NEW YORK, May 12 (UPI) -- The front-page article in The New York Times on Sunday had a strangely disembodied quasi-religious tone, as though the authors were offering a ritual sacrifice to propitiate the Gods of Journalism.
In fact, it's as though the article itself were written by a high priest -- the Exalted Timesman. "Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception" is not even signed, even though it purports to be an investigative piece. I can't remember the last time The Times printed an unsigned article on the front page. In fact, it seems to be one of their traditions, if not one of their rules of full disclosure, to make certain their articles ARE signed. But this one emerges full-grown, like the offspring from the head of a Greek goddess, announcing in its every sentence, "Oz has spoken!"
And Oz speaks at length. Normally nations would have to collapse, or presidents would have to die, to warrant two full inside pages of the Sunday paper jumped from an above-the-fold front-page lead. You wouldn't expect this kind of coverage for the transgressions of Tony Blair, much less Jayson Blair. But there is Sin here, they want us to know. We must put on our mourning clothes and wail. The temple has been defiled.
And yet the gist of the story is that the Times simply hired somebody who was self-destructive, possibly and a bit of a con man. I doubt that there's a large corporation in America that hasn't dealt with some similar problem, although systematic fibbing at, say, Citicorp might not always be so roundly and publicly condemned.
But listen to the dirge for the crimes of the fallen Jayson Blair:
"Mr. Blair was just one of about 375 reporters at The Times; his tenure was brief. But the damage he has done to the newspaper and its employees will not completely fade with next week's editions, or next month's, or next year's."
With this kind of dramatic prosody, shouldn't we have a funereal bagpipe-and-drum corps marching in slow lock-step as well? Note the capitalization of "The" in "The Times," to make certain we know it's not some lesser Times, like the mere Los Angeles Times. But it gets better:
"The New York Times continues as before. Every morning, stacks of The Times are piled at newsstands throughout the city; every morning, newspaper carriers toss plastic bags containing that day's issue onto the lawns of readers from Oregon to Maine. What remains unclear is how long those copies will carry the dust from the public collapse of a young journalist's career."
At this point you want to just throw up your hands and say, "My God! You had a loose-cannon employee. Get over yourself!"
The remarkable thing about the piece is that they APPEAR to be framing it as public self-flagellation, and yet there's a paucity of soul-searching and virtually no blaming to spice up the drama. Maybe the personnel department messed up. Maybe one or more editors messed up. Maybe Blair failed an employee personality test but no one interpreted the results. But there's no real finger-pointing or mea culpas at all. It's just "He was a pathological liar, he bamboozled us, we didn't find out until it was too late."
And I buy that. I would have bought that in an extended correction box. There's no reason to think it wasn't a "sole gunman, acting alone" tale. But if we're going to read 7,200 words, at least give us a dramatic arc, maybe a little inter-office politics. The only moment of real pizzazz comes when Metropolitan Editor Jonathan Landman distributes an e-mail that reads, "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now."
That was a year ago, or about 100 Jayson Blair by-lines ago.
It was dealt with by giving Blair a warning and a leave for "personal problems." The prodigal reporter wasn't so much argued over, it seems, as swallowed up in the vastness of the Times newsroom. The reason he could fabricate stories, steal from other newspapers, and use his cell phone is that newspapers are set up to detect many things, but outright fraud on a large and systematic scale is not one of them.
There are constant references to Blair's youth, even though 27 is not so young for a street reporter, which has always been a young man's game, and Blair had been a journalist since high school. There was a day, not so long ago, when even "The Times" hired 14-year-old apprentices. Blair may have been "a troubled young man veering toward professional self-destruction," in the words of the paper, but this particular pattern doesn't have much to do with age. You don't grow out of plagiarism at 30, and you don't suddenly START doing it at 35. It's more a personality disorder than anything else.
And that's really what the story should have been about.
What's lacking here is much about Blair himself. We don't really know what these "personal problems" were, aside from his propensity for gossip and the fact that he maxed out his credit cards and we don't even know how he's handling the whole thing.
Let's hope he's not on suicide watch, since normally this sort of corporate behavior does get you fired, but it doesn't get you put into the Miscreants Hall of Fame. Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose both got nailed for plagiarism in recent years, but they were able to deal with it in more or less civil exchanges, in print. Book publishers don't act like the entire history of their publishing house is endangered because of the act of a single irresponsible author. The Times does.
