Washington — The dark times at the New York Times grow darker. Just days after the paper flagellates itself with a front-page story admitting that it repeatedly published fabricated stories full of plagiarism and other journalistic sleight-of-hand from a 27-year-old con-man reporter whom the editors of the Slippery Rock Herald would have apprehended, the indispensable Drudge Report announces that “at least two more NY Times reporters are being investigated for possible journalistic irregularities.” Drudge, one of modern American journalism’s prodigies (and naturally a fellow objurgated by establishment journalists everywhere), goes on the reproduce a memo from the Times‘ editors calling all “newsroom colleagues” to “an open forum.”
Apparently the sufferings of the New York Times will continue for a while. CNN.com reports that the newspaper’s con-man reporter, Jayson Blair, is under investigation by the U. S. Attorney’s Office. Precisely what the corpus delicti might be is still unclear, but CNN reports: “Federal officials publicly criticized a front-page, exclusive article of Blair’s that said the U.S. attorney had forced investigators to end their questioning of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad just as he was ready to confess.” Yes, it seems that young Blair was sent down to Washington to cover the delicate prosecution of a very important news story, despite his shoddy record at the newspaper. In its tortured revelations about Blair the other day, the Times admits that over three and a half years his editors had made fifty corrections in his work.
Anyone familiar with reporters from the Times knows that they are among the best in the business, and as I noted during the Three Week War, the quality of writing in the paper is often superb. I put the paper’s John Burns in a class with World War II’s Ernie Pyle. But investigative reporters such as Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta are first-rate also. Imagine how these fine journalists must have suffered working alongside such an obvious fraud as Blair. The real culprits in this scandal are the editors, or at least some of the editors. I have heard of them repeatedly bottling up fine reportage that they did not want revealed to their readers, particularly during the Clinton scandals. Now we know they promoted at least one obvious huckster, and Drudge suggests more will be exposed.
Even in its self-flagellatory report on Blair the Times was disingenuous, suggesting that such misbehavior had not been uncovered before. I have been keeping a file on journalistic (and scholarly) hoaxers and plagiarists for years. The file is several inches thick. This sort of misbehavior is more rampant today than at any time in modern journalism. Moreover, not all the fabricators and plagiarists once caught are exiled from the media as they should be. One still sees the plagiarist Mike Barnicle and fellow plagiarist Doris Kearns Goodwin figuring prominently in the media. And the Times should have come clean about other instances of fabrication and plagiarism in its pages.
I have in hand the February 2002 expose of one Michael Finkel , a contributor to the New York Times Magazine, who fabricated a story about a poor Ivory Coast laborer. Finkel was fired. Then there was the incomparable escapade of the Times star reporter and Boston bureau chief, Fox Butterfield. In 1991 he reported on a speech plagiarized by a Boston University scholar. Amazingly, in reporting the scholar’s plagiarism, Butterfield himself plagiarized from the Boston Globe. He was given a one-week suspension. I do look forward to Drudge’s further reports on the Times gone bad.
Yet there is hope. Earlier this week I attended the annual dinner of the Phillips Foundation, where that foundation gives fellowships to young journalists intent on doing important journalistic work. Eight fellowships were given. All recipients struck me as capable and promising, and there was one young man from the New York Times; not only that but he is the very same age as the fallen Blair, 27. Mike Porath is a producer for the New York Times on the Web. Having traveled the world, back pack slung from his shoulders, reporter’s notebook in hand, he returned to these shores with a plan to write about Saudi Arabia and a problem he saw there that breeds terrorism. According to his thesis, Saudi Arabia despite its wealth fails “to prepare its youth for a world in which tolerance and innovation are necessary for economic growth.” Now thanks to the generosity of the Phillips Foundation, he will have $50,000 to write about it. Possibly in a year or so the revitalized Times will publish his reportage.