Thu, May 15, 2003 - Page 9 News List

`The NewYork Times' learns hard lessons from deceit of journalist

One of the paper's columnists says the dismaying example of Jayson Blair will serve as a cautionary tale for journalists and editors around the world

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

Just about everyone at this newspaper is sick at heart at the way one New York Times reporter betrayed our readers and all of us with his sustained deceit and

plagiarism.

The Times team investigating the lies of Jayson Blair -- grimly front-paged and spread over four inside pages of last Sunday's paper -- found his phony interviews and faked articles "a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper." The publisher called it "a huge black eye."

How could this happen at the most rigorously edited newspaper in the world? We had plenty of warning -- his 50-plus corrections in less than four years as a repor-ter, his evasion of questions about his whereabouts, complaints from colleagues.

Apparently this 27-year-old was given too many second chances by editors eager for this ambitious black journalist to succeed. As he moved to more responsible assign-ments, some editors failed to pass along assessments of his past shortcomings while others felt the need to protect the confidentiality of his troubles.

Result: The con artist gamed a system that celebrates diversity and opportunity.

The Times' executive editor, Howell Raines, is determined to get right with readers by letting the "terrible mistake" be examined in excruciating detail. In addition to this opposite of cover-up, he assigned another newsroom group to come up with ways to prevent another failure of communication among our editors, the most expert of communicators.

What's the reaction in Washington, where -- we now know -- the fraudulent reporter came down to stain the Times' coverage of last year's attacks by snipers? Liberals down here, who only last week had been gleeful at the revelation of conservative William Bennett's high-rolling gambling habit, are rendered glum by this embarrassment of the newspaper whose editorial policy they favor.

But now my right-wing friends are suddenly up to their hips in their own Schadenfreude. (That's the German word for "the guilty pleasure one secretly takes in another's suffering.")

First comes the culture war. Some of my ideological soulmates say: See? There goes the prestigious New York Times, world paragon of accuracy, newspaper of record, winner of far more Pulitzer prizes than anybody -- suckered for years by one cunning kid. About time those snobby Eastern elitists, twisting the news to fit their prejudices, got their comeuppance.

Then to the affirmative-action angle: See what happens, they taunt, when you treat a minority employee with kid gloves, promoting him when he deserves to be fired? Oh, we know your editors insist that "diversity" had nothing to do with it. But remember what Senator Dale Bumpers said about our impeachment of Clinton: "When you hear somebody say, `This is not about sex' -- it's about sex." This is about diversity backfiring.

Here's my reply to their Kulturkampf: For exactly 30 years, I have been supported handsomely for disagreeing with the Times' editorial page, which is dovish on defense, leftist on economics and (with the exception of civil liberties) resolutely wrongheaded. Never have I been silenced, and conservative thinkers have an ever-fairer shake on the Op-Ed page.

As for news coverage being influenced by editorial policy, I evoke the name of my predecessor: that's a Krock. On occasion, a leftist slant on a story slips through the backfield, but with conservatives boring from within and fulminating from without, the news side soon straightens itself out. What is "fit to print" is the truth as straight as we can tell it, which is why Times people are so furious at this galling breach.

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