I thought I was as appalled as I could be about the journalistic misdeeds of former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair.
Then a few days ago, it got worse -- when Blair, posing with a cigarette and a defiant expression, appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine. And then it got worse again when the New York Observer quoted Blair chortling over being able to trick his editors, "some of the most brilliant minds in journalism."
"They're all so smart, but I was sitting right under their noses fooling them," he bragged.
Amazing. And sickening.
A few words of explanation for those who may not have been following this journalistic tempest: Blair is a 27-year-old former reporter who -- as the Times laid out in a remarkable, four-page spread in its Sunday edition two weeks ago -- plagiarized other reporters' work, fabricated sources, pretended to be places he wasn't and made up scenes in his stories. He committed just about every reportorial sin there is.
He treated the truth like a petty inconvenience -- something to be danced around and avoided at every turn.
And then he joked about it, and now it seems he will capitalize on his notoriety with a book deal.
He has dealt a blow not just to his own newspaper, which was -- and surely remains -- the best and the most-respected in the world.
He also sucker-punched newspaper people everywhere, who put a great deal of emphasis on getting facts right and most of whom treat the truth as their highest ideal.
The newspaper people I know -- both in this newsroom and in others around the country -- are still reeling from the blow. (Admittedly, we're also fascinated by the Blair story in the same way a pedestrian may be unable to turn his gaze from a gory car crash.)
The issue is our credibility. Newspapers have nothing if they don't have the trust of the reading public. We take that charge seriously.
Newspapers don't get it right all the time, of course. Reporters and editors make mistakes too often; we don't always push hard enough for the real story.
But most journalists I know are honest about their craft. They're mortified by their errors, and they wouldn't think of stealing other people's work or fabricating content.
But we also know that there's a problem out there.
Study after study has shown that people distrust the media. The Jayson Blair debacle only makes matters worse.
Maybe, though, there's a bright side to the mess.
Shortly after the scandal broke, top News editors met to talk about what had happened and how we could prevent anything like it here.
We talked about a host of related issues: how the Internet has made plagiarism more tempting; how we use unnamed sources in news stories; how we need to respond quickly and well when readers or sources tell us of problems in stories.
And we made some decisions:
We will review and revise our internal ethics policy and remind the staff of its tenets.
We will strengthen our limitations on the use of unnamed sources in news stories.
We will step up some things we already do: for example, sending out letters to people who have been written about, seeking their view of how accurately they were covered.
We will talk to reporters -- with special emphasis on new or younger reporters -- about the particular dangers of plagiarizing material from the Internet.
Perhaps most important, the discussion also served to make us more aware of the minefield we tread in publishing the daily newspaper. We need to earn the public trust every day with truth and accuracy.
If Jayson Blair's deceptions reminded us of that, maybe his appalling behavior served a purpose.
We've had some changes in key editing positions at The News. Susan LoTempio has been named to a new position of assistant managing editor for readership. She will serve as a reader liaison and help in planning an upcoming redesign that will take full advantage of The News' long-awaited new printing presses. (You can reach her with complaints or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 849-4466.)
Elizabeth Kahn, formerly metro editor, takes over for LoTempio as assistant managing editor in charge of the Features Department. And Niagara Bureau chief Bruce Andriatch expands his duties to supervise all of The News' suburban bureau coverage.
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