Years ago, I wrote a column using information from The New York Times. The story contained a mistake -- a whopper, actually -- which I repeated in my column. When the person involved called to complain, I checked with lawyers for The Washington Post, fearing a libel suit. Nothing to worry about, I was told. Such was the reputation of the Times for veracity that both law and custom permitted me to use it without further checking.
Now the Times has egg on its face. In a lengthy Page One article on Sunday, the paper admitted that one of its reporters, Jayson Blair, acted as a one-man wrecking crew to the Times' well-earned reputation. He fabricated stories. He plagiarized them. He said he was where he was not. He made countless mistakes of fact -- and he was, despite all of this, relentlessly promoted. At the age of 27, he had become a national correspondent for the nation's newspaper of record.
A close reading of the Times' own account of what went wrong suggests that the paper itself does not fully comprehend what happened. The Times should have known it had a liar on its hands and, despite obvious warnings, did little about it.
Several times Blair was reprimanded for his blatant inaccuracies. He was deemed so serious a threat to the paper's well-earned reputation for accuracy that in April 2002 the Times' metropolitan editor Jonathan Landman wrote an e-mail message to newsroom administrators, saying, "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now." Yet not only was Blair not stopped, he was promoted to the national staff and ultimately given more responsibilities. Why?
The answer appears to be precisely what the Times denies: favoritism based on race. Blair is black, and the Times, like other media organizations, is intent on achieving diversity. Sometimes this noble and essential goal comes down to a parody of affirmative action. That seems to be the case with Blair. Supposedly a University of Maryland graduate (actually, he had never graduated), he was "offered a slot in an internship program that was then being used in large part to help the paper diversify the newsroom," the paper said.
The young reporter did well -- he clearly has talent -- and also not so well. But the not-so-well part was both serious and ominous -- sloppy work habits and erratic behavior. That should have been enough to halt Blair's career in his tracks. That it didn't testifies to a newsroom culture, imposed from above, that cherished diversity -- not more than accuracy, but so much so that journalistic standards were bent.
The Times' senior editors defensively say that wasn't the case. But the rigorous reporting the paper is noted for is absent here. Assertions that race played no role are made -- and then left at that. Both the editor Howell Raines and the publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. are quoted, but neither gives the slightest indication that they are aware of the culture they have imposed on the newsroom. Careful readers of the paper have long discerned such a culture in the news coverage. Now we know it existed in personnel policies as well -- what Landman has characterized as top management's commitment to diversity.
I can only imagine what the Times' editorial page would have said if another important institution had conducted a self-investigation into its own misconduct. Senior editors recused themselves from supervising the preparation of the report -- but the writers of it still report to them.
A great and invaluable newspaper has been humbled. But its inability to come to grips with what was at the bottom of the Blair affair suggests that it remains blinkered by the very political correctness that has brought about this ignominy. In this case, all the news has not been printed.
Richard Cohen is a columnist for The Washington Post and the Creative Writers Syndicate; his work frequently appears in the Flyer.