A FAILURE OF JOURNALISM
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- When I was working in daily journalism, I continually irritated the night editors with my frantic calls begging them to change a word in a story or make a sentence clearer. And I would often wake up in the middle of the night, panicked that I had misattributed a quote or gotten a tax figure wrong.
Night-sweats are fairly common among journalists because our most important charge is to get things right. That's why the recent Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times has caused such a sensation in newspaper circles.
I don't know whether the general public is as interested in Blair as most journalists are. I know a recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll reports that only 36 percent of the population believe news organizations get their facts straight, anyway. (It was 54 percent in 1989.) This is pretty depressing, because the one thing the Blair debacle showed is how many deeply honest, ethical and concerned newspaper people there are.
Blair, for those of you who live on Mars, is the young African-American journalist who squandered one of the most coveted opportunities in journalism - reporting on important national stories for the Times - by making up quotes, filing stories from America's heartland when he was actually in Brooklyn, plagiarizing other writers' work, sucking up to the Times management and generally acting in a despicable manner for years before he was caught.
Thus Blair earns membership in a small but choice Journalism Hall of Shame with Janet Cooke, who falsified a story that won her and The Washington Post a Pulitzer Prize (the Village Voice got it instead), Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith of The Boston Globe, and Stephen Glass of The New Republic, Rolling Stone and George, who just published a novel about a guy like himself who fabricates news stories and fills them with fictional people.
The journalism world is buzzing about Blair, but where we once traded news and gossip around the water cooler, in the Internet age we do it nationally, on-line, at Romanesko (www.poynter.org). For weeks, Jim Romanesko's site has been jammed with Blair news, Blair commentary, and even Blair limericks. Here's a sample contributed by writer Jayne Cannon: A book deal they say Blair will ink/Seven figures? That's cause for a drink./Hard work is just folly/Just fake it, by golly/And if ethics should nag you, don't think.
The Blair case has diminished the industry's respect for the Times. For example, Rocky Mountain News editor John Temple cautioned his editors about running Times wire copy with anonymous sources. This is an "astonishing development," writes Michael Roberts for Denver's Westword.com, "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."
Several commentators have pointed out that the Times deserves this suspicion. "Blair seems more and more like a scapegoat, a way of saying, my gosh! How could this happen at a paper which never makes mistakes?" said cartoonist Tom Tomorrow on his webblog, This Modern World (thismodernworld.com). "Tell it to Wen Ho Lee."
Many newspapers are taking a hard look at their reporters. The Times suspended Rick Bragg for using reporting done by his assistant - something that seems to have been routine at the Times until recently. "Obviously, I'm taking a bullet here," Bragg said.
The Hartford Courant fired a long-time food writer over two plagiarized passages. Even at the New York Post, where it is hard to imagine that anyone knows the meaning of the word "ethics," editors have admitted that a freelancer lifted a Kathie Lee Gifford story from The National Enquirer. It's hard to fall lower than that.
Many newspapers have revisited their own ethical guidelines. For example, the Miami Herald laid out these: credit wire service stories; credit contributors; attribute quotes and tell where you got them, i.e. phone, television press conference; use datelines only if the reporter was actually in the location.
Of course, the Herald is still defending its false crucifixion of Jose Santos for urging on Funny Cide in the Kentucky Derby with an electric buzzer it turns out he didn't have.
The Times has formed an internal committee to conduct a comprehensive review "to determine when, where, how and why our newsroom's culture, organizational processes and actions led to a failure of journalism."
They should ask Blair, who told the New York Observer, "If they're so brilliant, how come they didn't catch me?"
All over the country, the kinds of reporters who call up their editors just before midnight to change a word, and who wake up in the middle of the night worrying that they got the property tax figure wrong, are furious that Blair's disregard for journalistic ethics has tarnished everyone.
For example, Dennis Rockstroh of the San Jose Mercury News wrote about interviewing fishermen on a pier and then worrying if his editors would be able to find the men to check the quotes. "You don't have to do this," Rockstroh told himself. "You're not a Jayson Blair."
Journalism is vulnerable to people like Blair because, as Mike Fancher, the executive editor of the Seattle Times said, "it presumes people are honorable." And hundreds of thousands of editors and reporters across the country really are honorable. There are only a few connivers and careerists like Blair.
It is all to the good that newspapers are tightening their guidelines, refocusing their attention on journalistic ethics, and making the general population more aware of the commitment of newspapers have to getting the facts right and the stories true and printing corrections whenever they fail to do so.
Despite Blair, our nation is filled with talented professional journalists who will happily work long and hard for (mostly) peanuts - and the respect of only 34 percent of the population - because they love and honor the art and craft of journalism.
That excludes the people in television news, of course.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.