Newspapers are not in the habit of readily owning up to their own misdeeds. They are too busy pointing the finger at others. The New York Times is one of the few exceptions. Conscious of its role as America’s paper of record, it goes out of its way to point out its own mistakes. Two years ago it devoted its entire page 2 to a post-mortem of where it went wrong in accusing a Chinese scientist at MIT of spying for his country. “Corrections” are a daily feature, usually of the sort that so-and-so is Stewart B. Little and not Stuart B. Little.
But the paper’s performance last Sunday was unprecedented in journalistic history worldwide: a 13,800-word confession package comprising two stories and an apology from the “Editors” that started on the front page and covered four full pages inside.
The reason for this outpouring was equally dramatic. For the first time, the paper was admitting to deliberately deceiving its readers. Sunday’s report began: “A staff reporter for The New York Times committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months, an investigation by Times journalists has found.” The reporter’s name was Jayson Blair, a 27-year-old African-American.
NYT got the inquiry going after a small paper in Texas complained in end-April that Blair had plagiarized its account of the family of a missing soldier in Iraq. When NYT questioned Blair, he resigned, apologizing for a “lapse in journalistic integrity”. The May 2 edition carried this news.
The reaction in the dog-eat-dog American media was electric. NYT, too, wasted no more time and put together a team of 10 journalists to report on Blair and itself. It would be the last straw if the eminence grise of American journalism was scooped on its own scandal. A week later, it was all there for everyone to see. The sins of Jayson Blair ranged from minor factual errors, to claims of having interviewed people in person whom he only interviewed by phone, to quotes and details lifted often verbatim from other newspapers, to quotes and details invented wholesale (including a fabricated interview with the father of private Jessica Lynch).
The sins of his seniors arose from “a failure of communication” among themselves that enabled Blair to go unchecked for so long. All very embarrassing for a paper whose slogan is, “All the news that’s fit to print”.
But now, the exhaustive coverage of its own transgressions is working in its favour. Readers, and even rivals, say the paper has done all it possibly could do to set the record straight. More, they are happy the paper has taken them into confidence instead of trying to cover up. How many others would do something like this' How many, indeed.
What happens to journalists with a special gift for lying' They write fiction — based on their own real-life stories.
Five years ago, Stephen Glass was fired by the New Republic, a Washington-based weekly magazine, for fabricating details in 27 articles. He has now written a novel which is a first-person account of an ambitious young journalist who slips from truth into reckless fraud and is then unmasked and disgraced. Called The Fabulist, it goes on sale this week. And booksellers expect roaring sales. Who better than a fallen journalist to give the true facts of the media world'
No novelists, please
Over fifty years ago, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne started his journalistic career in The Times, London. He remembers: “Apparently the chair in the subs’ room I was sitting in had a few years previously been occupied by Graham Greene, already a well-known novelist, whose time there had been given over entirely to checking the stories of others rather than in writing any of his own.” “Was that not a waste of his talents'” I had naïvely enquired, only to be told, in no uncertain terms, that the last thing a serious newspaper like The Times wanted on its staff was a “famous writer of fiction”.