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David Letterman was lucky. At least he could turn it into a nightly joke for a couple of weeks, albeit one that probably required a pop-up video explanation next to his gap-toothed smile every time.

There's a plausible reason why the New York Times spent so many days as a famous purveyor of fiction in Letterman's nightly monologue. And it isn't entirely because of the Times' horrific revelations about its reporter Jayson Blair and his scandalous record of journalistic fabrications, thefts and inaccuracies.

It was a Times reporter -- TV reporter Bill Carter (formerly of the Baltimore Sun) -- who wrote "The Late Shift," an inside-TV book about Letterman's failure to get Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" chair and subsequent jump to CBS, which was turned into an HBO movie Letterman, quite publicly, loathed.

They call it a grudge. Most of us have them, of one size or another, though we vary considerably in what we do about them. You have to forgive our premiere late-night comedian for indulging his. Peevish, unabashed bile helps make him funny.

Those of us inside print journalism aren't laughing yet. The best paper we have -- and one of the most important in the Western world -- shot itself in the foot. And then, as if that weren't enough, it shot itself in the leg, too, and fell on top of the rest of us with a suffocating thud.

It was a compound atrocity. It wasn't bad enough that the New York Times published, coddled, protected and promoted a deeply disturbed young reporter who not only erred and plagiarized other papers consistently but, when reality came up short in his view, fabricated quotes and facts out of whole cloth. There should indeed be hell, and worse, to pay for that, all the way up the food chain, as far as it goes.

Far worse, though, was the drama queen hysteria of the Times' reaction to its own in-house mess: a mammoth, unprecedented 14,000-word multipage takeout of the whole Blair record, which began in the coveted upper-left hand corner of its Sunday Page One.

After that screaming, melodramatic breast-beating and culpa nostra, it seems to me that any Times employee or stockholder who didn't want Editor Howell Raines' head on a platter surrounded by legumes ought to have an immediate blood pressure check (hypotension -- low blood pressure -- isn't good for you). The record did indeed need to be set straight. The Times needed to "get it right" -- the cardinal occupation of journalism. But there are other days of the week and other pages of the paper and there are certainly more economical and less hysterical ways of doing so.

It was only a matter of time before modern American journalism's streak of irrational "gotcha" self-righteousness turned grotesquely inward, just as it was only a matter of time before the "star reporter" culture that followed Woodward and Bernstein would start conspicuously producing such a hunger for fame that those of bad character wouldn't let a little thing like the truth stand in their way.

The idea that imagination doesn't belong in journalism is a product of modern journalism's profound self-importance and even more profound ignorance of its own roots. For columnists and critics, imagination has always been a part of what they do. Read the glorious things Mark Twain wrote as a young owner/editor of the Buffalo Express. Phil Ranallo -- the late, great sports columnist for the Buffalo Courier Express -- used to invent wonderful fanciful dialogues between two racetrack habitues named "Honest Harry" and his wife Ruby. They were so good that, I swear, they were the decisive lifetime influence on a major American TV writer/producer I happened to go to high school with.

A reporter, though, is something else. They deal in shoe leather and verifiable fact and nothing else.

Even so, perfection is the aim but it's just not a possibility. Asking it of journalists, or anyone else, is ridiculous. All journalists can ask of themselves is that they give everything they have to "getting it right," and that they die a little inside every time they get it wrong.

It is, like everything else in life, a matter of character. You can't sacrifice it in a search for money and fame. And you can generally tell who's got it and who doesn't, for all their apparent charm and talent.

Stephen Glass, another twentysomething who brought his own version of the Jayson Blair mess to the New Republic in 1998, was on "60 Minutes" recently plugging his new book fictionalizing his very real life of fictionalizing reality. It was hard not to think, after two minutes of watching and listening to this young man, that any superior who couldn't quickly sense an unprincipled weasel may well deserve a painful bite on the backside.

Still, the rest of American journalism didn't deserve Jayson Blair, the newsroom weasel to end all newsroom weasels. Even more, it didn't deserve the Times' culpa nostra.

Least of all will it deserve Blair's tell-all book when it comes out -- which, in our culture, it must inevitably do.


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