The nation’s journalists were surprised, shocked, and outraged. Jayson Blair, a 27-year-old New York Times national correspondent, had lied and cheated his way through a four-year career at the paper that not only claims to have the highest journalistic standards but also believes it’s the national record.
At the time he resigned under pressure at the end of April 2003, Blair had not only left a trail of innumerable factual errors, but had fabricated quotes, “covered” stories in other states while not leaving New York, and plagiarized from metropolitan newspapers.
Several persons, according to the L.A. Times, didn’t report Blair’s errors because they “shrugged off his mistakes as more examples of sloppy, melodramatic reporting.” Only about one-fifth of all Americans even believe “all or most” of the stories in their newspapers, according to a survey by the Pew Center in 2002; a separate poll revealed that almost half of all Americans thought news stories “are often inaccurate.” The L.A. Times, Newsweek, and dozens of other publications reported that even when some sources tried to report errors, they were met by an arrogance in which editors didn’t return phone calls–a common problem among all major media, not just the Times. The Times senior editors apparently also didn’t listen to reporters who had questions about Blair’s accuracy, or to metropolitan editor Jon Landman who a year earlier had written them a terse memo calling for Blair’s termination.
In an unprecedented 14,000 words of explanation and apology almost two weeks after the “resignation,” the Times excoriated the chain-smoking, Scotch-drinking, cocaine-using Blair for having “committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud,” wailed that it was the worst “black-eye” in the newspaper’s 152-year history, and promised to take steps not to allow it to occur again.
But, it will occur again, just as it had occurred for decades, not just at the Times but in all the media.
During the nineteenth century, in their quest for political power and circulation, newspapers not only exaggerated and fabricated, they also played innumerable hoaxes upon their readers. In the twentieth century, “jazz journalism” replaced “yellow journalism,” but reporters still looked for ways to meet their publishers’ needs to sell papers. Journalists have come a long ways since then. But, as in any profession, there are still significant holes of ethics.
TV shows sponsored by Ford in the 1960s and 1970s either shot away from New York City’s Chrysler Building, or electronically eliminated it. The National Geographic digitally altered the pyramids for “aesthetic” reasons for one of its covers. Janet Cooke, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a feature about an eight-year-old boy who was addicted to cocaine while in his mother’s womb, was stripped of her prize and fired from the Washington Post in 1981 when the story proved to be as much fiction as her resume.
NBC-TV broadcast a story about fish that were supposedly killed on government land, but it was footage of a different forest–and the fish weren’t dead. NBC also came under a firestorm of protest when the public learned that to enhance a story about truck safety, the network’s “Dateline” staff rigged a GM truck with an explosive to illustrate how easily those trucks burst into flame. FOX-TV obliterated the distinction between news and hucksterism when it “interrupted” its coverage of the 1997 Super Bowl with a “special report” by news anchor Catherine Crier. The breaking news? The Blues Brothers “escaped” and were about to headline the half-time show.
Both Ruth Shalit and Stephen Glass fabricated stories at The New Republic in 1990s. Associated Press correspondent Christopher Newton invented quotes and sources in 40 stories. In 1998, the Boston Globe fired columnist Patricia Smith then two months later allowed long-time columnist Mike Barnicle to resign after they acknowledged they made up sources and quotes. Ironically, Globe editors were warned by some reporters that Blair, who was an intern for two summers and freelanced after that for several months, had a credibility problem. In May, the New York Post acknowledged that it published an article by freelancer Robin Gregg that was plagiarized from The National Enquirer. The deceit doesn’t end with the stories reporters file.
A few American reporters, embedded with troops in the second Gulf War, apparently assumed they could plunder Iraq of national treasures, including art, antiquities, and weapons.
As much as journalists may want to believe these are isolated examples, they aren’t. As much as the public wants to believe that the problem occurs only in journalism, it doesn’t. About 75 percent of college students admit to cheating, according to a 1999 survey conducted by Donald McCabe, a Rutgers University professor. A year later, a survey conducted by the editors of Who’s Who Among American High School Students revealed that 84 percent of high school students believe cheating was common. A study by the Center for Academic Integrity revealed that about 15 percent of all students say they bought research papers, and more than half admit to having copied passages, without attribution, from published sources.
More important, students don’t see that cheating, lying, or plagiarizing are necessarily immoral or unethical. Almost half of high school students, according to the Josephson Institute of Ethics, believe “a person has to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed.” College graduates pad their resumes; references lie in their recommendations. Psychologist Robert Feldman of the University of Massachusetts found that among 11-16 year old students, there was a high correlation between lying and popularity. Feldman told the Associated Press, “Politicians have known for a very long time that telling people what they want to hear is a very good social tactic.” Politicians and CEOs, aided by hordes of PR professionals, also know they can spin the truth because the media, often faced by increased work loads and diminished resources, have largely abrogated their roles of cynical watchdogs.
Americans lie on their income tax returns, on claims to insurance companies, and about the condition of their used car which they’re about to unload. They lie about productivity to their bosses, and use “sick days” to play golf. And when it comes to managers and executives, Enron, Adelphia, Halliburton, and dozens of others may not be exceptions to how many corporations do business.
The nation’s journalists shouldn’t be shocked, surprised, or outraged about Jayson Blair’s theft of honesty–they, like most Americans, are all part of the problem.
WALT BRASCH, a national award-winning reporter and editor, is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University. He is the author of 13 books, including The Press and the State, and the current book, The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Era. You may contact him through his web-site www.walterbrasch.com.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org