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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Jayson Blair Case: At the New York Times, the Spin Cycle Never Ends

By Nicholas Stix

May 23, 2003
Toogood Reports

“Let’s see if your lies match up with your partner’s lies.” That trademark line, uttered by NYPD Blue’s “Det. Andy Sipowicz” (Dennis Franz) to a suspect about to be interrogated, would be a fitting opening for the interrogation of any number of New York Times reporters and editors. But if I had my pick of TV detectives to grill the mopes at the Times, I’d call “Det. Frank Pembleton” (Andre Braugher) of the late series Homicide: Life on the Streets, up from Baltimore. Pembleton, a master interrogator and avenging angel (“We speak for the dead”), is particularly adept at getting the truth out of psychopaths, and on West 43rd Street, the psychopaths seem to be tripping over each other.

The Times worthies are busy trying to spin their way out of the biggest scandal in the history of the Newspaper of Record, as the Times is known in the media. After four years with the newspaper, reporter Jayson Blair was caught variously plagiarizing and fabricating dozens, and possibly hundreds of stories. Without ever leaving New York City, he e-mailed stories to the Times’ 43rd Street offices with datelines from Cleveland, Maryland, West Virginia, Texas and elsewhere. Rather than be fired, on May 1, Blair resigned.

The official story at the Times, is that Blair was a ‘lone gunman’ who acted on his own, based on a pathological desire to deceive. Affirmative action had nothing to do with it.

In a “hea culpa,” Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. insisted, “The person who did this is Jayson Blair. Let’s not begin to demonize our executives – either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher.”

Not even Times staffers buy that line. A full year before matters exploded, Metropolitan Editor Jonathan Landman had warned about Blair’s dishonesty, and sought to get him sacked, and other editors had expressed doubts about Blair. And it took external pressure, in the form of a plagiarism complaint from a Texas newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News, before the Times brass would act at all.

But you have to remember who we’re dealing with here. And so, instead of hearing that Jayson Blair was a young man who had no business inside of the Times’ newsroom, we hear that Executive Editor Howell Raines was “autocratic” and had a “star system,” as if a rank incompetent and professional liar would somehow have “star” written all over him. And the mainstream media have helped the Times, by echoing its official story.

On ABC’s Nightline last Thursday, black Washington Post staffer Terry Neal sought to explain how a writer whose stories were fraudulent could be a “star.” Neal said it was a matter of a “tradeoff” between “accuracy” and getting “scoops.” But there is no evidence that Jayson Blair ever published a scoop in his life. Host Chris Bury did not ask Neal how lies based on non-existent, “unnamed sources” could count as “scoops.”

(Neal was trying to distill sound bites from a much more thoughtful column he’d written on Blair. The column argued that a dishonest reporter would be able to write more vivid, exciting prose than colleagues constrained by the truth. However, Neal’s claim that the Blair case had nothing to do with race does not stand up to scrutiny.)

In a shameless performance, Bury in effect resigned from the journalism profession. He opened the program by dishonestly contrasting how Blair was “pilloried” to the New Republic’s white serial plagiarist, Stephen Glass, who had just published an autobiographical novel, and who, Bury suggested, had gotten off easy. Bury counted on the audience having forgotten how Glass had been run out of the journalism business, when he was caught inventing stories back in 1998. When Stephen Glass was exposed as a fraud, no one showed him any sympathy, and rightly so. In contrast, many reporters have treated Jayson Blair as some sort of “tragedy,” writing of a “meltdown,” even as they show that Blair had been consistently dishonest since college, if not earlier.

Bury asked rhetorical questions of his guests that put race off limits as an issue. “But no one asks how Glass’s race may have helped him.” That’s because there was no evidence that race helped Glass, while there was abundant evidence that race helped Blair!

Rather than enlighten the public, Chris Bury aided in a cover-up. But then, he was just following the example of his longtime boss and mentor, Ted Koppel, in matters of race.

