Anthony DePalma, a correspondent for The New York Times, spoke Saturday about the "out of control" crisis spawned by former Times reporter Jayson Blair's journalistic deceit.
The fraud was a stain on all newspapers, DePalma said, and was especially damaging because it cast doubt on the fundamental product of the Times: its credibility. The Blair incident indirectly led to the forced resignation of executive editor Howell Raines and his top deputy, among other sweeping changes.
Blair covered many significant stories for The New York Times from October 2002 through April 2003, including the Washington, D.C., sniper shootings and the home front during Gulf War II. A Times investigation revealed that he filed dispatches that he claimed were sent from various states when he was actually in New York; fabricated comments, concocted scenes and lifted material from other newspapers and wire services; and selected details from photographs to falsely suggest that he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not. Blair resigned May 1 when confronted by his editors with evidence of his deception.
The newspaper's reaction, once faced with the irrefutable weight of the fraud, was swift and intense. A front-page, 7,400-word story ran May 11 on the long trail of deception left by Blair, leading some to accuse the Times of "navel-gazing," DePalma said.
For the staff and owners of the newspaper, however, the very heart of the journalistic enterprise was at stake. "The reason it was such an extreme response," DePalma said, "was that it was, all of the sudden, a question of credibility."
Also troubling was the fact that Blair could conduct his outrageously bold deception for months without being stopped by editors. DePalma said the continued acceptance and promotion of the wayward reporter raised questions about affirmative action, given that Blair is black.
"It wasn't just a coincidence that Jayson happened to be a young, eager, black reporter," DePalma said. Blair had arrived at the Times through an affirmative action program, and Raines admitted after the fiasco had been uncovered that he had continued to give Blair special consideration--despite continued problems--because of his race.
DePalma said the Sulzberger family, which owns The New York Times, was relatively muted in its reaction while the paper was being assailed by rival media outlets. After late-night comedians Jay Leno and David Letterman starting joking about the Iraqi information minister's prospects for employment at America's newspaper of record, however, the Sulzbergers had had enough.
"For them to sit there and have to listen to The New York Times being joked about on the Tonight Show was more than they could take," DePalma said. Five weeks after Blair left the paper, Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd departed in what DePalma called "forced" resignations.
Other changes have been effected beyond the management shakeup. A new policy now ensures that anyone who writes a story of more than 300 words gets a byline, whereas before, only staffers got bylines. To avoid miscommunication with readers, the word "today" is no longer used in print. Also, two new positions were created, internal standards editor and ombudsman.
Despite these and other measures, DePalma said that with modern technology like cellular phones and e-mail, it was possible for anyone to practice wholesale journalistic deception.
The goal, he said, is to ensure that individuals with a fraudulent bent are kept out of a business where credibility is paramount.
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