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Troubled Times

The Times is more than a newspaper. To its reporters and editors, it’s a religion. And the Jayson Blair Affair is a story of a sinner (Blair), the powerful (Howell Raines), the faithful (led by Metro editor Jon Landman), and a highly unusual exorcism.

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At the Times, you have a 27-year-old reporter in over his head, who’s cut every corner he could possibly cut and been especially cavalier or cynical about the standards and requirements of his job. And then you have “a low point in the 152-year history” of the greatest newspaper in the world.

These would not, intuitively, seem to be the same thing.

But let’s just assume the Times is right about the activities of its young reporter Jayson Blair being among the worst things to have happened to the paper ever—meaning, one might suppose, that the company’s reputation and value have been damaged as much by this as by any other event during the past century and a half.

And so?

Employees are in near revolt—expressing rage as well as no confidence in a company-wide meeting last week. The media is in jackal mode—the paparazzi are staking out Times managers. The Feds are investigating. The mob is at the door.

Lawyers have surely been called. Outside directors are undoubtedly being consulted.

And certainly, it is hard to imagine a public company where the managers who failed to take action against such historic acts of treachery would not be fired. If this is not cause, then what would be?

It is not only Howell Raines—under whose direction of the newsroom this fraud unsurpassed in the annals of its business was allowed to occur, and who, in the new tradition of humiliated executives and politicians, is making desperate acts of public contrition—who must be fired. But after Raines, it is hard not to cast an unforgiving eye on Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the chairman of the company (who, while a member of the family that controls the voting stock, is not, after all, a sun god). Raines is his man. Indeed, part of the rap on Raines is that his job has been to carry out the mandate of the corporate-retreat-loving chairman to hurry up and transform the paper—that he is the first editor to be working directly under the instructions of the business leadership of the Times.

So the whirlwind heads for Arthur Jr. too.

I mean, you just can’t be the head of a 152-year-old company and preside over one of the worst things that’s ever happened to it and not expect to lose your job—especially not in this era of hypersensitivity in the boardroom.

A mistake this size is not a mistake you can recover from. Large men must pay for large errors.

But what if it’s not really such a “low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper”?

What if that’s just a useful turn of phrase? A bit of mythmaking, of self-congratulation. Infallible for 152 years, and now this! Oy.

Certainly you can argue that it’s not only so not the low point, it’s just, well, embarrassing. Not so much damaging to the organization—because of this, is anybody going to stop reading the Times or advertising in it?—as something that shows that the Times is as dumb and haphazard a place as any other.

The kid was a fuck-up.

He was given lots of sidebar and human-interest and feature sorts of stories, and he embellished madly. He often wasn’t where he said he was (although he would not be the first Times reporter to have reported an event from television instead of actually showing up). Also, he stole egregiously from other reporters’ stories (egregiouslyTimes is among the most miserly attributers—is a fine and vital media art). Plus, he got some names wrong (a Jonathan for a John, the Times notes in its list of grievances against Blair).

Still, it seems only fair to point out, his errors and fictions were mostly benign—they would not have caused anyone to make a wrong decision, or to misunderstand what was really happening in the world, or to like an unlikable politician, or to have lost money (unlike many other stories in the Times).

With a little critical interpretation, the Times’ 14,000-word, multipage exegesis of the reporter’s errors and fabrications shows somebody trying to keep pace with reality rather than depart from it. Indeed, in some of his stretches, you see the bright reporter’s instinct to try to state the truth that the subject or source is trying to obscure (e.g., according to Blair, the American Craft Museum was “already in serious financial trouble before September 11”—whereas the museum’s CFO says that the museum had broken even). So who is more negligent: the reporter who accepts what he reasonably knows is not true or the reporter who falsifies the story even though what he makes up is possibly closer to the truth?

It does appear, as the Times reports, that “the audacity of the deceptions grew by the week.” The Times suggests that this was a result of the young man’s emotional problems—he is now commonly referred to as a sociopath, which probably means he was very charming—but it was also no doubt a result of the ease with which he found it possible to get his whoppers through the system. (Every reporter is his own fact checker, the Times story notes. Huh?) Also, he was getting a fair bit of positive reinforcement (including atta-boy notes from Raines himself): Newsrooms increasingly place high value on the colorful, subjective, and, as often as not, semi-bogus detail. And possibly, too, he found himself enjoying the process of making it up—creating a better, more interesting, as well as more efficient, reality.

Of course, it is impossible to know whether the kid was falling apart, just desperately trying to stay in the game, or guided by some larger, grander philosophical subtext of illusion and reality. Was he a pathological liar? Or, perhaps, a Walter Mitty type whose fervid imagination strayed into print? Or did he see himself in the great tradition of the most creative reporters (like Joe Mitchell and Lillian Ross, for instance, at The New Yorker, both famous quote pipers)?

It does, though, seem possible to say with some certainty that whatever he was doing, he was doing on his own. It wasn’t a newsroomwide conspiracy of deception. It was not systemic. It was just one kid living a life of fantasy or deception or self-styled genius—or amoral ambition.

Yet the point is that he wasn’t stopped. His mentors did not take the professional interest, or do the professional good deed, to keep him from screwing everything up.

That’s the embarrassment—possibly the biggest embarrassment in “the 152-year history of the newspaper.” Although even that seems a reach. (There was, just for starters, the instance when the Times chose not to report that the CIA and a band of Cuban exiles were about to invade the Bay of Pigs, thus failing to prevent one of the biggest debacles of the Cold War, and when it reported that the scientist Wen Ho Lee had passed nuclear secrets, which, whoops, wasn’t exactly true—causing the paper to issue an epic correction.)

So how has it gotten to meltdown?

It may be, most of all, the Times’ own view of itself that has brought it here. Its 14,000-word apologia, which appeared on the front page a week ago, surely changed the nature of the drama. (Reporters everywhere are scratching their heads about the weird mea culpa. One reporter from an Italian newsmagazine called me last week wondering if I could help him understand “why the New York Times would shoot itself in its own balls.”)

The Times, as though helplessly, seems to have seen a scandal at the Times as necessarily the ultimate scandal.

Then there is the Church thing. Those who are in the Church of Our Gray Lady suffer ever so much more than others. They flagellate piously—and assume they deserve special forgiveness because of it.

And then there is the Times’ ever-reliable self-absorption. Hence, its misguided sense that readers would actually be interested in this for 14,000 words. And, too, as a function of this same self-absorption, there is a real sense of awe at the Times about how this could have happened. People at the Times actually believe that it is, in the description of its own columnist William Safire, “the most rigorously edited newspaper in the world,” a protector of sacred fact (which would surprise almost anyone whom the paper has ever written about).

And then there’s the PR thing. The paper overreacted to the anticipated overreaction. This is, after all, an awkward moment. Stephen Glass, the most famous (until now) journalistic maker-upper, is back in the news with a novel and a 60 Minutes appearance. What’s more, the conservative media, in hot pursuit of liberal bias everywhere, is always accusing the liberal media of making it all up. Then, of course, this is an age that demands dramatic corporate self-criticism.


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