How Low Will the Times Go?

“A low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.” That’s how The New York Times last week referred to the massive journalistic fraud committed by one of its reporters, Jayson Blair, who has now resigned: “He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted materials from other newspapers and wire services.” At least half of his articles since last October had something rotten in them. New inaccuracies turn up daily in the almost 700 articles Blair wrote during his four years with the Times.

Blair’s productivity — he placed an average of seven articles every 10 work days –was too good to be true. Some commentators have said that Blair was hired, promoted and protected by Times executives because he is black, but he is a good writer (of fiction if not fact), and good writers are hard to find.

For example, here’s a recent lead: “Sarai Thompson had finally been able to get some rest after hours of tossing and turning. Then, she recalls, she rolled over and saw her husband tucked under the white covers beside her, and she began to cry. He was not really there or anywhere in their two-story white town house just outside Camp Lejeune. He was 6,500 miles away in the desert of Iraq.”

Editors like to trust good writers, although the Times went to an extreme last fall when Blair landed a front-page exclusive about the D.C. sniper suspect based on purported interviews with five unidentified law enforcement sources; editors did not ask him to identify any of those sources. Nor did they check his expense account filings (or sometimes lack of filings) that would have shown he wrote some stories from distant states without ever leaving home.

Times spokesmen acknowledged some responsibility and an organizational lack of communication among editors, but they cast blame largely on “a troubled young man veering toward professional self-destruction.” Venerable Times columnist William Safire defended his employer and suggested that the Blair affair is allowing conservative critics to practice (SET ITAL) schadenfreude, (END ITAL) what Germans call “the guilty pleasure one secretly takes in another’s suffering.” That’s clever and it might be true, except that the influence of the Times is such that when it fails, millions of innocent people suffer.

In the early 1930s, for example, Times Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty helped Joseph Stalin cover up a Soviet extermination campaign that claimed millions of lives, mostly in the Ukraine — and when other reporters told the truth, Duranty libeled them. In the late 1960s, the Times beat the pro-abortion drum so loudly that the Supreme Court began to listen, and the cost was many more millions of lives.

Blair’s misconduct was spectacular, but no one died because of it, so the Times has certainly had many lower points in the 152 years since Henry Raymond, a conservative Christian, founded it.

If Times executive editor Howell Raines wants to restore reader trust, he could begin by supporting the efforts of Ukrainians who want the Pulitzer Prize board to revoke its award to Duranty seven decades ago. The Times could tell the truth about abortionists, as it did during the 1870s. Raines could work to diversify the newsroom by adding biblical evangelicals and orthodox Jews likely to produce stories that have a firmer foundation than just snappy prose.

Raines, in setting up a committee to address what went wrong in the Blair affair, stipulated that the committee would include members from outside the newspaper. Here’s a challenge, Mr. Raines: If your statement that “we have nothing to hide” is more than public relations smoke, include as outside-the-newspaper members experienced journalists like William Proctor (author of “The Gospel According to The New York Times“) or Russ Braley (author of “Bad News: The Foreign Policy of The New York Times“).

Maybe the Times will listen to its critics and find ways to rebound from not only this public relations disaster but from disasters that devastated the public.