Inside the Grey Lady

For most CounterPunch readers, Judith Miller is the name that springs to mind if asked to identify the New York Times reporter discredited by articles written during the early days of the “war on terror”. As it turns out, she was not the only one to lose a job over bogus reporting. The other disgraced reporter had no particular ideological stake in Dubya’s wars but his fall from grace says as much about the Grey Lady’s overblown reputation as hers. I speak of Jayson Blair, the subject of an intriguing documentary titled “Fragile Trust” that originally aired on PBS and that can be purchased from Bulldog Films, an outlet for radical documentaries (in line with their politics, they offer the film to activist and advocacy groups at a reduced rate.)

In the April 26, 2003 NY Times, an article titled “THE MISSING; Family Waits, Now Alone, for a Missing Soldier” appeared under Blair’s byline. It told the story of a Chicano mother agonizing over the disappearance of her 24 year old son Edward in Iraq, where he was serving as an Army mechanic.

The opening paragraph in the article–“Juanita Anguiano points proudly to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet in its red case and the Martha Stewart furniture out on the patio. She proudly points up to the ceiling fan”–bore a striking similarity to one by Macarena Hernandez that had appeared a week earlier in the San Antonio Express-News. Hernandez had written: “he points to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet still in its red velvet case and the Martha Stewart patio furniture, all gifts from her first born and only son.” Other similarities abounded.

After an Express-News editor contacted the media, the Times was forced to conduct an investigation. It learned that in addition to plagiarizing the true parts of other reporter’s work, he had also made stuff up and pretended that he had been reporting from places he had never stepped foot in, including Los Fresnos, Texas where Juanita Anguiano lived. In fact, many of the articles were written in Blair’s Brooklyn apartment where he was holed up most days in an alcohol and cocaine induced haze.

Blair was not the only young rising media star who had been caught with his pants down. Stephen Glass of the New Republic was in the habit of making things up but never plagiarized. “Fragile Trust” makes the interesting point that it was only with the transition of many newspapers to digital editions that plagiarism became easy. All you needed to do was trawl a bunch of online editions to find articles covering the same assignment you had been given, and then copy and paste. A good plagiarist would never make the mistake of copying and pasting an entire article. He or she would sample from multiple articles as Blair did.

“Fragile Trust” addresses the racial angle that was played up during the scandal. Blair was supposedly allowed to get away with murder because he was Black. The NY Times was watering down its standards because of misguided efforts at maintaining “diversity” in the newsroom. Most of the blame for this was put on Howell Raines, the Executive Editor from Alabama who supposedly was repenting for the sins of his home state’s segregationist past. Whenever other media outlets referred to the scandal, they always referred to Blair as “African-American reporter for the New York Times” but with Glass you never heard about him being Jewish or white.

Plagiarism is a topic often discussed in the Proyect household since my wife is a tenure track professor. Every time she submits an article to a journal, she makes sure to pay $50 to have it run through software called Authenticate, just to make sure she hasn’t accidentally written a sentence that just by coincidence sounds too much like someone else’s.

Of course, a tenured superstar like Doris Kearns Goodwin would never bother with Authenticate since her reputation, questionable in my view, is so highly regarded at Harvard. An LA Times article  documented the similarities between her book on the Kennedy dynasty and one written by Lynne McTaggart:

… her closest friends [went the McTaggart passage] assumed she and Billy were ‘semiengaged.’ On the day of the party reports of a secret engagement were published in the Boston papers … The truth was that the young couple had reached no such agreement.

… her closest friends [echoed the Goodwin text, published four years after McTaggart’s] assumed she and Billy were semi-engaged. On the day of the party, reports of a secret engagement were published in the Boston papers … The truth was that the young couple had reached no such agreement.

After settling with McTaggart out of court, Goodwin defended herself by saying that she had forgotten in some cases to enclose quotes around a copied passage. Trust me, if Goodwin had been discovered in the first year of a tenure track bid, she would not been teaching history—she would be history.

In “Page One: Inside the New York Times”, a 2011 documentary available on Amazon streaming, a Times reporter likened getting a job at the paper to getting tenure. Indeed, it would not just be getting tenure; it would be getting tenure at Harvard University. As two institutions that symbolize the liberal American establishment, they set the agenda for second tier universities and newspapers without having the foggiest notion of their limitations. As Lord Acton said, power tends to corrupt but absolute power corrupts absolutely.

As a nonprofit institution, Harvard is in a somewhat better position than the Times. To cover expenses, Harvard simply raises the tuition and hits up alumni, who are likely to be partners in a law firm or investment bank rather than living at home with mom and dad until they can do something with the English degree that got from a state college.

“Page One: Inside the New York Times” explains how all newspapers, including the NY Times, can no longer depend on a steady and lucrative revenue stream from advertising. Why place an ad in the Times to rent an apartment or sell a car when you can do it on the cheap at Craigslist? Need a job? There’s Monster.com and others too numerous to mention. In 1968 when I began looking for my first serious desk job, I’d turn to the Business section that usually had 12 pages of ads, including at least 3 pitched to “college graduates, no experience necessary”. Today there are none. Their absence sheds further light on the paper’s woes. If you are living at home with mom and dad and have an English degree ball-and-chain tied to your ankle, you can ill afford to spend $20 per week on a paper, whose articles can be read in part on Huffington Post. This is not to speak of the paper’s utter disdain for your miserable economic situation. Andrew Ross Sorkin, their obnoxious financial reporter featured in a number of segments in the documentary, made clear where he stood in an October 3, 2011 dispatch:

“I think a good deal of the bankers should be in jail.”

