When I was a student at the University of Washington Journalism School in Seattle about 100 years ago (or so it seems), almost all of us aspired to work for America's "newspaper of record," the venerable New York Times.
But recent scandals involving the censorship of columnists, biased correspondents and a young reporter who made up the news have irreparably damaged the Times' reputation for honesty and integrity. How the mighty have fallen!
A few weeks ago I wrote a column about how Times Executive Editor Howell Raines, a Southern liberal with a left-of-center political agenda, censored opinion pieces by two prize-winning sports columnists because they didn't agree with the paper's editorial stand on the issue of whether women should be admitted as members of the prestigious Augusta (Georgia) National Golf Club. That was the famous Hootie vs. Martha controversy, and Martha (and Raines) lost.
Although Raines denied that his decision to censor the columnists was based on what they wrote, it was clear that political correctness was a very important consideration in the Times newsroom. The paper's leftist ideology was on display again last week when one of the paper's veteran foreign correspondents, Chris Hedges, delivered an angry anti-war, anti-military commencement speech at Rockford College in Illinois, where he was booed off the stage.
Earlier this month, the Times finally got around to firing Jayson Blair, a young African-American reporter who had been fabricating news stories for more than a year. According to the Times itself, 36 of the 73 stories Blair had written since last October were substantially invented, stolen or factually compromised, including at least 29 with fraudulent datelines -- "a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper," the Times lamented. Was it ever!
Apparently, Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd, an African-American, allowed Blair to continue writing for the Times even though they had been warned about the reporter's inaccuracies and sloppy work more than a year earlier. "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times right now," wrote Metropolitan Editor Jonathan Landman in a memo to Raines and Boyd in April, 2002. After Sept. 11, 2001, the paper had been forced to correct nearly 20 percent of the stories that Blair had written.
Nevertheless, Raines and Boyd continued to assign Blair to blockbuster stories, such as the Washington Beltway sniper case and the war in Iraq. According to Christopher Caldwell of the conservative Weekly Standard, Blair had "invented quotations and descriptions. He had lifted material from other journalists without attribution (and) he had faked whole trips, penning stories from his Brooklyn apartment...."
In one notable story datelined Palestine, W.Va., Blair described the way Iraq War hero Jessica Lynch's father "choked up as he stood on his porch here overlooking the tobacco fields and cattle pastures...." The only problem was that there were no tobacco fields near the Lynch's home and Blair had never been to Palestine.
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz came up with five people -- including three soldiers' parents -- with whom Blair had faked interviews. That must have been sweet revenge for veteran Post staffers, who remembered how the Times had savaged them when it was disclosed that reporter Janet Cooke had perpetrated a Pulitzer Prize-winning hoax in 1981. "We do not know what possessed Ms. Cooke to invent an interview with an imaginary 8-year-old drug addict who aspired to grow up to be a heroin pusher in the nation's capital," the Times intoned in a pompous 1981 editorial. "We do know that the apologies and embarrassments all around can be only the first steps toward reaffirming a public trust." And the Times must now swallow a large dose of its own bitter medicine.
Prominent African-American journalists and writers were offended by Blair's duplicity. Nationally syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell said the Blair scandal "should have been a lesson to those who run the New York Times (but) because Jayson Blair is black, he was the beneficiary of a double standard that allowed him to continue messing up for years."
And Joseph Perkins of the San Diego Union-Tribune (and Appeal contributor) called the Blair case "an indictment" of the Times' affirmative action policy. "There's nothing wrong with newspapers ... hiring promising young black journalists as long as (they) also hire promising young white journalists," he wrote last Sunday.
"When the day comes that The New York Times and other news organizations practice colorblind hiring, when minorities are brought on staff as individuals rather than members of a special class, then the failings of one minority journalist ... won't reflect badly on us all," Perkins added. I agree but in the Jayson Blair case, skin color trumped journalistic accuracy and responsibility.
And how did young Jayson react to this outpouring of opprobrium? "I couldn't stop laughing," he told the New York Observer last Wednesday as he sought an agent to push for a half-million-dollar book deal. So much for ethics and morality in 21st century journalism. Meanwhile, Raines and Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. reiterated their commitment to diversity in the newsroom.
In my opinion, however, the New York Times would be a better newspaper if it understood diversity in another way -- in terms of the backgrounds, experiences and political pluralism of its journalists. On a truly great newspaper a young journalist should be able to enjoy career advancement by acting honorably and sticking to the facts, even if he or she were known to hold some politically incorrect views. Actually, that's something I learned in Journalism 101 at the University of Washington many years ago. How times have changed.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.