Special Report

The Howell Problem

Did regard for the reader lead Howell Raines to overlook Jayson Blair's trail of journalistic malfeasance? No, liberalism did.

By 5.13.03

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New York Times executives say that their tarnished newspaper needs "better communication." No, it needs better judgment. Reports of Jayson Blair's deviousness and gross incompetence were communicated to top Times editors. They just didn't want to listen.

If publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. sincerely wants to clean up the mess, he can take a very simple, honest course of action: promote the editors who red-flagged Blair; demote or fire the editors who ignored those warnings.

But Sulzberger isn't likely to take such hardheaded action. In his soft, let's-not-demonize-anyone liberal style, he is busy circling the wagons for the editor-enablers of Blair. The Wall Street Journal quotes him as saying, "This is not a Howell problem," a reference to his race-obsessed editor Howell Raines. But it clearly is a Howell problem.

The Raines-Sulzberger emphasis on liberalism and diversity over honest journalism has obviously contributed to the lowering of standards at the paper. When the organizing principle of a newspaper is not journalistic excellence but liberal "fairness," scandals like this one are bound to happen. Did regard for the reader lead Raines to overlook Blair's trail of journalistic malfeasance? No, liberalism did.

Examine Sulzberger's quotes and it is clear that liberalism holds a higher priority for him than quality journalism. To take one example, he told the Wall Street Journal that he is glad the Times doesn't monitor its reporters, lest the paper turn into a "police state." "Do we have a system designed to uncover venality? No, we don't, and you know something, I guess I am not unhappy with that," he said. In other words, treating his employees with liberal beneficence is more important to him than protecting his readers from fraud.

Not that Sulzberger's liberal beneficence extends to all Times employees. Recall his firing of employees a few years ago for misusing e-mail. He somehow manages to monitor e-mails but not front-page news stories. The Wall Street Journal reported that fired employees said the offending e-mails "included jokes about men and women, about blondes, and about Ebonics, the controversial theory regarding speech patterns used by some African-Americans." Sulzberger probably did have grounds for firing employees who transmitted obscene e-mails. But surely he could show equal vigilance toward his employees writing not mere e-mails but stories of national significance.

Why didn't he? Why did the Times give Blair multiple passes? Why were they so afraid to "stigmatize" him? Even the Los Angeles Times knows the answer to this question. Tim Rutten, one of its media critics, writes: "The least credible and complete portion of the Times' account is its categorical denial that the unusual tolerance and solicitude the paper accorded Blair, who is African American, had anything to do with his race. Like other major American news organizations, the Times has in recent years made strenuous efforts to compensate for the decades of discrimination that kept women and minority reporters out of their newsrooms. The New York Times, in particular, has had demonstrable difficulties recruiting and retaining black reporters and editors."

The New York Times, continues Rutten, doesn't acknowledge "the close mentor-protégé relationship that apparently existed between Blair and the Times' managing editor, Gerald Boyd, who also is African American. By the Times' account, Boyd was head of a committee that recommended Blair be hired, despite the reservations of other editors. Boyd, along with Raines, pushed the inexperienced reporter with a poor record onto the prestigious national staff."

According to Rutten, in 2001 Blair "nominated Boyd for the National Assn. of Black Journalists' journalist of the year award for his role in producing the Pulitzer Prize-winning series 'How Race Is Lived in America.' When Boyd subsequently was promoted to managing editor, according to sources at the Times, Blair was selected to write the announcement for the paper's in-house newsletter."

Rutten illogically argues that these facts "stand just as strongly as an argument for making sure that women and minorities are represented in appropriate numbers," but at least he allows that it "may be that the paucity of black reporters at the Times led editors there to make extraordinary -- and ultimately disastrous --accommodations for a clearly troubled young reporter."

Orville Schell, dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, revealingly commented to Rutten: "It's my experience that every media outlet, particularly the New York Times, is very conscious of its need to diversify its newsroom. When they come to recruit our graduates, they are most interested in filling their diversity needs. They want the minority graduates, but they don't have any ready provision to help them through the system. It's like a ladder with rungs missing."

In the Times's mea culpa, it says vaguely that Blair was expert at office politics. True. He was expert at the minority office politics of Sulzberger and Raines. He didn't game the system; he came out of it. That the Blair incident would happen at the race-obsessed New York Times is no more surprising than that Quincy T. Troupe, California's poet laureate until sacked, could teach for years at affirmative-action state schools without administrators bothering to find out that he never graduated from college.

Why is it surprising that fraudulent ideas like affirmative action would lead to fraud?

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About the Author
George Neumayr, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is co-author, with Phyllis Schlafly, of the new book, No Higher Power: Obama's War on Religious Freedom.