That is what Andrew Cole, an unemployed 24-year-old graduate of Bucknell University, told me Monday morning in Zuccotti Park, the epicenter of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Mr. Cole, an articulate young man dressed in jeans, a sweatshirt and with a blue wool beanie on his head, had just arrived by bus from Madison, Wis., where he recently lost his job.

I had gone down to Zuccotti Park to see the activist movement firsthand after getting a call from the chief executive of a major bank last week, before nearly 700 people were arrested over the weekend during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Is this Occupy Wall Street thing a big deal?” the C.E.O. asked me. I didn’t have an answer. “We’re trying to figure out how much we should be worried about all of this,” he continued, clearly concerned. “Is this going to turn into a personal safety problem?”

The fact that “the chief executive of a major bank” was contacting a Timesman to see if he had anything to worry about should indicate how insulated the paper is from American social reality. Like an inverse Cerberus, the mythical three-headed Greek dog who stands guard over Hades, Sorkin stands guard over Wall Street to make sure the riffraff don’t invade the privileged chambers of power.

Despite the Times’s prestige and financial prowess, it has plenty to worry about. The documentary spends most of its time examining the threat posed to print media by the Internet, giving ample space to the views of Julian Assange who tells a Times reporter that he is involved with activism rather than journalism.

Daniel Ellsberg makes an essential point. After offering the Pentagon Papers to major newspapers, he had to wait many months before they decided to publish them. He states that if there were an Internet back then, he would have scanned the papers and distributed them to bloggers. With Youtube, you don’t need a war correspondent to tell you what a Syrian rebel is fighting for. You can see the video clips they recorded with their own smart phones.

In a panel discussion that pitted Arianna Huffington and Michael Wolff against defenders of print media, including NY Times reporter David Carr who covers the media beat, someone holds up a printed copy of Wolff’s website that looks like Swiss cheese. The holes were those connected to print media articles that Wolff had aggregated.

It is fairly obvious that print media can afford to put an investigative reporting team on the spot that can produce some important material. For example, the NY Times has been reporting on fracking in North Dakota, demonstrating the terrible damage done to the environment largely as a result of the incestuous ties between industry and politicians.

On the other hand, the paper is a major outlet of some of the most outrageously propagandistic pro-fracking articles imaginable. Clifford Krauss is the worst offender. Four years ago I drew attention to an article he wrote that reminded me of the Communist Party’s glowing reports on Soviet Potemkin Villages in the 1930s:

By the 2000s, De Soto [Louisiana], with a population of about 28,000, was one of the poorest parishes in the state.

Then came the shale.

“People went to bed one night poor and woke up the next day rich, enabled to buy a Cadillac and pay cash,” said Mayor Curtis McCoy of Mansfield, the parish seat. “It’s kind of like the show ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ ”

Farmers who once lived check to check are now extremely comfortable, if not downright wealthy. New cars, recreational vehicles and trailers are parked in nearly every driveway. Vinyl siding has been applied to weather-beaten cottages and clapboard houses.

The Times has tried to engage with the Internet after a fashion. It allows you to read 10 articles for free a month before the Paywall kicks in. It also tries to make the readers feel like they have some input to the paper by allowing you to email a reporter about an article. Unlike other people I have emailed over the years, the Times reporters have never gotten back to me. I suppose they allow you to email them in order to feel less frustrated or angry with the kind of content you get from a Clifford Krauss or an Andrew Ross Sorkin, as if me pointing out to Sorkin that he is Wall Street’s lapdog would have any effect. It is like pressing the “close door” button on elevators where they have no effect on the actual closing of doors that operate only on an assigned number of seconds. It serves only to make the impatient rider feel less stressed out.

My hope is that with a deepening radicalization, fuelled by the indifference to the unemployed and the Black and Latino victims of police brutality, will spur increased support for electronic publications like CounterPunch that will some day have fund drives of a million dollars rather than a hundred thousand. This will allow Jeff St. Clair and Joshua Frank to organize teams of reporters to go to places like North Dakota or Afghanistan to get the story you will not see in the Grey Lady, even at her best. This will be the modern equivalent of The Masses, the newspaper that John Reed wrote for.

I think that Alex Cockburn and St. Clair got it right in the introduction to “End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate:”

Back in the dawn of the nuclear disarmament movement in the Fifties and Sixties, it was thought to be a good day’s work if you stood outside a U.S. air base handing out leaflets and got maybe 50 service people to take one, as they drove in and out. These days, at the end of each month here, at CounterPunch we can look at the daily breakdown of our 3 million or so hits, 300,000 page views and 100,000 unique visitors and see that we’ve had some 15,000 regular readers on U.S. military bases around the world.

For the time being, the old David vs. Goliath struggle of the left pamphleteers battling the vast print combines of the news barons has equaled up. On a laptop’s twelve-inch screen we stand as high as Punch Sulzberger, or Rupert Murdoch, who shelled out $580 million for MySpace.com in 2006 when he realized the world had changed. So, are the old newspaper empires dying or dead? Indeed they are. Twenty years ago the Los Angeles Times was a mighty power. The owners of the Knight Ridder chain complacently counted on a 20 per cent-plus rate of return on their properties. Today , the L.A. Times totters from one cost-cut and forced employee retirement to the next, and David Geffen ponders whether to plunk down two or three billion for it. Knight Ridder’s papers of high reputation go on the auction block. Will the broadsheets and tabloids vanish? Not in the foreseeable future, any more than trains disappeared at the end of the railway age. A mature industry will yield income and attract investors interested in money or power long after its glory days are over. But it’s a world in decline, and a propaganda system as decline.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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