The Message

Fact or Fiction?

Those who believe otherwise have only circumstantial evidence to support their claims. The internship that brought Blair to the Times was indeed intended to enhance diversity in a newsroom that's been struggling for at least a decade to more accurately reflect New York's ethnic mix. As documented by Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones in 1999's The Trust -- a masterful history of the family that's run the Times since the nineteenth century -- Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. put an extremely high priority on diversifying the paper beginning on the January 1992 day that he was named publisher. Howell Raines, who reached the executive editorship in 2001, is equally dedicated to this mission; Tifft and Jones describe him as a "classic Southern liberal" who wrote "an oral history of the civil rights movement."

Did the worthy goal of diversity espoused by Sulzberger and Raines contribute to a double standard when it came to Blair, who began writing for the Times in the late '90s? There's no doubt that Blair's work led to an extraordinary number of corrections right from the start, and a journalist who knew him during the period when he reported about business matters for the Times's metro desk says he was even more error-prone than his editors knew, with many mistakes that were never acknowledged. (After Blair resigned, an investigation found problems in 36 of 73 stories written since late October 2002.) Another reporter who wrote for the Times and was friendly with Blair adds that his behavior was hardly free of danger signs; he'd ask co-workers if they wanted to go to a bar for drinks in the middle of the morning and would sometimes wear the same clothes for days at a time. Yet in spite of at least one formal reprimand -- not to mention an April 2002 e-mail by metro editor Jonathan Landman that said, "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now" -- he was regularly promoted during his tenure at the paper.

None of this proves that Blair's race caused his bosses to overlook offenses a Caucasian reporter would have been fired for committing. As Denver Post editor Greg Moore points out, journalistic sinners like onetime Wall Street Journal writer Foster Winans and former New Republic reporter Stephen Glass (now trying to pass himself off as a novelist) were white, yet they managed to keep transgressions as serious as the ones Blair committed hidden for long periods of time. "When something like this happens, people who have an ax to grind on an issue will bring it up," adds Moore, who is African-American. "People who are critical of diversity and of how it's being practiced will use it as an excuse. But I think that's a red herring."

Moore appears near the top of a May 13 article about Blair in Editor & Publisher, a journalism trade magazine, because of what looks like a connection between the two; prior to interning at the Times, Blair did the same at the Boston Globe, a New York Times-owned paper where Moore served as managing editor before moving to the Post. Actually, Moore says he hardly knew Blair, but he was a direct supervisor of Patricia Smith, a Globe columnist who resigned in 1998 after admitting that she'd fabricated material. (Smith is African-American, while Mike Barnicle and Jeff Jacoby, two other Globe columnists reprimanded for journalistic misdeeds in recent years, are white.) As such, Moore's got very specific ideas about what he can do at the Post to avoid the headaches Smith gave him.

According to Moore, "The culture at a newspaper is very important. You have to create a culture where people feel empowered to raise questions, so that they feel comfortable saying, 'This doesn't seem right,' and know that they'll be listened to. In this case, we've learned that people raised red flags but felt ignored or weren't taken as seriously as they should have been, or they didn't feel comfortable raising them. So in addition to having systems in place and having a heightened sense of awareness, we need to encourage people to raise concerns."

Better policing would also help, in his view. "I think it's very smart for us to look more closely at the kinds of corrections that we're running in the paper, look at how the errors are being made, and do a better job of monitoring them. We don't want to do it in a punitive way, but in a corrective way, so that if someone is making an inordinate amount of errors, we can intervene and see if there are problems we need to address."

Not that any measure short of following reporters 24 hours a day will totally prevent the Post, or any paper, from being victimized by a future Jayson Blair. "You can have systems in place," Moore concedes, "but if people are determined to thwart them, you can't do that much about it."

For David Letterman and Jon Stewart, that's good news. For the rest of us, it's something else entirely.

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