Bury’s precautions were unnecessary. His guests were Newsweek’s editor, Mark Whitaker, who is [P.S., August 23, 2011: part] black; Condace Pressley, the president of the National Association of Black Journalists; and white Washington Post media critic, Howard Kurtz. Unless Bury squeezed in a critic of affirmative action while I blinked, his guests and the other journalists and professors interviewed all denied that race was a factor in the Blair story. Chris Bury didn’t even pretend to be giving the story balanced coverage. And when Howard Kurtz said that a black journalist was “ready to take my head off” at the mere suggestion that race might have been a factor, neither Kurtz nor anyone else present questioned the integrity of the black journalist.

Just two days earlier, the NABJ web site had posted an editorial, condemning the consideration of race in the Blair story.

“But for those critics of diversity to assert that Blair did what he did or got where he got solely because of the color of his skin is just plain wrong, myopic and lazy journalism,” said Condace Pressley, president of NABJ and assistant program director at WSB Radio in Atlanta. “And it ignores facts in other cases.”

For instance, did race have anything to do with the awful case of Brian Walski, the LA Times photographer who fabricated the photograph out of Iraq earlier this year? Was it a factor with the two Salt Lake City reporters who sold a fabricated story to the National Enquirer for $20,000 in the Elizabeth Smart case? Was it a factor with Mike Barnicle, Stephen Glass, Ruth Shalit, Eric Drudis or the dozens of other white journalists who smeared the honorable profession of journalism and lied to their readers?

Why should it be a factor here?

Because the facts say it is.

Like other race hustlers, Condace Pressley is playing a rigged game. She knows that with rare exceptions, it would be career suicide for any reporter at a major daily or TV station to challenge her.

At the bottom of the NABJ’s editorial, the organization lays out its mission:

The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) founded in 1975, exists to promote newsroom diversity [to get unqualified blacks journalism internships and jobs], expand job and recruiting opportunities for African-American journalists and journalism students [a repetition of the previous phrase], and to advocate for fairness and balance in media coverage of the African-American community and of the African-American experience [to pressure media organizations out of doing serious reporting on blacks and urban issues, and instead turn them into racial cheerleaders].

A courageous exception to the above rule was made by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who observed that,

… a close reading of the Times’ own account of what went wrong suggests that the paper itself does not fully comprehend what happened. It was not, as some outside observers have said, that no newspaper can fully protect itself against a liar. It was rather that the paper should have known it had a liar on its hands and, despite obvious warnings, did little about it….

The answer appears to be precisely what the Times denies: favoritism based on race.

With all due respect to Richard Cohen, I have to note that he is that anachronism whom youngish conservatives are unaware ever existed, and that youngish lefties are outraged to discover still exists: The principled, liberal, male patriot with intact genitalia. Thus it is that Cohen, a military veteran, has also contradicted the feminist dogma that women can serve in the military, just like men. Granted, Cohen still defends an idealized form of affirmative action that exists nowhere, but even that is not enough to satisfy today’s diversity apparatchiks. But Cohen is in his sixties, and will be retiring sometime soon. The socialist establishment can wait him out.

Here are the bare facts, in the matter of the Truth vs. Jayson Blair:

1. In spite of a checkered track record as a student newspaper reporter, local daily and Boston Globe intern, and editor in high school and at the University of Maryland (where he did a poor job as editor, and resigned while under a cloud), he got his foot in the door at the Times through an affirmative action summer internship in 1998 -- in other words, through race;

2. He failed to ever finish college;

3. In spite of what Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz called “substandard” tours at the college paper and during the Times internship, and the lack of a college degree, the Times hired Blair as a reporter in 1999.

4. When repeated questions arose about Blair’s honesty as a reporter, instead of firing him, the Times brass repeatedly promoted him, from intermediate reporter to full-time reporter, to national reporter, and ultimately, to head up the D.C. Sniper team.

There is no tougher job to get in the world of journalism, than a writing gig at the New York Times. Tens of thousands of hot-shot reporters around the country dream of working at the Grey Lady, without ever getting so much as an interview.

