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Tuesday 13 May 2003

Professional Responsibility And Consequences

The New York Times was reduced, Sunday, to running a boxed correction on the top of its front page — a correction that jumps to four full pages inside. The Times itself describes this as a “low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper”.

While it’s almost certainly not actually the lowest point in the Times’ history (that would be Walter Duranty’s Stalin-polishing lies for which he won a Pulitzer prize in 1932, a laurel that the newspaper still crows about on its various websites), combined with a visible and growing bias in the Times’ news coverage over the last two years or so — a bias that has resulted in quite a few instances of incorrect if not fraudulent reporting — this scandal may well damage the paper’s credibility for some time to come.

I’m not going to say much about the scandal itself — if you want commentary about Jayson Blair, there is no shortage of it right now.

What intrigues me is the way the Times speaks of this:

Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception

[…] Mr. Blair, who has resigned from the paper, was a reporter at The Times for nearly four years, and he was prolific. Spot checks of the more than 600 articles he wrote before October have found other apparent fabrications, and that inquiry continues. [emphasis Tino’s]

Blair is a “reporter who resigned”. If you read just the headline, you might be under the impression that this is about someone who left the newspaper and whose work was later discovered to be flawed, or about someone who resigned in disgrace because he took responsibility for his actions. Neither is true; for some time after the Times had figured out (or at least suspected) what was going on, Blair continued to defend his work. When directly questioned by management about his activities, he answered with unambiguous lies in an attempt to save his career.

Of course, Blair only resigned after being told that he would be fired if he didn’t, but I don’t understand the logic behind even giving the choice. In the last couple of years, hundreds of thousands if not millions of employees have been sacked for financial reasons; but one guy can’t be fired for causing untold further damage to the reputation of what was once one of the United States’ best newspapers. He’s asked to resign like a gentleman, which he manifestly is not.

Given the publicity surrounding this case, Blair will almost certainly never work in journalism, or in any professional capacity, again. In thousands of other cases where people are ‘asked to resign’, though, there’s no publicity, just incompetence or fraud. These people aren’t fired presumably because their employers fear being sued; if someone resigns, no matter under what pressure, they will have a much harder time claiming that they were pushed out the door unfairly.

It’s about the time to revive the practice of firing people for cause. Unambiguous, high-profile cases like this one would be a good place to start, because they’re unlikely to result in any more bad publicity for the employer than they’ve already got. If being fired from a job because of malfeasance or poor performance again becomes a real possibility, we might wind up with people actually resigning on their own impuse.

In this case, the Times might have an ulterior motive; their front-page article on Sunday seems to make the case a bit too strongly that the paper considered this matter ended with Blair’s, uh, resignation:

But Mr. Sulzberger emphasized that as The New York Times continues to examine how its employees and readers were betrayed, there will be no newsroom search for scapegoats. “The person who did this is Jayson Blair,” he said. “Let’s not begin to demonize our executives either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher.”

In other words, the system at the New York Times, when functioning correctly, should allow reporters to file wildly inaccurate or wholly false stories for years on end. Nobody but Blair did anything wrong here, the Times is saying. All that editorial framework that failed to put a stop to this? Working as designed. This is particularly odd given the Times’ seeming house policy of belittling weblogs and other amateur media beause, according to them, the lack of an editorial infrastructure leads to inaccuracy and unreliability.

Perhaps I was wrong above, and Blair was asked to resign in order to avoid a dispute and yet more publicity. Perhaps we haven’t yet heard the worst about the Times.

Posted by tino at 10:20 13.05.03
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Don’t be so sure Jayson Blair won’t end up somewhere else in a “professional” capacity. After her plagiarism scandal at The New Republic, Ruth Shalit ended up at a botique New York ad agency and with a salon.com column about life inside an ad agency.

Posted by: RRP at May 13, 2003 09:32 PM

Perhaps they could team up with Peter Arnet and posthumously appoint Steven Ambrose

as their spiritual resident plagarist, begin operating a college paper writing service

such as Quickpapers.com or 15000papers.com for cash- capitalizing off ‘those’ lazy

college-kids-gone-wild while waiting out their socially correct obligatory 4 years

of hard time in a state penniveristy of their par-tay-ing choice.

After a few years of profitting more than they would have at the plagarists’

respective prior positions, ‘60 Minutes’ will dust off Morley Safer to have him raspily

mumble on and on about the profitability and rise in professional and collegiate

cheating. Thus completing the predictable cycles of corruption in every nook-n-cranny

of the professional and acedemic realms neatly reported by a weak though eager

journalistic industry to pan this out for mass consuption ready for social acceptance.

Posted by: ChriS at May 14, 2003 03:23 PM