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NOBODY AT THE TOP IS HELD ACCOUNTABLE THESE DAYS

There is uniformity of opinion over the firing of former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair for not only plagiarizing stories, but making them up out of whole cloth.

But that's an easy call. The more difficult question is what level of accountability should be imposed for editors who failed to catch such fabrications. And what about other reporters who didn't set out to falsify stories, as Blair did, but were terribly wrong nonetheless. Should they be held accountable?

In 1999, two other New York Times reporters, James Risen and Jeff Gerth, wrote a number of articles about security at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The stories led to the arrest of Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwan-born scientist who worked at Los Alamos.

Lee was imprisoned, his reputation was destroyed and his family was driven to distraction by the Times news stories charging that he was "a prime suspect in spying" for Communist China and stole "U.S. nuclear secrets," and shrill editorials that flailed away at him.

At trial, 58 charges against Lee were dropped, and when he pleaded guilty to something like improperly packing his garbage, the judge apologized to him and let him go, no thanks to the Gray Lady. The Times ran a 1,600-word editors' note after Lee was exonerated, and conceded lapses in its reporting of the case. The paper said it had "found some things we wish we had done differently in the course of the coverage to give Dr. Lee the full benefit of the doubt."

The piece continued: "In those instances where we fell short of our standards in our coverage of this story, the blame lies principally with those who directed the coverage, for not raising questions that occurred to us only later," the paper concluded. However, the Times went on to exonerate its reporters, who, it said, "remained persistent and fair-minded."

Should Risen and Gerth, and the editors who handled the articles on Lee, been held more accountable?

The Washington Post is having a high time pointing the finger at the Times these days. It published a long psychoanalysis, more or less, of the benighted Blair.

In the same way, African-American Post reporter Janet Cooke, who manufactured characters and quotes in a series for the Post that won a Pulitzer -- which the Post returned -- was the victim afterward of a journalistic spotlight that exposed every aspect of her life like patterns on a screen.

Yet no one examined the boyhood of former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee after the Cooke scandal. Likewise, there was relatively little written about the background of Gerth and Risen, just as little has been written about the life of Times Executive Editor Howell Raines in connection with his role in the Blair incident. All of the above were influential, and white.

Is it just possible that some elite whites presume that someone who is nonwhite and then collapses in a powerful white establishment carries the curse of some unspeakable social pathology that must be examined?

The Post's Cooke episode symbolized changes that had been accumulating in society for years.

In the 1970s, under American traditional values, the Post (along with the New York Times) refused to rest until the top man in the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon, was caught, brought to justice and removed. There would be no letup in the pursuit until the man ultimately responsible for Watergate and related irregularities was made fully accountable. That was a legitimate attitude for a news organization to take, but it also reflected the times -- accountability at the top was something to be expected.

Now, it seems, nobody's accountable at the top.

Less than a decade after Watergate, the editors who were on watch during the Cooke fraud, the men most responsible at the Washington Post, got a mild spanking and moved on.

You see, by the 1980s the legacy of the Age of Aquarius was still in force. Tolerance, forgiveness, understanding and rehabilitation were watchwords in big organizations. Harsh words like "rules" and "accountability" and "responsibility" and "reputation" became unfashionable -- at least with respect to people with a mite of influence.

That phenomenon continues today. For example, you have author Doris Kearns Goodwin appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" as some kind of journalistic paragon, perched right next to reporters Dave Broder and Bob Novak, only months after she left the Pulitzer Prize board under a cloud for plagiarism, and after the Harvard Crimson newspaper tried, and failed, to get her fired from the Harvard Board of Overseers.

The show's host, Tim Russert, declined to comment on what Goodwin's appearance on the nation's leading news show symbolized about journalism today. Russert's clerk referred us to an NBC public relations woman in New York City, Barbara Levin.

Levin said comparing Blair and Goodwin were like "comparing apples to oranges," and quickly got off the phone.

Blair wanted to get to the top, and thought he had figured out how to do it. After all, isn't this how jailbird Gordon Liddy and liar Oliver North got their own news shows?

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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