Journalism professors across the country continue to lament the long-term consequences of the Jayson Blair/New York Times scandal. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, one professor declared the scandal a “taint on everyone and everything in the news media today,” “Who can you trust,” she adds, “if you can’t trust the Times.” Worse yet, the most flagrant abusers of the public’s trust are making big money off their violations of journalistic ethics.
For example, former New Republic reporter Stephen Glass signed a six-figure book deal for a novel after he admitted making up stories for the liberal weekly during the 1990s. CBS’ 60 Minutes showcased him in an exclusive interview, which inevitably helped promote his book. Glass’ novel was widely panned and didn’t make any best-seller lists. But he got a lucrative film contract anyway. Likewise, Jayson Blair is currently negotiating a book deal and will probably end up with a movie deal as well.
The Buffalo News recently proposed an interesting solution to journalistic frauds profiting from their deceit. A journalism professor suggests that states adopt a “Son of Sam” law targeted against the Jayson Blairs of the profession. The original “Son of Sam” law was passed in 1977 to prevent convicted serial killer David Berkowitz from profiting from his murders. The law enabled states to confiscate any profits from book or movie deals and pass these along to Berkowitz’s victims or their families.
The professor admitted that the proposal was made half in jest. But he added, “We’ve got to do something to stop journalists from making money off their sins.” He worries that “a generation of young journalists is coming of age in a media era where ethical misdeeds are turning into cash cows.” First amendment experts told the News that states could collect profits made by fraud. But the original “Son of Sam” law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1991 because it was judged to restrict free speech.
The journalism professor quoted in the Christian Science Monitor agrees that our current value system rewards notoriety. To her, journalism simply “reflects the values of our culture.” She is certain that more Jayson Blairs or Stephen Glasses will be uncovered in the nation’s news rooms. She writes that her students consider the fundamental rules of journalism, like don’t make stories up and don’t steal someone else’s work, to be “quaint and outdated.”
Both professors agree that editors and news executives are ultimately responsible for policing news rooms. As one noted, these executives now routinely proclaim that they would rather get the story right than be first. But she worries that editors are similarly infected with such values and that makes future scandals practically inevitable. The Times’ former editor, Howell Raines, complained that newsrooms aren’t “set up to monitor for cheats and fabricators.” A simple first step, which Accuracy in Media has advocated for years, would be for editors to routinely, promptly, and comprehensively correct their errors. But don’t hold your breath.