Just the other month the New York Times published an op-ed by a CNN honcho that read like a suicide note from the credibility-challenged cable network. Now it has published a much longer if similar note about itself and the Jayson Blair affair. Or maybe one should say it's just dropped the big one on itself. It'll take days and weeks and longer to assess the fallout. If executive editor Howell Raines were at Enron, his name would be Kenneth Lay.
Sunday's report of its investigation into the Blair scandal simply takes one's breath away. Let's start with what's said. The paper concedes that reporter Blair committed countless acts of plagiarism, misrepresentation, and other deviousness over the course of his meteoric Times career. It admits Blair was appointed and promoted by the paper's top guns, despite warnings from less powerful editors at the paper (which immediately puts the lie to its official claim that what the paper had here was a failure to communicate). It denies any of this had anything to do with its open championing of affirmative action, the elephant in the room it mistakes for a gnat.
NPR's "All Things Considered," of all networks, recently posed this question to Raines, as recorded by the Media Research Center's Times Watch:
"Mr. Raines, you spoke to a convention of the National Association of Black Journalists in 2001, and you specifically mentioned Jayson Blair as an example of the Times spotting and hiring the best and brightest reporters on their way up. You said, 'This campaign has made our staff better and, more importantly, more diverse.' And I wonder now, looking back, if you see this as something of a cautionary tale, that maybe Jayson Blair was given less scrutiny or more of a pass on the corrections to his stories that you had to print because the paper had an interest in cultivating a young, black reporter."
As on the Lehrer "NewsHour" last Friday, Raines will give nothing more than an evasive answer to any such question. On NPR he replied nonsensically, "I don't want to demonize Jayson, but this is a tragedy of failure on his part." What in the world is "tragedy of failure"? Plus, you've got to love that Freudian slip, in which Raines puts a higher premium on diversity than on quality.
As for not wanting to demonize Jayson, that's exactly what the Times has done, but without taking any responsibility for its own actions. If John Ashcroft had compiled Sunday's report, the paper would have squawked that his privacy had been violated at every turn. But with a huge score to settle and even greater embarrassment to escape, the Times gives it hard and good to its once proud project. Among other things we learn that he drank too much scotch, ran up tabs at bars, borrowed company cars and accumulated parking tickets on them (was he moonlighting at the U.N.?), smoked heavily, ate junk food, and was as sloppy in his appearance as he was in his work. On top of that, he had maxed out on his credit card. What a loser!
One has to wonder how much respect Blair had for the earnest liberals who championed his cause -- or was it just resentment? He's reported to have "held [his] nose" when writing one apology to an editor for errors he'd made. In another case he tried to pull rank by threatening he'd go to the top editors who'd hired him. He was always being offered counseling. "We wanted him to succeed," insisted one editor who'd caught him out more than once. The metro editor who warned higher-ups that "there's big trouble [with Blair] I want you to be aware of," was also the same editor who, as Howard Kurtz reported last week, wrote this in a note to Blair early last year during another rough patch: "We'll be watching, cheering and biting our fingernails in the grandstand. We're rooting for you."
Is there anything worse about affirmative action than the extent to which it patronizes its charges (and thus locks them into the condition it was supposed to alleviate)?
Anyway you look at it, Howell Raines is in deep trouble. Just how deep is driven home by his final remarks in Sunday's confessional, at the very end of the piece. In noting that he is appointing a task force "to identify lessons for the newspaper," the report says about Raines: "He repeatedly quoted a lesson he said he learned long ago from A.M. Rosenthal, a former executive editor.
"'When you're wrong in this profession, there is only one ting to do,' he said. 'And that is get right as fast as you can.'"
Raines relying on Abe Rosenthal -- indeed, giving the last word to Rosenthal -- the very man who was so unceremoniously dumped by the new regime that brought Raines to power? It appears that one lesson is already clear: If Rosenthal were still in charge, none of this would have happened.