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New York Times: Management Failure?

May 12, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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TERENCE SMITH: In an extraordinary 14,000-word report that filled four full pages of its Sunday edition, The New York Times yesterday recounted how one of its reporters fabricated all or part of at least 36 stories that appeared in the paper during the last six months.

Describing what it called a “low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper,” The Times wrote of the reporter, 27-year-old Jayson Blair, “he fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He stole material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.”

The Times also took the unusual step of inviting readers to report any additional falsehoods they might know of in Mr. Blair’s work to a special Web site. Blair resigned from The Times May 1, after apologizing and citing “personal problems,” but the reverberations of his actions continue.

The Boston Globe is now investigating possible problems with stories Blair wrote when he was a summer intern for the paper in 1996 and 1997. The Times’ narrative account, put together by five reporters and based on 150 interviews, details how Blair used his cell phone and laptop computer to fool his editors about his whereabouts.

The article that ultimately unmasked Blair was an interview with the family of an American soldier missing in Iraq who later was found dead. Parts of the story were lifted word for word from an April 18 article in The San Antonio Express News.

The editor of the San Antonio paper, Robert Rivard, alerted The Times to the plagiarism. The soldier’s family later said that Blair had never visited them, although his story and dateline said he did.

Blair also concocted facts and interviews in his reporting of the Washington, D.C. sniper case, and in coverage of the family of Jessica Lynch, the American prisoner of war who was later rescued in Iraq.

In the article, The Times reported that on several occasions, editors expressed concern about Blair’s reporting, including one instance in which the metropolitan editor sent an internal e-mail to his assistants a year ago, in which he wrote that they had to: “Stop Jayson from writing for The Times, right now.”

Despite this and other warnings, Blair, a member of a minority advancement program at The Times, was reinstated, and subsequently promoted to the prestigious national staff.

Executive editor Howell Raines said on the NewsHour Friday evening that the paper had no defense against someone like Blair.

HOWELL RAINES: 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.

TERENCE SMITH: But in its Sunday article, the paper quoted its publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, jr., as describing the Blair affair as a “huge black eye” for the paper, and conceding that it needed to improve lines of communication in its newsroom.

TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now are Geneva Overholser, former editor of The Des Moines Register, and currently a journalism professor at the University of Missouri. And Phil Bronstein, executive editor of The San Francisco Chronicle. Welcome to you both.

In the interest of full disclosure, Geneva, we should acknowledge that you were a member of The Times editorial board in the 1980s, and that I worked for the paper as a correspondent and editor for two decades.

TERENCE SMITH: That said, Geneva, tell me your reaction to The Times’ extraordinary and sort of extraordinarily long mea culpa and whether you thought it apportioned blame fairly.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, it was extraordinary, you certainly used the right word, Terry. The amount of coverage was unlike anything I’ve ever seen and certainly it was very unlike The New York Times which I think has been loath to air its dirty linen and also its internal workings.

So I think that’s not just extraordinary but commendable because transparency is one of the things that we can give our readers and that can enhance our credibility.

I also worry that the very act of having done so much to air the troubles will somehow seem sufficient when, in fact, it clearly isn’t. That isn’t entirely fair because I know that Howell Raines has also promised a look internally at a number of management issues but I worry when I hear, for example, Arthur Sulzberger saying we must not search for scapegoats. The real problem was Jayson Blair or when I hear Howell saying what he said on your program there’s nothing we can do to protect against somebody who intentionally acts as Jayson Blair did.

The fact is there are management challenges and there are other issues I do think need to be addressed internally.

TERENCE SMITH: Phil Bronstein let me ask you as an editor. The publisher and the top editors of The New York Times today circulated an internal memo in which they said they did take responsibility for the Blair affair, suggesting that perhaps that point wasn’t acknowledged or made clear enough in yesterday’s very long piece. From your point of view, was this a management failure?

PHIL BRONSTEIN: Well, I think there are aspects of it that were definitely about management failure. I think there is a communication throughout that, as you keep pointing out appropriately, very lengthy piece. I’m not sure whether the length of it was for colleagues in the profession and internal consumption or for the readers.

But nonetheless, I think that there’s a communication issue because throughout the piece, we note that problems with this reporter were not communicated to successive desks where they moved the reporter. I think there’s an issue particularly at a place as large as the New York Times about communication. We’re in the communications business but as we who are in it know all too well we often don’t communicate that well — particularly internally.

I also think there’s an issue of pushing someone too hard and too fast for whatever reason. And clearly this was the case here. I mean, there were red flags all up and down the line about this reporter and his techniques and his practice.

And for some reason those red flags did not get seen in different parts of the news room.

But I also think there’s this undercurrent that exists in all of these journalism scandals — and they happen fairly infrequently but the situation probably exists far more often than we hear about or know about — and that is the level of expectation that we create.

I don’t think the public, which has been called very cynical about the media, is necessarily as cynical as they are realistic. We are a profession like any other profession. We have good practitioners, great practitioners and we have bad practitioners. We try and emphasize and promote and hire the good practitioners, and we try and convince the bad practitioners to seek other career paths, but we’re not always that successful about it. Essentially we end up doing the best we can which is often, in fact, always imperfect.

TERENCE SMITH: Geneva, I wonder if you saw a column today by John Leo in U.S. News in which he asks a question, an awkward question but one that he raises which is whether, “a white reporter with comparable credentials would be getting the same fast promotion and being asked to do all the same things”?