In the early 1990s in New York, while publishing my own magazine, A Different Drummer, I also wrote the occasional freelance piece for the daily, New York Newsday.

At one point, I called up the New York Daily News, which was then the city’s biggest daily, to try and get a job there. The person I spoke to said—without laughing—that I would have to send my resume to the personnel office.

I didn’t waste my time. Nobody, but nobody, ever got a writing job at a major metropolitan daily, by simply applying to the personnel office.

Around the same time, I sold some furniture (my day job) to a couple of New York Post staffers. I asked the husband what would happen, if I applied to his newspaper (then as now, the third biggest daily in town [Postscript: The Post jumped in front of the News several years ago.]) for a writing job. Laughing, he said, “It would get tossed in the ‘circular file’” (garbage can). His wife told of the first time she’d heard the term. Someone had sent in a resume, and her boss told her to “file it in the ‘circular file.’”

(Years later, I would freelance for both the Post and the Daily News, writing on higher education and culture, but did so through directly contacting the Post’s deputy op-ed editor, Mark Cunningham, and the Daily News’ op-ed editor, Bob Laird, respectively.)

To even be considered for employment at the Times, a reporter candidate often needs:

1. Orthodox socialist/politically correct views on … everything;

2. A bachelor’s degree from an Ivy League school or an OPU (overpriced, private university) equivalent, e.g., NYU;

3. A master’s degree in journalism, preferably from Columbia University; and

4. A storied career at a daily newspaper;

Apparently, for a black candidate, #1 alone suffices. No one at the Times even checked to see if Blair had graduated from Maryland, much less to find out whether he had finished his tenure as editor of The Diamondback, at the University of Maryland. (Mickey Kaus snickered about the Times’ failure to check out Blair’s college newspaper track record, “More evidence of due diligence, diversity-style.”)

The in-house, May 11 “Blair Report” indirectly quoted a senior editor as saying of the former intern’s June, 1999 return to the newsroom as a reporter, “everyone assumed he had graduated.” And that was no accident. The history of affirmative action has involved not only the continual watering down of job requirements for black applicants (e.g., elimination of competency exams and previous professional experience), but also the attitude on the part of pro-affirmative action employers, of not wanting to know anything that might cast doubt on a black applicant’s qualifications.

[Postscript: I call it, “don’t ask, don’t tell.”]

(During the early 1990s, New York State NAACP chief Hazel Duke, whom socialist Gov. Mario Cuomo had given the patronage plum of running the state’s Off-Track Betting Corporation, summarily fired a bunch of white OTB managers. Duke then hired as her top manager, a black man who claimed to have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. When the white managers sued OTB, claiming they had been fired based solely on the color of their skin, and the state investigated the agency, it turned out that the black manager had no college degrees, though he said he felt he “deserved” them. Note that under the leadership of Hazel Duke, who was later caught embezzling funds from an elderly acquaintance, rather than earn billions of dollars for the state, as one would expect of a gambling authority, OTB made a net profit of zero dollars.)

Granted, the four points I cited above are not set in stone. Some current New York Times reporters lacked qualifications #3 & #4 at the time they were hired. One young, white female Times reporter I met circa 1987, told me she was hired as a copy girl straight out of the Ivy League’s Brown University. Sixteen undistinguished years later, the reporter is still with the Times. However, for heterosexual, white men, all four points are increasingly job requirements.

(As Reed Irvine reported on June 9, 2000, “Richard Berke, the national political correspondent for the New York Times, recently spoke at a reception celebrating the 10th anniversary of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. He reminisced about the bad old days at the Times, when homosexual reporters were discriminated against. How things have changed. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘there are times when you look at the front-page meeting and ... literally three-quarters of the people deciding what’s on the front page are not-so-closeted homosexuals.’”)

Initially, the Times adamantly, kind of, sort of denied that race had anything to do with the Blair case. Consider the newspaper’s 14,000-word, May 11 report on the case:

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.

