Accessibility links

U.S.: 'The New York Times' Scandalized Over Deceitful Reporter

  • Andrew Tully

A series of errors and deceptions by a staff reporter at "The New York Times" newspaper has led to the writer's resignation and an unusually lengthy account of his wrongdoing in the newspaper. The publication calls itself the newspaper of record. Some believe the incident may have badly damaged its credibility.

Washington, 14 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "The New York Times," one of the most prestigious newspapers in the United States, is trying to recover from the serious embarrassment of unwittingly publishing stories from a reporter who now admits to wholesale fabrication.

Jayson Blair resigned from the newspaper on 1 May, five days after one of his stories was challenged by the editor of a newspaper in Texas. Blair's article in the New York paper -- about a woman awaiting news of her son, who was missing in the Iraq war -- was strikingly similar to one that appeared in the Texas publication.

"The New York Times" quickly mounted an investigation and learned of many more cases of what it calls "journalistic fraud" by Blair, including inventing quotations and lying about where he was when on assignment.

The newspaper assigned five reporters to look into Blair's case. On 11 May, it published a long account in which it said it had found problems in 36 of the 73 stories Blair had written since he was assigned to the national desk at the "The New York Times" last autumn.

Such a breach of trust can be disastrous for an American newspaper, according to Sean Aday, an assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University in Washington.

Aday told RFE/RL that without credibility, newspapers and broadcasters have nothing to offer their readers and audiences, and will suffer financially until they can restore the public's confidence. If they cannot, they will simply go out of business, he said.

To prevent such abuses, U.S. news organizations are self-policing, Aday explained. Newspapers and news broadcasters exist in a culture of mutual trust, he said, with a mission to inform the public with articles of painstaking accuracy.

"The trust that they have with their readers is what, of course, keeps them alive commercially and, at the end of the day, all they really have is their integrity. And so I think that there's a personal motive for maintaining that integrity, and there's obviously a profit motive for doing so. I think that this has really damaged 'The New York Times'' credibility in a lot of ways," Aday said.

Aday said "The New York Times" can restore its readers' trust if it demonstrates that it is working hard to prevent a recurrence, and that Blair did not have too easy a time deceiving his editors.

In fact, Aday said, deceiving one's editors, especially at an American daily newspaper or at a broadcast station, is easier than one might think. Because of time constraints, he said, often there is little an editor can do to catch a deceptive reporter.

"There's always the danger of this, just because journalism is a deadline profession and it's easy for these things to slip through the cracks if someone wants them to," Aday said. "Mr. Blair went through a variety of subterfuges to hide what he was doing, and 'The New York Times' story on Sunday [11 May] said [the deceptions] would have been easily caught if anybody had really tried. But to catch those errors required really going through a lot of time and effort that frankly editors really don't have, especially at a paper like the 'Times.'"

A similar argument was made by Howell Raines, the executive editor of "The New York Times," in an interview on 9 May on "The News Hour With Jim Lehrer" on PBS television. He said the editing process at a large metropolitan daily newspaper is not designed to catch a person like Blair.

"It's designed to handle, to find the unintentional or accidental errors in the copy of people who are working in an atmosphere of mutual trust and integrity and holding a shared faith in the strict set of journalistic values that we observe here," Raines said. "This system is not set up to catch someone who sets out to lie and to use every means at his or her disposal to put false information into the paper."

Aday agreed with Raines -- but only up to a point. He noted that when Blair worked for the New York desk of "The New York Times" -- before his promotion to the newspaper's national desk -- the metropolitan editor wrote an e-mail to administrators in the newsroom that said: "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the 'Times.' Right now."

Such a blunt message is hard to misinterpret, Aday said, and yet Blair's shortcomings were overlooked. By last autumn, the paper was assigning him to cover some of the most important stories of nationwide interest.

This, according to Aday, completely nullifies the American journalistic principle of self-policing. "The system itself fell apart. I think at some level Raines is whitewashing the issue a bit because top editors ignored the advice from lower editors who thought the guy was a problem. And instead of doing anything about it, [they] actually promoted him. I think this was specifically a failure with Raines, and I think a failure at the paper in general," he said.

There are virtually no laws governing the practice of independent journalism in America. For the most part, they are civil, not criminal, laws, and they are limited to forbidding news organizations from deliberately or carelessly publishing material that leads to substantial adverse effects for a person, business or institution.

The most important law governing journalism is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids any law that would limit freedom of expression. The amendment specifically cites the news media because of its importance in helping preserve other freedoms, according to Robert Levy, a constitutional scholar at the Cato Institute, a private policy research center in Washington.

But Levy told RFE/RL that the framers of the U.S. Constitution did not take pains to cite journalism in order to set its free-speech rights on a higher plane than that of ordinary citizens.

"We all have First Amendment protections," he said. "The press happens to be specifically mentioned in the First Amendment because of the common law traditions of a free press that were considered to be essential for the preservation of liberty. But I don't think it's fair to characterize press privileges under the constitution as any more extensive than, say, my [personal] privilege."

Levy said the mention of the press is made simply because the media often have more influence on the voting public than an individual may have, and are more prominent in expressing their points of view.

As a result, Levy said, a newspaper or a radio news broadcaster has no more right to free speech -- and no more protection under the constitution -- than an ordinary American citizen. In fact, he said, any rights that journalists have derive from their basic human right of free expression.

He said freedom of expression "[is] a freedom that we had even before government -- that is, you can speak your mind about what you wish. So it's really confirmed by the First Amendment rather than conferred by the First Amendment."

Meanwhile, the embarrassment at "The New York Times" is far from over. The newspaper's investigation of Blair's work is continuing. Its focus is now shifting to more than 600 articles Blair wrote before his promotion to the national desk. And the newspaper is asking readers to report any problems they may know about to ensure that none of his errors -- or deceptions -- is overlooked.