The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: May 30, 2003
... so goes the nation: Newspapers failure echoes our own devaluation of truth
By RAYMOND A. SCHROTH
I had my first experience with the importance of The New York Times getting the story right when Fordham Universitys communications department denied me tenure in 1976.
This became news when, in response to faculty and student protest, Fordhams president, Jesuit Fr. James R. Finlay asked the faculty senate to overrule the department.
I sat in my room in a student dormitory across from a very young reporter from the Times one late October night and I felt as if he were my heart surgeon. A lot of faculty, perhaps some on the senate, did not like publicity and especially didnt like the Times. My life was in his hands.
Some Catholics say the Times does not speak to or for them: Some detect a certain anti-Catholicism and think it has used the priest scandals to embarrass the church. Others sense not so much old-fashioned anti-Catholic bigotry as a tone of ignorant disdain for religion.
But the explosion of resentment against the Times in response to the case of Jayson Blair, the young black reporter who systematically faked and plagiarized in 36 out of 73 stories over four years as a national correspondent, has revealed more about the complex relationship between this newspaper and the national consciousness in which it is embedded.
On big stories like the Washington sniper, the return of rescued Jessica Lynch, and the grieving families of Iraq war casualties, he made up quotes, pretended to travel when he really stayed home. Editors had warned him about his errors and sloppiness. One sent a memo that they had to stop him from writing for the Times. But Blair survived and moved up. Why?
A good newspaper records the communitys history, binds people to one another, guards their freedoms and guarantees democracy. It protects the language, promotes the arts. It is the communitys conscience -- its soul.
It seems to me that, especially since it has become in recent years the national newspaper, the Times has done most of these things so well that any failure in the Times building on 43rd Street is like a geological fault in the whole professions -- even the nations -- understanding of itself.
If the Times has failed, so have we. This does not lessen their responsibility. It distributes it.
I belong to three institutions -- the church, the university and the press -- whose whole being hangs on the public perception of their integrity. All three claim access to the truth. If we dont fearlessly pursue it -- including when we fail -- we are nothing. If priests and teachers put up with sermons unprepared, self-indulgence, sycophancy, late and sloppy term papers, absences and evasions, who should listen to us?
Reading and listening to three weeks of news stories, pundits and other huffers-and-puffers, three theories stand out:
Blair is a newsroom diversity train off the track. Some blacks resent this idea, as if it implies blackness makes a reporter more likely to cheat. They point to The Boston Globes white Mike Barnicle, who used unattributed material in his column and now writes a column for the New York Daily News, and white Stephen Glass, who published fabrications in The New Republic and has marketed his disgrace into a much-reviewed novel.
But it is reasonable to conclude that Blair -- like The Washington Posts Janet Cooke, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a story on a nonexistent 8-year-old heroin addict -- was subjected to less critical scrutiny because newspapers desperately want young black reporters to succeed.
In fact, New York Times executive editor Howell Raines admitted as much when he was grilled by his staff at a May 14 open meeting.
Did he personally favor Blair? Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave him one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the sniper team. When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes.
Blair is symptomatic of a larger management problem at the Times. Raines, his critics say, is too autocratic, doesnt listen, is too susceptible to cronyism, too inclined to sic a disproportionate number of reporters on stories that energize him personally -- like the move to get women members into the Augusta National golf course.
Yet, he so poured his resources into coverage of the World Trade Center and the Iraq war that the Times pages became a cathedral where we could eulogize our dead, and the parliament our political leaders failed to provide to debate the meaning of this war.
Read any history of the Times, like Gay Taleses classic The Kingdom and the Power, to see how personalities affect an institution. St. Clair McKelway, famous 1890s editor of The Brooklyn Eagle, once pronounced: The fun of having a newspaper is to run it just the way you please.
Of course that was long ago. Today priests, professors, and newspaper men and women demand to be listened to and taken seriously. Raines has told his angry staff that he has heard them.
Blair is a sign of a culture that has lost interest in the value and meaning of truth. For the most part the people whom Blair misquoted did not complain until the Times called later to investigate.
A network TV reporter told me recently of an elite high school class he was teaching where all the students said they would fake a hurricane story from Florida by staging scenes if the hurricane had not arrived by broadcast time.
The BBC has just revealed that the Pentagon staged the Iraq rescue footage of Jessica Lynch: The Iraqi guards had fled the hospital the day before. Newsweek put the misleading story on the cover. Will they print a correction?
Our best-selling historians have printed unattributed material their researchers lifted from someone else.
According to NPRs On the Media, radio and TV reporters habitually produce stories, without credit, researched by print reporters.
Students hand in research papers on The Scarlet Letter ripped off the Internet and teachers dont bother to check -- or punish.
Who will care? For too many media consumers, the Times internal moral indignation at its own self strikes them as quaint.
Catholic observers have suggested that the Times might now display some humble sympathy with the church. Like the bishops, they overlooked the sins of their staff member and shifted him from one post to another without informing the new pastor/editor that the guy had problems.
On the other hand, when editor Raines finally caught on, he had a team investigate, published four-plus pages of findings, filled a theater with staff members, encouraged them to yell at him for over an hour, apologized and promised to change. How many bishops have done that?
I feel for the professors at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland at College Park. Their dean, Thomas Kunkel, has sent a letter saying this is not the Jayson they knew. True, Kunkel says, the student was later described as a polarizing figure, with a strain of immaturity, contentious and hypercompetitive, but also an inspiration to his fellow students.
Kunkel stresses that everyone takes the required journalism ethics course and that plagiarism is punished.
The dean has ordered a Times-like review of all the articles Blair wrote for the colleges own news service. Perhaps he should also ask faculty to disclose their incompletes, grades and letters of recommendation for Jayson Blair.
But their super embarrassment is that Blair never graduated. The Times article implied that this was news to the Times. The dean says the Times should have known.
Is the Times so desperate to bring a black man on that, like pro basketball and football teams, they dont let him graduate from college? Is Maryland so anxious to give a graduate a boost that the faculty promotes a questionable candidate who for some reason hasnt even finished?
A Newsweek investigation, published May 19, portrays Blair as a manic-depressive, alcoholic drug abuser -- which the Times must have known but was too genteel to state outright. But most remarkable was Blairs ability to manipulate people -- from teachers to editors -- with excuses and fast talk.
Faculty members often go gaga over a star student whom his or her peers see through. Kunkel acknowledges reports of slipshod or possibly unethical behavior during Blairs tenure at the college paper, The Diamondback. During Blairs internship at The Boston Globe he sent back a column in which he claimed he had been sexually abused as a young boy. No facts -- whos, whats, whens or wheres -- to pin the story down, and many of his classmates did not believe a word of it. But nobody blew the whistle.
We priests, teachers, and editors do not serve young people well when we do not confront them and their future employers with the truth -- no matter how uncomfortable the confrontations.
The Times reporter who interviewed me in 1976 got no byline, but his name was Michael Goodwin. He did a fine job, and I won tenure. Apparently there were two Michael Goodwins who wrote for the Times that year. One is now the executive editor of the New York Daily News, but he doesnt remember me. The other Michael, wherever you are, I thank you.
Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth teaches journalism ethics at St. Peters College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is email@example.com
National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 2003
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