Note the contradiction between the two sentences: He WASN’T a racial (affirmative action/diversity) hire and he WAS (“to help the paper diversify”) a racial hire. He got his foot in the door through a race-based internship program. One cannot, without raping the English language, deny that Jayson Blair was hired because of the color of his skin.

Several other questions that the Times report failed to answer were:

1. When prosecutors disparaged Blair’s story on sniper suspect John Muhammad, which Blair claimed was based on five anonymous law enforcement sources, why did his bosses not ask for the sources’ names? (In journalism, when a story’s veracity has been challenged, editors can and must get the names of anonymous informants.)

2. Why did the clerk responsible for expenses not check to see if the receipts Blair provided matched up with the places he claimed to have been reporting from?

3. Why did the Times, which typically issues company credit cards to reporters, either refuse to issue one to Blair, or revoke his card?

4. Why did Blair’s national editor, Jim Roberts, who in a highly unusual move, let Blair use his credit card for “travel,” fail to note the lack of any bills for hotel rooms or car rentals?

There were question marks already during Blair’s high-school career, during which time Newsweek’s Seth Mnookin reports, he interned at the Centreville Times newspaper, and was typically unreliable, disappeared at crucial times, and missed deadlines.

In one early report on Blair, another former University of Maryland student journalist refused to discuss Blair’s performance on the school paper, The Diamondback, instead making a mysteriously magnanimous comment about having himself been less than perfect. In Seth Mnookin’s new Newsweek story, “The Secret Life of Jayson Blair/Times Bomb,” Mnookin gets more specific information.

“When Jayson was initially hired, people were really upset,” Danielle Newman told Newsweek. Newman was an editor under Blair, and succeeded him after he resigned. “We said we just didn’t think he was qualified,” Newman said. There were concerns about a football game Blair covered—his story was filled with quotes from people another reporter at the game wasn’t sure existed. There was a story in which Blair tried to insert quotes from an Associated Press wire story. “We definitely had our suspicions about his reporting,” Newman says. “But what could we do?”

Unfortunately, Mnookin shies away from asking follow-up questions, like: ‘Who was it that installed an unqualified, notoriously dishonest reporter as editor, and why?,’ and ‘Why did you think there was nothing you could do about Blair?’

Indeed, while Mnookin did at least admit that reporters across the country have been privately raising the issue, in newsrooms, of Blair’s possibly having benefited from racial discrimination, as soon as he raises the matter, he buries it in a thicket of addiction and psychological subplots:

Instead of answering questions about how Blair had been able to get away with so much for so long, the consensus in the newsroom was that the [May 11] Times story skirted around many of the major issues-the role of race in Blair’s hiring and promotions …

At every step of Jayson Blair’s career, he engaged in unprofessional behavior, and often lacked the necessary qualifications for the job he was given, factors which would have disqualified him from being hired or gotten him fired, had he been white. And yet, people kept throwing editorships, internships, jobs and promotions his way, and working to help him succeed. He was repeatedly shuffled around the Times newsroom, given leaves of absence, warnings, reprimands, “counseling” … and promotions. Meanwhile, Times staffers and executives spoke about him less as a talented colleague, than the way a caseworker would speak of a client.

Let us return to the Times’ blackwash of things.

In January 2001, Mr. Blair was promoted to full-time reporter with the consensus of a recruiting committee of roughly half a dozen people headed by Gerald M. Boyd, then a deputy managing editor, and the approval of Mr. [Joseph] Lelyveld.

[Joe Lelyveld was then the Times’ Executive Editor.]

[Metropolitan Editor Jonathan] Landman said last week that he had been against the recommendation - that he “wasn’t asked so much as told” about Mr. Blair’s promotion. But he also emphasized that he did not protest the move.

[Of course he didn’t protest; that would have cost him his job.]

The publisher and the executive editor, he said, had made clear the company’s commitment to diversity – “and properly so,” he said….

