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Home > Ethics > Ethics Case Studies > The Times and Jayson Blair

Ethics Case Studies
The Times and Jayson Blair

WHAT: Jayson Blair advanced quickly during his tenure at The New York Times, where he was hired as a full-time staff writer after his internship there and others at The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. Even accusations of inaccuracy and a series of corrections to his reports on Washington, D.C.-area sniper attacks did not stop Blair from moving on to national coverage of the war in Iraq. But when suspicions arose over his reports on military families, an internal review found that he was fabricating material and communicating with editors from his Brooklyn apartment — or within the Times building — rather than from outside New York.

Some Times staffers, opposed to what they viewed as favoritism by Executive Editor Howell Raines, blamed a star system that allowed Blair to advance unusually fast in an extremely competitive, mostly veteran environment. Blair's former boss, Jonathan Landman, said race played a large part in the African American writer's ascendancy.

The findings of a 25-member committee headed by Allan Siegal, an assistant managing editor, led to the appointment of a public editor and stricter editorial policies. But staffing changes and higher standards could not change what happened: The Times‘s reputation was deeply tarnished. Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd resigned in a cloud of mismanagement. Journalism, in general, suffered perhaps the biggest blow to its credibility in U.S. history.

Question: How does the Times investigate problems and correct policies that allowed the Blair scandal to happen?

WHO: The consequences of Blair's actions are so broad that it is important to have representatives from all staff levels, as well as journalists outside the Times staff, weigh in on corrective steps. Leading this group should be one or several highly ethical consensus-builders who can solicit and synthesize ideas from throughout the profession.

In the case of the Times, stakeholders range from the humble retiree who simply reads his paper in the morning to the power-wielding diplomat who relies on foreign-policy reports to inform her decisions. Journalists, too, lose ground when a colleague lowers the public's value of their work. As a group, biggest stakeholders are citizens of democracies, which depend on journalists to grow trust in readers with accurate reporting.

WHY: The Blair case raises questions about hiring, management and overall editorial policy.

First, there is the issue of relative inexperience in a super-high-stakes newsroom. Is it fair to senior staffers to allow a fresh-out-of-college writer to step into the ranks? More importantly, is it fair to expect such an inexperienced writer, however talented, to produce reporting as sharp as that of a decorated correspondent? While a pure meritocracy allows an individual of any experience level to fill any role, talent in the absence of experience could lead to diminished professionalism: Blair's ability to impress editors with his writing may have led to him feeling that facts are less important than prose.

Second, there is the question of who is responsible for letting Blair go so far. Is it the editor who hired him straight from the University of Maryland? How bout successive editors, who, despite their mediocre evaluations, did not object loudly enough to Blair's promotions? Could the executive and managing editors, with their big-picture roles and busy days, truly be responsible for one staffer’s malfeasance?

Third, there must be a better way. Is it enough to know what went wrong and tighten the reigns on practices such as anonymous sources? Or does the Times need an auditor, someone it pays for a scolding? Why should an outsider be allowed to make recommendations on better internal practices? Then again, how could an insider, in earshot of the mess itself, lead the committee to fix things?

HOW: The Times decided that to remedy the nasty ramifications of the Blair scandal, it would commission an insider, along with others in and outside the Times newsroom, to investigate problems and suggest changes. The insider, Siegal, decided the Times should hire an outsider (who would be former Life magazine editor Daniel Okrent) to suggest further improvements. And Times editorial policy changed to reflect a much more cautious, conservative atmosphere concerning staff promotions and, especially, verification of reporting. A notable example of the latter aspect regards anonymous sources. In terms of staffing, the Times went so far as to require written evaluations for any candidates transferring between posts.

A particularly difficult aspect of the fallout, although one welcome by staffers who felt marginalized, was the dual resignation of Raines and Boyd. That development, at least in the view of Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, was for the greater good of the Times. Symbolically, their departures made it possible for observers to view the Times as a reformed institution.

— By Adrian Uribarri, SPJ Ethics Committee


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