The Message
Mark Andresen

The Message

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.

Saltas's gripes revolve around "Arch Rivals," a January 9 feature about the Sierra Club written by Salt Lake Weekly reporter Shane McCammon. The piece was later picked up by Alternet, which serves as the equivalent of a wire service for alternative weeklies. Days later, the Boulder Weekly purchased McCammon's article from Alternet, but instead of printing it in its original form, the paper took substantial license. "The Compromised Sierra Club," which appeared on the Boulder Weekly's January 23 cover, was credited to Ron Bain, one of the paper's writers, with a tag line venturing that "Shane McCammon contributed to this story." In truth, McCammon says, "I essentially wrote it," and his contention is more than supported by comparing the articles. The Boulder Weekly's effort is shorter and has a new first section that McCammon hates, but its final two-thirds is an edited-down version of what appeared in the Salt Lake Weekly -- and the last several paragraphs are reprinted word for word.

Salt Lake Weekly reps complained to the Boulder Weekly about this treatment and got a verbal apology from Pamela White, who became editor of the paper after "The Compromised Sierra Club" was printed. McCammon, for his part, was paid a $75 fee by Alternet that didn't come close to compensating him for his frustrations. "It's not the end of the world, but when they tack on a horrendous lead and then try to pass the story off as if I wrote only a few words of it, that's irritating," he says.

So, too, was a bogus item that Westword came close to foisting upon its entire readership in March. For our annual Best of Denver edition, a since-dismissed contributor nominated a late-December Gloria Gaynor concert at the Church as the "Best Disco Revival in a Mainstream Club." The blurb was subsequently approved, written, edited, copy-edited and placed into the final version of the paper, which was on the press when an alert advertising staffer checking ads flagged it. Why? The show hadn't taken place because of a last-minute cancellation. Shortly thereafter, the salute to Gaynor's non-appearance was excised before it got into most papers bound for the street -- although it's theoretically possible that some flawed copies slipped past quality control. Be sure to check yours to see if you've got a collector's item.

A more extreme instance of unlabeled creative writing that made it into Westword took place in 1979, shortly after screen cowboy John Wayne converted to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed. The late Alan Dumas, a freelancer at the time, submitted a story about Father James Sullivan, a priest with Our Lady of Lourdes parish who'd been so moved by the actor's actions that he was spearheading a quizzical campaign on his behalf. "We are not asking for Mr. Wayne's veneration because we want him canonized," Dumas quoted Sullivan as saying, "although we would eventually like to see this happen if he meets the requirements for sainthood. We just think the Church should bestow some special honor on a Catholic of such importance and stature."

After the scoop's publication, equally late News columnist Gene Amole based a piece on Sullivan that caught the attention of a representative from Time magazine. The Time reporter asked Westword editor Patricia Calhoun for the priest's contact info, but when she urged Dumas to share the digits, he was reluctant, and for a very good reason: Sullivan didn't exist outside of his own head.

Dumas's career survived this incident very well. A few years after Wayne went to his final reward, Dumas joined Westword's staff, where he grew accustomed to being carefully fact-checked; after a stint on the radio, he was hired by the News. In a column memorializing Dumas ("A Master Storyteller's Final Chapter," April 22, 1999), Calhoun shared the anecdote about the make-believe Father, putting it in the context of the writer's quirky, garrulous persona. But he adored theatricality, and while he presumably learned a lesson from the Duke and embraced honesty during the remainder of his journalistic life, a Times-style examination might unearth plenty that Calhoun and Temple would be happier not knowing about.

As for the Times, it seems determined to discover each and every one of ex-reporter Blair's transgressions, many of which are recorded in greatly embarrassing detail in the May 11 exposé. However, the possibility that Blair's status as an African-American may have inoculated him against an earlier dismissal is dealt with only superficially in the massive report, even though the pressure to diversify newsrooms is building in cities across the country, including Denver ("Diverse Opinions," May 8). Writers like the New Yorker's Ken Auletta have chided the Times for tiptoeing around this potentially explosive theme, but others have done likewise. Even Temple left any mention of minorities out of his jeremiad against the way the Times handled Blair, leaving the field clear for News columnist Tina Griego. In a May 19 column, she shared her fear that some people will assume that Blair got away with reportorial homicide thanks to the color of his skin.

Supporters of this hypothesis accused the Denver Post of trying to downplay the African-American angle by deleting allusions to possible favoritism from the version of the Times article it published, but the allegation is patently ridiculous. The Post printed less than 20 percent of a Times opus that brushed off the potential influence of a diversity quest with a bare handful of lines such as "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."

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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