In other words, how much, if anything, did race place a role in all of this?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, we need to ask the question because Jayson Blair is African American. It seems to me it mattered but around the edges, Terry. The fact is we’ve seen plenty of cases of bright, young people who have been pressed beyond their maturity because they were extraordinary.

And it does appear to me that this is an extraordinarily talented young man as we also know a very troubled one. But, you know, Ruth Shalit, Steven Glass, the names of many talented young people who have sinned egregiously who were pressed too hard — none of them minorities.

I think where the race issue enters in is that probably Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, the managing editor, were particularly delighted that this very talented young man was also an African-American. We’re sort of paying for the sins of our fathers now because our news rooms are not nearly diverse enough.

And so the fact that he would have been made the leading reporter on this national story of sniper coverage so close to the time when he had been questioned by so many editors is distressing to me. I assume there was a certain amount of, look, not only is this guy talented, he’s black and talented so we’ll press on it.

But I really think it’s bogus to do anything than to say that that counts around the edges.

TERENCE SMITH: Phil Bronstein, what’s your take on that? Do you see that as a factor?

It’s interesting to point out that when Blair was sent down to Washington, the editors in the Washington bureau were not advised of the concerns that the editors in New York had about this young man and his reporting. That speaks to the communications failure you were talking about.

PHIL BRONSTEIN: Well, and also, Terry, I think it… first of all, one has to say to be perfectly honest we have no idea to what extent race played a factor in this diversity..the appropriate interest in diversity in the news room played a role in this. The only people who know that are the editors involved.

Yes, there was a communication issue. Was the communication issue complicated by the fact that some people at The Times wanted to see this talented young reporter advance because we’re all, as Geneva said, we’re all interested in sort of correcting a lack of diversity in the news rooms because it doesn’t reflect our readership. But we have no idea of knowing whether this really played a factor.

I am struck, however, by the lack of communication. Also by the fact that The Times — The Chronicle has a reader representative. And, the reader representative advertises himself in the paper everyday as someone who is there who represents the readers even though he’s on the staff of the paper. Geneva has a lot of experience being an ombudsperson.

That’s a valuable thing to have because readers need to feel that they have someone to go to. The Times, as I understand it, and maybe Geneva knows better than I do about this, doesn’t have a structure.

It’s a pretty formidable place, I suspect, for a regular reader to communicate with, and so I think if you have a system set up where readers feel if they have been misquoted in a story or if they’re aware of a story and they believe there are inaccuracies, there’s someone they can talk to, and that someone then takes that information and goes to the news room with it.

TERENCE SMITH: Geneva, might it have helped if The Times had an ombudsman, or reader’s representative, somebody more accessible perhaps to the public?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I think it would have helped if they had an ombudsman or reader’s representative or frankly a culture and a system of being sure that they hear when readers call and complain.

We know that some people from Kent State called the sports desk with some complaints about Jayson Blair and say they did not receive any responses. I’m amazed, Terry, that some of the reporters whose copy was lifted by The Times’ own admission — which of course is an honorable response on their part — but I can’t believe some of those reporters wouldn’t have called.

Did it really take a newspaper editor to get the complaint heard? I think The Times needs to worry about that. That’s one of the results of this, I would hope, that they really look carefully at how can they be sure that they are hearing complaints from readers or from sources or from other media.

TERENCE SMITH: That raises the question, Geneva, whether those complaints were made and for some reason not listened to.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, I think really, Terry, any of us who have worked in a news room know that a lot of complaints are made and not listened to. I think The Times has to ask itself if it has a particular problem in that regard.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I think it has to ask itself if it has a particular problem with the use of anonymous sources. Jayson Blair got away with using anonymous sources on important sniper pieces. It’s amazing to me that the editors… it wasn’t just the Washington bureau who weren’t fully aware of it, but as I understand it the national editor at The Times who wasn’t sufficiently alarmed by Jayson’s past transgressions that he didn’t press to know the identity of some of these law enforcement sources on the sniper coverage.

TERENCE SMITH: Phil Bronstein, when you’re presented with a story or stories like that, that Geneva is referring to, with anonymous sources, what do you do? Do you go and press the reporter to share confidentiality with you or your editors who those sources are?

PHIL BRONSTEIN: Yes. There are two things that are appropriate to do.

One is anonymous sources are not as credible with our readers, and that’s really at the end of the day what it’s all about. So I think the first question that editors are trained to ask is, can we do this with named sources? Oftentimes you can’t. So I think particularly on sensitive stories, yes, the editor has to have some faith; that’s why this process exists. But I think, you know, this is going to… what’s going to happen after all of this breast-beating and self-immolation and probably 14,000 more words in one form or another is that we are going to be… it just prompts us to look at our practices, to do everything we can.

In the end, the comment by Arthur Sulzberger notwithstanding about responsibility and where it lies, it’s true. He said it, Howell Raines said it. You cannot prevent someone who is intent on deception — particularly with all the modern tools people have these days. He could look at photo files and see a place and act as though he’d been there.

But I think there are other issues that we need to look at. For instance today someone raised the issue at The Chronicle what about wire stories whether it’s The New York Times wire story, or Los Angeles Times, or Washington Post, or Associated Press where we rewrite it and one of our reporters puts a by-line on it.

Is that an appropriate thing to do? Because we trust AP, for instance, but we haven’t checked it independently, so there’s some discussions that we’ll be having.

TERENCE SMITH: Phil Forgive me, but we must go. Phil Bronstein, Geneva Overholser, thank you both very much.