One thing I noticed about the tainted Blair articles is that most of them reinforced what an editor expects to read. When he wrote about grieving or suffering families of soldiers, he had just the right touches of pathos and patriotism. When he wrote about the sniper case, he reinforced the drama with "sources" who spoke of near-confessions and infighting between police agencies.
So one reason the stories got past the copy desk is that they always fit the right formula. There were no war widows cursing America. There were no friends of John Malvo softening his evil.
He had a brilliant sense for what the public -- and therefore his bosses -- liked to be told.
Blair is already being compared to two other fabricators -- Janet Cooke, The Washington Post reporter who had to give back her Pulitzer Prize after it was revealed that her child heroin addict didn't exist, and Stephen Glass, who apparently created dozens of articles for The New Republic out of whole cloth. (In the ultimate irony, his autobiographical novel, "The Fabulist," is billed as fiction but is probably truer than anything he's ever written.)
But there's an important difference. In those two cases, the writer was inventing and embellishing in the way that a novelist does to create the best possible narrative. Many of these Blair stories, on the other hand, seem more or less routine and without much style to them, indicating the guy was treading water, just trying to get the stuff out and make everyone happy so he could survive to another day. That's what makes it tragic, if not pathetic.
The Times calls this "a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper." The astute Times-watchers at the New York Sun have already jumped all over them for that hyperbole, pointing out that it really isn't in a league with more shameful Times scandals of the past. (Two examples used: In the 1930s Timesman Walter Duranty wrote that there was "no actual starvation" during Russia's forced collectivization plan in the Ukraine, and in 1999 the Times Havana bureau chief called Castro's regime "free, honest and democratic.")
What the article lacks in details about Blair, however, it more than makes up for in tidbits about how the Times bureaucracy works. They have a position, for example, called "intermediate reporter," which is somewhere between intern and plain ole reporter. To become a REAL Times reporter, Blair had to receive "the consensus of a recruiting committee of roughly half a dozen people." (The word "recruiting" seems odd, if their job is to vet reporters).
We also learn about such Times policies as the sacredness of datelines. Datelines can't be used unless the writer was in that specific place on that specific date. If the reporting was done over the phone (or, in Blair's case, on the Internet), then it's a grave offense to use the dateline.
Then there's the matter of Blair's blackness. The article makes a couple references to it, in a sort of roundabout way that indicates the paper is sensitive about race. In the middle of his bio, for example, there's this paragraph out of the blue: "Mr. Blair's Times supervisors and Maryland professors emphasize that he earned an internship at The Times because of glowing recommendations and a remarkable work history, not because he is black. The Times offered him a slot in an internship program that was then being used in large part to help the paper diversify its newsroom."
Since the second sentence uses the term "diversify," connoting the code word "diversity," it seems to be at variance with the first sentence. Why say you have an internship program whose purpose is racial diversity and then absolutely deny a racial component to Blair's hiring? Even more to the point, why bring up race at all? (This is the first time it's mentioned. There was no allegation of racial preference, just a denial that there WAS racial preference.)
So it's a muddle. And it's a large muddle. And, yes, there were moments when someone could have noticed something was amiss -- like Blair's never turning in expenses for hotel rooms or airplanes even though he was supposedly constantly on the road, like listing Brooklyn restaurants as Washington restaurants on his expense account, like claiming he couldn't write about the World Trade Center dead because he'd lost a cousin in the terror attacks.
But think about it. What executive DOES routinely check for NON-reporting of expenses? Who would think to scrutinize a MasterCard receipt to see whether the restaurant was actually in that city? (And even if you noticed the anomaly, I've been given many charge receipts that had a business name or address different from the place where I made the charge.) And who would have the time to say, "I just wonder if he's REALLY related to that World Trade victim -- let's call up the family and find out"?
Those are just NOT THINGS YOU DO. I've worked with journalists who were drunks, druggies, featherbedders, grandstanders, massive expense-account cheaters and one guy who was on the take from restaurants and night clubs -- and there are mechanisms in place to deal with all that. But Jayson Blair is one of a kind. The Jayson Blair story is so unique that all these discussions about "What can The Times do in the future?" are fairly irrelevant. It's not like there are journalism-school undergraduates plotting the next fraud scheme that will propel them into the good graces of Times executives. He did something audacious and nutty. He needs counseling. It's not gonna happen again. This is like using an elephant gun to kill a bunny rabbit.
What the Jayson Blair story, as told by The Times, really reveals, is that The Times thinks too much about The Times.
(John Bloom writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at email@example.com or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas, 75221.)