There are so many smellier corpses in the New York Times’s mausoleum, not to mention that larger graveyard of truth known as the Fourth Estate, that it’s hard to get too upset about what Jayson Blair did. Oh, to be sure, he made up a bunch of not very important stuff, and he’s embarrassed the hell out of his former colleagues and his publisher.
But from all the editorial hand-wringing you’d think he’d undermined the very foundations of the Republic. It reminds me of a New York Times editorial back in 1982, commenting on what began with my own expose of Christopher Jones, a young man who had written an article in the New York Times magazines about a visit to Cambodia during which he claimed to have seen Pol Pot through binoculars.
In this same piece Jones made the mistake of plagiarizing an entire paragraph from Andre Malraux’s novel La Voie Royale, and I pointed this out in a column in the Village Voice, adding the obvious point that Jones’s binoculars must have been extremely powerful to have allowed Jones to recognize Pol Pot, let alone describe his eyes as “dead and stony.”
My item stirred the Washington Post to point an accusing finger. Then the Times itself unleashed a huge investigation of the wretched Jones and ran a pompous editorial proclaiming that, “It may not be too much to say that, ultimately, it debases democracy.”
I remember thinking at the time that as a democracy-debaser Jones looked like pretty small potatoes, and it’s the same way with Jayson Blair now. He made up quotes, invented scenes, and plagiarized the work of other reporters, and if senior Times editors had not been as optimistically forgiving as, say, the Catholic hierarchy in dealing with a peccant priest, Blair would, and should, have been promptly fired after his second major screw-up.
But in the larger scale of things these improprieties are of no great consequence. The people into whose mouths he put imaginary words, and from whose imagined front porch he pretended to see tobacco fields instead of tract homes are not notably put out. Ordinary Americans reckon that since you shouldn’t believe a word of anything you read in a newspaper or hear over the airwaves, what’s so different about Jayson Blair?
The biggest story Blair was involved in was the Washington sniper story. Deployed by his editors into the media feeding frenzy following Muhammad and Malvo’s arrests, he invented quotes which he attributed to unnamed prosecutors and FBI officials, and which they then angrily denounced. Again, these fabrications don’t seem to have had much effect on anything.
But day after day, in the New York Times and other major newspapers, one comes across blind quotes, dropped by “White House sources” or “senior administration officials,” relayed by reporters and columnists mostly without any warning label alerting the public that such-and-such a quote was a volley in some savage bureaucratic feud and should be regarded with extreme suspicion.
The Jayson Blair scandal comes on the heels of what was one of the most intensive bouts of botched reporting, wild speculation and straightforward disingenuous lying in the history of American journalism, a bout which prompted an invasion, many deaths and now — given the way things are currently headed — the likelihood of mass starvation. In other words, the lousy reporting really had consequences.
The invasion of Iraq was premised on the existence of weapons of mass destruction. None has yet been found and most of the US detective teams are now wanly returning home. Did the New York Times assist in this process of deception? Very much so. Just look through the clips file of one of its better known reporters, Judith Miller.
It was Miller who first launched the supposedly knowledgeable Iraqi nuclear scientist Khidir Hamza on the world, crucial to the US government’s effort to portray a nuclear-capable Saddam. Miller it was who most recently wrote a story about a supposed discovery of a chemical WMD site, based entirely on the say-so of a US military unit about an Iraqi scientist whom Miller was not permitted to identify, let alone meet and interview.
Thus far there’s been no agonized reprise from the Times on its faulty estimate of the credibility of Hamza. And though Blair’s fabrications about the home-coming of Jessica Lynch were minutely dissected neither the Times nor any other paper has had anything to say about the charges made in the London Times that the “heroic” rescue of Lynch was from an undefended hospital under circumstances very different and less creditable than those heralded by a Pentagon desperate for good publicity during a time when the invasion seemed to have faltered amid unexpectedly stiff resistance.
In fact, for the Times the Blair scandal might well turn out to be a pr boost for the newspaper, proof that it is manly enough to ’fess up properly and take its punishment, that Blair was but one lone bad apple in a sound barrel, an apple furthermore that only got into the barrel because of a laudable indulgence towards an African-American, forgiven his sins because he was black.
As Glen Ford, who writes a acridly brilliant web commentary, the Black Commentator, remarks apropos a theme of much white punditry on Blair, that somehow it’s all the fault of affirmative action, “Black people bear no onus for white incompetence in selecting Black people to carry out white corporate missions.”
Then Ford contrasts the humdrum fabrications of Blair with a run-of-the-mill piece of reporting that appeared on May 5, in a report by Times-man Adam Nagourney. Nagourney discussed the televised Democratic primary debate in South Carolina. There was only one problem, and it apparently didn’t bother Nagourney’s editors. He mentioned only six of the nine candidates: Lieberman, Kerry, Edwards, Gephardt, Dean and Graham. In over 1,000 words, Nagourney failed to once note the existence of Al Sharpton, Carole Moseley-Braun or Dennis Kucinich. The two Blacks and the leftist got purged from the newspaper of record.
That’s why I can’t get too troubled about Jayson Blair. The Times has it coming, for a thousand more serious reasons that haven’t ever bothered its editors or its publisher.