Accuracy in Media

Much has been written and aired about the turmoil that has beset the New York Times since May 1, when the editors of that paper discovered that a story they had published by Jayson Blair, a young black who was a favorite of executive editor Howell Raines, included plagiarized material from a story in the San Antonio Express-News. Blair resigned that day. This led to an internal investigation that found that much of Blair’s reporting was based on falsifications and material copied from other papers.

The Times published its findings on Sunday, May 11, beginning on page one and filling four full pages inside. It said Blair had “misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland, Texas and other states, when often he was far away in New York. He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He stole material from other newspapers and wire services.” It found “problems in at least 36 of the 73 articles” Blair had written since he began reporting national stories in October 2002, when he was assigned to cover the Beltway sniper murders.

The Times had disregarded evidence that Blair’s reporting on that case differed from that of other reporters and what the authorities were saying. Howell Raines clearly had this in mind when he made this startling confession at a meeting of the entire newsroom staff on May 14.

“I believe in aggressively providing hiring and career opportunities for minorities. Does that mean I personally favored Jayson? 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.”

Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor at the Times, had recognized that Jayson Blair was a problem. In January 2002, according to the May 11 article, Landman gave Blair an evaluation pointing out that his correction rate was “extraordinarily high.” He sent copies to managing editor Gerald Boyd and assistant managing editor William E. Schmidt with a note saying, “There’s big trouble. I want both of you to be aware of.” In early April 2002, he wrote, “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.” Blair took several weeks of leave, and he was closely supervised when he returned to the metropolitan desk. He didn’t like that, and he successfully sought a transfer to the sports department. Landman warned the sports editor, “If you take Jayson, be careful.”

Shortly after that, Blair was moved to the national desk to help cover the sniper case. Landman and others on the metropolitan desk were surprised. The May 11 report says that Raines and Boyd picked Blair for this assignment. They didn’t tell the national editor, Jim Roberts, about his problems. Landman is quoted as saying, “Nobody was asking my opinion. What I thought was on the record abundantly.”

It is obvious that Raines and Boyd disregarded Landman’s warnings about Blair. It is fitting that they have paid the price for valuing diversity over accuracy. The Times has a long history of failing to acknowledge and correct its serious errors. In 1972, Edward W. Barrett, former dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, wrote about this, saying, “The Times has had no convenient place or easy formula for correcting errors today. Judging from mail that has been shown to me by offended citizens, it has a unit of staff members devoting virtually full time to writing letters explaining why a correction doesn’t seem justified or why it would do more harm than good.” If a correction could not be avoided, the Times used to run another story reporting the facts correctly without saying that it was correcting an error. There has been a little improvement since then, but not nearly enough.

Assistant managing editor Allan Siegal is heading a group that is considering recommendations for reforms that will help the Times regain the credibility it has lost. I have been telling Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. since he became chairman that he should adopt a policy of acknowledging serious errors and correcting them promptly and prominently. If he had adopted that policy when Jonathan Landman was warning that Jayson Blair spelled trouble, even Raines and Boyd would have gotten the message. Jonathan Landman and Gretchen Morgenson are responsible for recommendations on what to do about correcting errors. If they come up with a robust corrections policy that Mr. Sulzberger is willing to adopt, he and the Times will emerge from this scandal with vastly improved reputations.

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