Sunday, May 11, 2003

New York Times on Jayson Blair scandal

The lead of the front-page story of today's New York Times, Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception:

A staff reporter for The New York Times committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months, an investigation by Times journalists has found. The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.


It's an earth-shaking admission from what is widely regarded as the gold standard of print journalism, the U.S.A.'s newspaper of record -- and, by extension, some would argue, the world's.

The article continues:

The reporter, Jayson Blair, 27, misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland, Texas and other states, when often he was far away, in New York. 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....

In an inquiry focused on correcting the record and explaining how such fraud could have been sustained within the ranks of The Times, the Times journalists have so far uncovered new problems in at least 36 of the 73 articles Mr. Blair wrote since he started getting national reporting assignments late last October....

Mr. Blair, who has resigned from the paper, was a reporter at The Times for nearly four years, and he was prolific. Spot checks of the more than 600 articles he wrote before October have found other apparent fabrications, and that inquiry continues. The Times is asking readers to report any additional falsehoods in Mr. Blair's work; the e-mail address is retrace@nytimes.com.


Eye-wideningly shocking stuff, worthy of outrage.

It's admirable that the Times would so painstakingly and publicly attempt to correct the facts and inform its readers of the deception they were subjected to... but it also rings a little hollow.

"How such fraud could have been sustained within the ranks of the Times" should be reasonably simple for those investigating to answer:

a. Blair's editors were so sloppy, careless, lazy or incompetent that they missed glaring errors and problems that an editor at a student paper would have caught.

b. Blair's editors and colleagues either knew or suspected that there was a problem, and for some reason dismissed it as inconsequential or wilfully turned a blind eye.

c. Blair was such a genius mastermind who was so much more intelligent than his editors and colleagues that he was able to convincingly deceive them for almost four years without raising a single staffer's eyebrow ... until he so blatantly plagiarized a story that his fraud was exposed.

Since options A and C are highly unlikely, that leaves B: Blair was permitted to continue to work at the Times in spite of known or suspected transgressions.

If that's the case, the Times has much more serious problems to deal with. One of them will be regaining readers' trust.

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