It has become journalism’s book of Job, the struggle waged on the pages of the May 11, 2003, edition of the New York Times. As if two unseen forces, that of politically correct and that of correct procedure, had decided to visit upon the Gray Lady the ultimate testing, in the personification of one Jayson Blair. They are still picking through the wreckage, finding clues as to what went wrong and why the moral fitness of the newspaper was so sorely tested by what seemed so simple a case. Why PC won over CP.
The easiest dissection: it was the leadership’s fervor for diversity that allowed a black youth who hadn’t graduated from college yet to con them all for so long. That is too easy, too evident (though there have been some amazing pundits who absolutely refuse to concede that affirmative action or racial preference had anything to do with this matter). The gravamen of the case lies not in the edgy statements of the executives; it is found in the introductory statement of Blair himself. It succintly tells the story of why and how journalism as a calling has descended into the abyss of liberal partisanship.
“I’ve seen some who like to abuse the power they have been entrusted with,” the Times quotes Blair as writing in seeking his internship. But, he concludes, “my kindred spirits are the ones who became journalists because they wanted to help people.” That won them over, won Blair the flaming sword, to guard well, hold high, and eventually trip over, bringing down with him the credibility of his employers.
“Helping people” is not the goal of journalism, though it is the driving force of many young people who see the profession as a means of changing the world to a place more of their liking and taste. And any editor who sees “helping people” as the guiding light of young applicants must carefully ask, “How?” Will it be in the course of the things you write about, the facts you include in complex stories and those you choose to omit?
The reporter on the scene is the first filter of truth. No matter what editing and rewrite processes follow, they will be conditioned by that first responder. An executive producer of one of the most successful of television network newscasts drummed into his field reporters “there is a good guy and a bad guy in all these stories — and I want it plain to the viewer from your reports which is which.” And in two minutes, 35 seconds running time.
Much has been said and will be said about the motives and actions of those who kept Jayson Blair in print all those months, but so long as “helping people” is the open sesame to the journalistic portals then the business those who are in it insist is a profession will remain wounded, shackled.
Yet, even in such a mythic enterprise as visiting a Jayson Blair on the landscape of the New York Times there is poetic justice. Think of all the interns who have been compromised by bosses, from the White House to the newsroom to the board room.
Dare we say it? Turnabout is fair play.