Journalists are once again navel-gazing. The subject this time is the extraordinary series of lies told by Jayson Blair of The New York Times. The paper's reporters and editors engaged in a heated discussion last Wednesday, with one staffer telling Executive Editor Howell Raines, Managing Editor Gerald Boyd and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., "I believe that at a deep level you guys have lost the confidence of many parts of the newsroom." Whether or not the Times' bosses regain that trust, some troubling trends in journalism as a whole suggest that there could easily be another Jayson Blair.
As Times editors noted in their self-defense, it's hard to stop a reporter who's bent on "professional self-destruction," although editors were certainly to blame for their lack of communication about Blair's problems and for promoting an error-prone reporter. But there's also a disturbing larger lesson here about the way the press operates. Another reporter could repeat Blair's professional crimes without much trouble because of a current environment that treats reporting less like a craft and more like a business. Across the country, media owners are demanding larger profits even as they're squeezing newsroom resources; it's a rare newspaper that's increasing its staff these days. And it's not just a bad economy that's to blame.
Media owners -- who are becoming a smaller group thanks to the lack of federal regulation -- are failing to respect the time, money and difficult work it takes to produce quality stories. Fewer newspapers are willing to give employees the time they need to do in-depth, investigative reporting. Some news outlets have shut down overseas bureaus to cut costs. And daily journalists, already stretched thin, are now being asked to file multiple updates for the Web even as they're supposed to be cultivating sources and chasing down stories. The result is weary reporters who may cut corners -- or, more likely, make a higher number of honest mistakes -- because there's simply not enough time in the day to do everything that's asked of them. But with jobs increasingly hard to come by, most reporters are hardly in a position to revolt.
To be sure, The New York Times is one of the few news organizations that still has a reputation for placing journalistic quality squarely above profits. And Blair's problems appear to have been deeper -- and of a more troubling variety -- than being stretched thin. But that doesn't mean there aren't potential lessons in this episode for what may also be going on at other news organizations. While Blair was plagiarizing and fabricating stories for the Times, he was also hashing out a book proposal and appearing on television talk shows. In today's environment, none of this is seen as exceptional but rather as just another part of a journalist's job. This danger of trying to do everything is especially great for young reporters, who want to impress their bosses, move up the ladder quickly and, yes, also pad their bank accounts (journalism is not historically a well-paid profession). Additionally, writing for one publication these days is considered inadequate. Stephen Glass, formerly of The New Republic, also wrote articles for George, Harper's and Rolling Stone. Both Glass and Blair have personal problems, but the fact is that too many young reporters are trying to hold down what is essentially not one but two full-time jobs. It's awfully hard to do that when you're also trying to come to grips with being an adult.
The Times deserves credit for sending Blair to counseling. When Blair returned from the employee-assistance program, his editors on the Metro desk focused on increasing his rate of accuracy, not his productivity. But when he moved to Sports and then over to National, that sanction was lifted and productivity once more became his main objective.
Unfortunately, outside of journalism schools, these issues are raised only when such tragic episodes as the Blair lies unfold; when, in a sense, it's already too late. Let's hope that this case is a wake-up call, not only to the folks at the Times but to all journalists and media owners -- for owners must understand that when they buy stock in a company, they're not only receiving a newspaper, they're also receiving the public's trust. And if they can't understand that argument, let me put it a different way: Organizations in the business of selling truth simply can't afford to sacrifice quality. In the long run, newspapers that sell fiction tend not to sell at all.
Professional rehabilitation is possible in a lot of other fields, but not in journalism. Once you've lost your credibility, you have nothing to offer your sources, your editors or your readers. If reporters and editors don't demand more from themselves, their colleagues and their newspapers' owners, there will be little to deter another Jayson Blair from practicing these same kinds of deceits. Then the credibility of journalists everywhere will be suspect. That's too high a price for all of us -- readers and reporters alike -- to pay.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.