By now, most readers will have had their fill of l’affaire Blair—the story of Jayson Blair, the twenty-seven-year-old black reporter for The New York Times who for five years lied, fabricated interviews and datelines, and plagiarized the work of other journalists.
Mr. Blair, who came to the Times as an intern in 1998, resigned on May 1. On Sunday, May 11, the Times ran an extraordinary two-part feature on Blair’s career. It began on the front page, above the fold, and filled four full pages inside. The fourteen-thousand word behemoth—the longest news story in the Times we can remember—was part exposé, part mea culpa, part angry self-justification. “Let’s not begin to demonize our executives,” said Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger, Jr., the Times’s publisher, “either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher.” (Executives implicated in the recent corporate scandals must be grateful for the Times’s highminded reluctance to demonize those it reports on.)
The Times is a rich organization with immense resources. When it goes all-out on a story—as it did, for example, on the terrorist attacks of September 11—you sit up and take notice. Teams of reporters fill page after page with on-the-scene news stories; pundits offer detailed analysis; then there are the diagrams, interviews, pictures, not to mention numerous human-interest side dishes.
We are told that Howell Raines, the Times’s Executive Editor, calls this form of journalistic blitzkrieg “flood-the-zone” reporting. Perhaps “shock and awe” would be more to the point. Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of “philosophizing with a hammer.” Here we had journalism with a bludgeon. The stunning front-page story about Blair began with the admission that “A staff reporter for The New York Times committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months.” At last count, thirty-six of the seventy-odd stories Blair had filed since last October were tainted.
He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.
Assembled by a platoon of reporters and researchers, this unburdening was clearly intended as a sort of preemptive strike, a cathartic gesture, a Clintonian “Let’s put this behind us and move on” gambit. In emetic little moments that punctuated the indictment, readers were told about “the pain resonating through the Times newsroom” and Jayson Blair’s “distinctive laugh” and “serious charisma.” At a closed-door meeting for Times staffers on May 14, Howell Raines assured his audience that “I’m here to listen to your anger, wherever it’s directed.” The inner child speaks.
Whatever else it was, the Times’s ostentatious pretence of “coming clean” was a bid for absolution. “Mr. Blair harmed more than himself,” the Times acknowledged. “Although the deceit of one Times reporter does not impugn the work of 375 others, experts and teachers of journalism say that The Times must repair the damage done to the public trust.” “Experts,” “teachers of journalism,” the Times newsroom—and many, many readers.
As of mid-May, however, the Times’s response to Jayson Blair’s campaign of deception has not repaired any damage. On the contrary, the ostentatious spectacle of self-inquiry and self-criticism has had the opposite effect, feeding rather than dousing the flames of criticism. The New York Post carried a photograph of one protestor, dressed up as “Baghdad Bob,” the former Iraqi Information Minister, carrying a large placard that read: “Former New York Times Reporter Will Lie for Food.” Indeed, far from clearing the air, the effect of its campaign has been like one of those oil-filled trenches with which Saddam Hussein surrounded Baghdad. Set afire, they were meant to conceal, disorient, and protect. But the resulting smoke screen, though noxious, served only to highlight the malevolence and vulnerability of the despot and his regime.
So it is with the Times’s performance. There are, it seems to us, two principal issues. The first has to do with what Howell Raines calls the Times’s “commitment to diversity,” i.e., politically correct “affirmative action.” Both Raines and Gerald Boyd, the Times’s Managing Editor, have aggressively pushed affirmative action programs at the paper. Boyd, himself black, has long been perceived as the paper’s “race czar,” exercising veto power over coverage of all issues that impinge upon race.
As we have had many occasions to observe in this space, “affirmative action” is an emollient phrase that means “racial, sexual, or ethnic discrimination when practiced by liberals.” Two years ago, in an address to the National Association of Black Journalists, Raines dilated on the Times’s experiments with affirmnative action. Citing Jayson Blair by name, he proudly announced that “This campaign has made our staff better and, more importantly, more diverse.” Emphasis added. But the preposterousness—the idea that diversity is more important than quality—is in the original. No wonder The New Republic, reporting on the Blair Affair, accused the Times of the “fetishization of diversity.”
When the scandal broke, the Times denied that race had anything to do with Jayson Blair’s employment and rapid promotion. Raines denied it. So did Boyd. But then in the next breath was an acknowledgment that race was a central ingredient. Sentence number one: Blair got the sought-after internship “because of glowing recommendations,” “not because he is black.” Sentence number two: “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.” Got that?
Many editors had complained about the huge number of errors in Blair’s work. They complained about his sloppiness, his attitude, his absences. There were reprimands, memos to his file. But nothing serious was done. In April 2002, Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor, emailed newsroom administrators: “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.” Apparently, Howell Raines never saw that email: why not? Blair’s behavior and performance were consistently appalling. It turns out that he was never even graduated from the college that had provided such “glowing recommendations” when he applied for an internship. The Times just “assumed” that he had. He was held to a different standard, a lower standard. Why? In part, because he was a darling of the Times’s top brass. In part, because he was black.
The black journalist William Raspberry touched on the essential point in The New York Post. Back in the 1960s, he admits, he himself may have been hired partly because he was black. But he knew he was bright, he worked hard, and he knew he could compete on equal terms with all of his colleagues. What can explain the case of Jayson Blair—why his stories and credentials weren’t checked, why his failures were overlooked? “Don’t you see?,” Raspberry asked. “It’s because of affirmative action.”
“Affirmative action”—i.e., liberal discrimination—is the enemy of the equality it pretends to nurture. It depends upon and encourages a double standard. In fact, it encourages a double double standard. Jayson Blair was unfairly singled out—twice: first for advancement, then for repudiation (what Sulzberger abhors as “demonization”). Would the Times have gone into “flood-the-zone” mode had Blair been white? We doubt it. But special favoritism requires special expiation.
The larger issue concerns the ingrained ideological bias of which affirmative action and the cult of diversity are merely currently fashionable expressions. The Times grandly announced that Jayson Blair’s behavior represented “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.” Hardly. The Blair Affair, depressing though it is, pales in comparison with many other items from the paper’s history. Consider the career of the Pulitzer-Prize-winner Walter Duranty. Duranty, who was head of the Times’s Moscow bureau in the 1930s, was an apologist for Stalin. Accordingly, he assured readers that, though there were some occasional food shortages, there was “no actual starvation” in the Ukraine. This was in the midst of what Robert Conquest has called the Great Famine, the Stalin-made horror in which millions were systematically starved. Or consider Herbert Matthews, another communist fellow traveler, whose forty-five-year career at the Times included dutiful misreporting from the Spanish Civil War and, later, writing such fulsome encomia about Castro that one wag portrayed the dictator with a sign saying “I got my job through The New York Times.” The truth is that the Times, despite its enormous reputation, is constitutionally disposed to embrace the current politically correct line whatever it is—on race, on international affairs, on culture, on politics. In 1966, The New York Tribune went out of business, leaving the Times essentially without competition. It is said when news of the Trib’s demise came, several long-time editors at the Times broke down in tears. They saw that the death of one paper would encourage the intellectual corruption of the other. How right they were.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 10, on page 1
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