Mr. Boyd, who is now managing editor, the second-highest-ranking newsroom executive, said last week that the decision to advance Mr. Blair had not been based on race. Indeed, plenty of young white reporters have been swiftly promoted through the ranks.

[Is Boyd saying that the young white reporters were brought into the
Times via a whites-only internship program, and that like Blair, they engaged from the beginning in sloppy, unprofessional work that required constant public corrections, that they were drug addicts, and became increasingly audacious in fabricating and plagiarizing stories? Of course, not. The only other logical possibility, is that he is saying that the fact that young, talented white reporters have been swiftly promoted, requires that a young black reporter also be promoted, no matter how incompetent and fraudulent he is. Methinks that, like Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Howell Raines, Gerald Boyd is used to making inane statements, without being challenged.]

“To say now that his promotion was about diversity in my view doesn’t begin to capture what was going on,” said Mr. Boyd, who is himself African-American. “He was a young, promising reporter who had done a job that warranted promotion.”

[The record has made it abundantly clear that Jayson Blair was NOT a promising reporter, and had never earned a promotion.]

But if anything, Mr. Blair’s performance after his promotion declined; he made more errors and clashed with more editors. Then came the catastrophes of Sept. 11, 2001, and things got worse….

His mistakes became so routine, his behavior so unprofessional, that by April 2002, Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor, dashed off a two-sentence e-mail message to newsroom administrators that read: “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the
Times. Right now.”

No one at the Times connected the dots, then or now. When you hire someone for reasons other than merit, and retain him, no matter how much he screws up, he is bound to have a sense of privilege and entitlement. Jayson Blair was responding to his superiors’—specifically Raines and Boyd’s—lead.

Note the divergence between Jonathan Landman’s admission that Blair’s promotion was due to race, and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd’s denial that race played a role. Liberal pundit Mickey Kaus called Boyd “the moose in The Times newsroom,” as in “the problem nobody will talk about.”

While demanding race-based hiring and promotions, professional blacks always deny that any particular black was hired or promoted, based on his race. The Times brass has sought to blame a lack of “communication,” for letting things go on for so long, in Blair’s case. But a white applicant with Jayson Blair’s pathetic track record would never have gotten an interview. His application material more likely would have been passed around, for office entertainment.

And yet, Jayson Blair is angry that people are calling him an “affirmative action hire.” He told the New York Observer that most of his editors at the Times were “idiots,” and that he was a victim of “racism.”

Let us recall New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.’s “hea culpa,” in refusing to admit that his policies were at all responsible for Blair’s misdeeds.

But Mr. Sulzberger emphasized that as The New York Times continues to examine how its employees and readers were betrayed, there will be no newsroom search for scapegoats…. “The person who did this is Jayson Blair. Let’s not begin to demonize our executives - either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher.”

Why not blame Sulzberger, who has apparently never heard the phrase, “The buck stops here”?

In December, 1992, a young Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., having that year taken the reigns from his father and namesake, announced that “diversity” would be his crusade. The history of the Times under Sulzberger Jr., has been the story of a daily that, already characterized by socialist bias, largely surrendered its hard news values and became a propaganda sheet, with reporters ever more frequently publishing veiled editorials disguised as news stories, when they weren’t engaging in myriad forms of dishonesty.

On May 14 [2003], the Times held an extraordinary meeting for its entire news staff—excepting its media reporter, Jacques Steinberg, who was barred entry—in a local movie theater. Notwithstanding Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s rationalizations, and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd’s song and dance, ‘What’s Race Got to Do with It?,’ in a weak moment, Executive Editor Howell Raines had an attack of honesty. Switching from a “hea culpa” to a mea culpa, he stated the obvious.

Our paper has a commitment to diversity and by all accounts he appeared to be a promising young minority reporter. I believe in aggressively providing hiring and career opportunities for minorities.

Does that mean I personally favored Jayson? Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave him one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the sniper team. When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes.

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