The Message

Fact or Fiction?

The case of Jayson Blair, a New York Times reporter who resigned after higher-ups discovered that an enormous percentage of his articles bore only a passing resemblance to reality, is a genuine rarity -- a journalism-ethics tale so startling that it's crossed over into popular culture. On one evening last week, Late Night yakker David Letterman displayed a doctored copy of the Times sporting a new warning to readers: "Some stories may not be factual." On another, Daily Show host Jon Stewart took mock pride in Blair's offenses, declaring that "as a fake anchorman on a fake news show, I feel I have a pretend obligation to inaccurately report the news...I, for one, am proud to see our commitment to journalistic falsehood catching on."

Still, a more telling indication of the Blair matter's impact was a memo Rocky Mountain News editor/publisher/president John Temple sent to editorial types at the paper on May 12, the day after the Times ran a four-page, 7,200-word investigation into the actions of the discredited scribe. Temple alluded to the e-mail in "Journalism Takes Its Lumps This Week," a May 17 column in which he faulted the Times in notably direct terms for refusing to adequately examine management's culpability with respect to Blair's wrongdoing. "By not acknowledging that they did anything wrong," he wrote, "the paper's leaders are leaving Americans with the impression that newsrooms are cozy clubs where reporters can invent sources that tilt major stories without being carefully questioned by editors." But Temple left out a portion of the missive that hinted at how severely his confidence in the Times has been shaken.

After mentioning Blair, Temple had begun the memo by reiterating the News's approach to the use of anonymous sources. Blair, of course, did far more than cook up a few pithy quotes and attribute them to individuals to whom he'd never spoken; his proclivity for turning in on-the-spot accounts from scenes he never visited was only one of the journalistic gambits he frequently employed. Nonetheless, Temple's focus upon this area was appropriate and the guidelines generally thoughtful. After stating that the News discourages the use of anonymous sources "because the reader has no way to judge whether the source is reliable and/or whether the source is using the newspaper for his or her end," he acknowledged that exceptions are necessary on occasion. At those times, references to unnamed info-providers must be approved in advance "by the managing editor or editor or, in their absence, the senior editor in charge of the newsroom" -- and the supervisor in question "must also know the name of the source(s)."

More intriguing was Temple's newly declared policy in regard to the publishing of Times reports in the News. He announced that "New York Times stories that use anonymous sources must be approved in advance" by the same editor or editors noted above -- an astonishing development, because it suggests that in a few short weeks, the Times has gone from being among the most trusted news purveyors on the planet to a publication viewed with suspicion by its peers.

The Rocky's procedural shift will place a sizable burden on newsroomers. After all, a great many stories out of Washington, be they from the Times, the Washington Post or any other major news agency, wouldn't exist if not for officials or those in their orbit who anonymously leak data that might otherwise remain hidden from the public. In the memo, Temple implies that he made the move despite the inevitable workload boost after a Times spokeswoman identified in the column as Catherine Mathis, vice president of corporate communications, "told me...that it has 'no formal policy.' Its 'practice has been for the executive editor to reserve the right to ask the question, and to withhold the story if it is not answered. But the question may or may not be asked in individual cases, depending on the importance of the story and the track record of the writer.'" As Temple thundered in his column, "It appears, based on the Times' own coverage, that the paper...has a lower standard of internal checks and balances when it comes to anonymous sources than a lot of other far less distinguished American newspapers, including the News."

For Temple, who generally writes about the Rocky in rah-rah tones, his decision to lump his publication in with "other far less distinguished American newspapers" begs a follow-up question or six. Unfortunately, he didn't reply to messages left last week -- a return to his course of action in the halcyon years of 2000 and 2001, when he routinely ignored calls from yours truly. Within the journalism community, though, the Blair affair has provoked a cacophony of chatter among editors and execs, with most of them voicing variations on the phrase "There but for the grace of God go I."

Consider a recent e-mail discussion of Jaysonian fallout among folks affiliated with the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, an organization to which Westword belongs. The exchange got off to a spirited start when one respondent expressed doubt that a reporter with a severe lack of integrity could buffalo an AAN member; in his view, crusading weeklies under close scrutiny from powerful personages who wish them ill are triply cognizant of such dangers. Over the days that followed, several editors eviscerated this assertion by confessing that, despite their best efforts, they'd been had once or twice -- and Salt Lake Weekly publisher John Saltas went so far as to accuse another AAN paper, the Boulder Weekly, of crimes against journalism he can't quite define. "We're not sure if our copyright was violated, or we were plagiarized, or both," he wrote.

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