From the June 16, 2003, issue of National Review
Scandals continue to rock the New York Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair affair — some of them Blair aftershocks, some brand new.
The Times’s anxious efforts to check other stories produced a correction to an atmospheric account, by Pulitzer-prize winner Rick Bragg, of oystermen in Apalachicola, Fla. Bragg, it turned out, had written the actual story after visiting Apalachicola briefly, but the legwork was done by a stringer, J. Wes Yoder. Since Times policy requires that bylined reporters supply the bulk of the information in their articles, the Times announced that Yoder should have shared the byline. Bragg was suspended briefly, although he insisted that he followed the Times’s regular practice, if not its official policy.
Old practices intersect here with modern realities. Newspapers and magazines have traditionally used rewrite men to cobble together stories from reported tidbits. As news stories become more like feature articles, star reporters become more like star book authors, deploying assistants and researchers. The division of labor in book-writing is noticed only when authorial teams stumble into plagiarism; journalism is actually stricter in assigning credit.
Jayson Blair, the 27-year-old con man who gamed his employers, emerged from (brief) seclusion to give an interview to the New York Observer. As might be expected from a bright psychopath, his tale was compounded of pride, amorality, and surprising insights. Blair, an affirmative-action trophy hire, admitted that race “play[ed] a role” in his Times career. “Anyone who tells you” that it didn’t “is lying to you.” Blair felt both entitled and unmanned by his cosseted position, saying he “began to act out” in a “misguided attempt to punish” his editors. He said, tellingly, that the Times has “tried to put the blame on one man’s shoulders without examining how the institution would allow” such a career as his “to happen.”
Executive editor Howell Raines admitted that misguided racial attitudes sped Blair’s ascent and led to his fall. “You have a right,” he told his employees in a self-criticism session, “to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama with [liberal] convictions, gave [Blair] one chance too many. . . . When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes.” This is fine, as far as it goes. But since the attitudes will not change, can the reality?
Meanwhile, out in Illinois, Times reporter Chris Hedges gave a commencement speech at Rockford College that was an antiwar rant. Enraged audience members turned their backs, booed, shouted, rushed the stage, and cut the mike. Buried in Hedges’s aria was half a point: War fosters a state of comradeship, which he distinguished from the true bond of friendship. Hedges did not of course ask whether totalitarian societies feel a more brutalizing wartime bond. He railed against the United States and Israel; his defining quotation was this echt Sixties sentiment: “Following our defeat in Vietnam we became a better nation.” War is fine when Third World Communists win. Hedges also said, “This is a war of liberation in Iraq — but it is a war now of liberation by Iraqis from American occupation.”
Both Hedges and the protestors violated the sense of the occasion. But Hedges’s real problem is not rudeness, but his opinions. He is a boobish left-wing zealot. How many soulmates does he have, under the rule of Howell Raines?
The Washington Post has become a more serious organ of liberal establishment opinion. Yet as a business proposition, the Times under Raines and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is flourishing. The Times has become a national, even a global paper (it bought the Post out of the International Herald Tribune). Success will cause more problems. More money and a wider reach will create more stars, more self-indulgence, and more errors. Get used to the new Times; it is fated to become bigger, richer, and worse.