reporters simply because they are black.

But whereas Blair may have personally benefited from his ethnicity (Raines admitted as much when he, Boyd, and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. met with enraged employees last week), far more white journalists have impaled themselves on their lack of ethics over the years than have their black counterparts. Statistically, it could hardly be otherwise: according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, just 12 percent of newsroom employees are minorities, and just a little over five percent are African-American. Still, it’s interesting that no one seems to think scandals involving white journalists say anything telling about whites in general.

Last Friday, Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory wrote that Blair’s misdeeds, and his editors’ failure to deal with them until it was too late, had left him "worried" about "talented minority reporters now stigmatized by the sins of the Times." May we now look forward to a follow-up on the unfair aspersions cast on white photographers because former Los Angeles Times (and former Boston Herald) shooter Brian Walski got way too creative with Photoshop while on assignment in Iraq?

Not to pick on Walski, who, by all accounts, enjoyed an unblemished record prior to his mind-boggling lapse of judgment. He is, after all, far from alone.

It used to be that Blair-like scandals were exceedingly rare. It was way back in 1981 that the Washington Post had to return a Pulitzer Prize when it was revealed that Janet Cooke had invented the young heroin addict whose life story she’d told. Then, in 1998, came a cluster of revelations. Glass departed the New Republic when his fictions were revealed — fictions that were so florid that you were left wondering whether he had ever really expected anyone to believe him. (Remember the First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ?) Later that year, the Boston Globe’s star columnists, Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle, were forced to resign when it came to light that they had fabricated characters and, in Barnicle’s case, had plagiarized as well.

And for those media-scandal junkies who complain that there is a racial double standard at work, be assured: there is one, but not the one you might think.

Cooke and Smith, who are both African-Americans, were ruined, cast out of polite society, all but silenced. (Smith, a gifted poet, is at least occasionally heard from.)

Barnicle, who’s white, now writes a column for New York’s Daily News, hosts a talk show in Boston on WTKK Radio (96.9 FM), and pops up on MSNBC and Chronicle, a program on WCVB-TV (Channel 5).

Glass, who’s also white, has already gotten his mug on 60 Minutes and in Newsweek to flog his new novel, The Fabulist. According to a press release put out by his publisher, Simon & Schuster (you might not want to read this on a full stomach), "The Fabulist speaks to important issues relating to truth, lying, and the fragility of journalism — with its vulnerable fact-checking system and precious bonds of trust between editor, reporter, and reader. It also speaks to issues of family, friendship, and religion — of shame, remorse, and the possibility of forgiveness."

Glass reportedly received a six-figure advance for his latest work of fiction.

DIVERSITY AND its discontents are certainly part of the Times story. But they are by no means the only one, or even the most important. The real meaning of Jayson Blair’s fall can be deduced only by looking at where it fits into modern media culture — the big scandals that crop up with depressing regularity, the little scandals about the dishonest ways that journalists frame stories every day, and the microscopically low regard in which the news media are held.

Last August, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that 67 percent of those surveyed believed the news media "try to cover up mistakes," whereas just 24 percent "are willing to admit mistakes." Nearly 60 percent also agreed with the propositions that the media are politically biased and are an obstacle to solving society’s problems.

Carroll Doherty, the Pew Center’s editor, says those findings have been consistent in recent years, with the exception of a surge of good feeling toward the media in the months immediately following 9/11. As for whether the Blair scandal might make those numbers even worse, Doherty is dubious, given the low regard in which the media are already held. "The working assumption of many Americans is that this kind of stuff goes on all the time," Doherty says. "It may not be the correct impression, but it’s the impression they have."

Shortly after the Blair story broke, Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School, told USA Today how shocked he was that people who knew Blair had fabricated stories about them — such as the family of former POW Jessica Lynch — didn’t even bother to complain (see "Don't Quote Me," News and Features, May 16).

After the USA Today story appeared, Jones told me, he received e-mails from people "ridiculing" him for being naive. For Jones, this has been an eye-opening, and disheartening, experience. "The thing that shocked me as much as anything was that people could read a fabricated story about themselves and just shrug as, basically, ‘What do you expect?’ And it was the New York Times we were talking about, not the National Enquirer."

But though most journalists are surely honorable, there are plenty of incidents critics can point to if they wish to assume the worst. None of these recent scandals has created the stir that the Times story did. Some didn’t make it much beyond Jim Romenesko’s Media News, a Web site that is read obsessively by media insiders but that is little known to most of the broader public.

In addition to the contretemps of Blair and Walski, consider these incidents from the past couple of years.

• In June 2001, Michael Kinsley, then the editor of Slate, issued an apology for running a story by a writer named Jay Forman on "monkeyfishing" in the Florida Keys — the cruel and, as it turns out, nonexistent practice of casting for monkeys with hooks and fruit as though they were fish.

• In February 2002, freelance journalist Michael Finkel admitted that an adolescent slave boy from Mali who was living in Ivory Coast, about whom Finkel had written evocatively in the New York Times Magazine the previous November, didn’t actually exist. In a statement, the Times said: "Though the account was drawn from his reporting on the scene and from interviews with human rights workers, Mr. Finkel acknowledges many facts were extrapolated from what he learned was typical of boys on such journeys, and did not apply specifically to any single individual." In other words, he’d made it up.

• Last September, the Associated Press fired Washington-bureau reporter Christopher Newton, charging that he had fabricated sources and quotes in at least 40 stories during the previous three years. Asked Slate’s Jack Shafer: "What does it say about AP methods and practices that nobody caught him over the course of 32 months?"

• In April of this year came the revelation that two reporters for the Salt Lake Tribune, Kevin Cantera and Michael Vigh, had secretly taken $10,000 apiece from the National Enquirer in return for information about the Elizabeth Smart investigation. The reporters were fired for lying about the arrangement, and Tribune editor James Shelledy resigned.

Now, people who’ve been around the business will tell you that it is hardly unusual for a supermarket tabloid such as the Enquirer to offer money to reporters for exclusive details of a salacious story. What was unusual in Salt Lake was that two reporters actually took the cash. Or was the truly unusual development the fact that they got caught?

Tom Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, the school from which Jayson Blair failed to graduate, believes that in some respects journalism has actually become more ethical in recent decades — more of a profession, especially in the post-Watergate era, with a greater sensitivity to wrongdoing and thus a higher likelihood of getting caught.

Yet Kunkel worries about a countervailing trend, too: a win-at-all-costs ethic that affects everyone from students tempted to cheat on tests to CEOs who lie to shareholders about the financial well-being of their companies. In the hyper-competitive world of big-time media, the temptation to cheat was obviously more than Blair could handle. He appeared to be doing the work of three people — three talented people — and was winning respect and praise from his editors. How could he stop? Moreover, in our confessional culture, how long will it be before he, like Stephen Glass, is back in the limelight? Then, too, he’s already in the limelight.

"Look at Jayson. He probably always wanted to be on the cover of Newsweek magazine," says Kunkel. "Well, there he is. It makes you sick to your stomach, but he’s probably going to cash in."

Kunkel offers this piece of advice from Ronald Reagan for how to prevent future Jayson Blairs from happening: "Trust, but verify."

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Issue Date: May 23 - 29, 2003
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