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STYLE & CULTURE | AL MARTINEZ

A trip to the bottom of the stairs

May 23, 2003|AL MARTINEZ

I knew an old-time rewrite man once, a newspaper bum I'll call Roscoe, who was so good at what he did that hardly anyone ever knew he existed. He mumbled when he talked, rarely smiled and never attempted to curry anyone's favor.

For 40 years he wrote the news from Idaho to Oakland, and to the best of anyone's knowledge, he never made a mistake in any story he ever wrote, not one. Although totally reliable, however, nothing he did was very remarkable, so he went unnoticed. When he finally retired, no one even knew he was gone. The switchboard operator kept ringing his phone and leaving him messages long after he'd left.

I would have loved to talk to Roscoe about Jayson Blair, who was his exact opposite. Roscoe passed unnoticed after 40 years of quiet excellence, and Blair comes along, fakes some stories, and he's coast to coast in only a few years.

That's not all. The last I heard of Roscoe, he was just getting by somewhere up north, and you know what's going to happen to Blair? He may have no future in newspapering, but if he doesn't get a book deal, a movie deal and his own talk show, he's not the slicko he seems to be.

I've been following the Blair story with some consistency, mostly because he's getting almost as much publicity as Monica Lewinsky, who has managed to land on her feet after that well-publicized erotic moment in history with Bill Clinton. Whoever sins, wins.

"The trouble with you," my wife, the observant Cinelli, said when the Blair story broke, "is you never sweet-talked your way into any editor's heart, thereby getting big breaks, the way Jayson did. All you did was needle your bosses and do your job, which is why your picture was never on the cover of Newsweek."

It's not that I've never written fiction. I've just never written it for a newspaper. I've turned out short stories, a novel and even a few television movies. One of them, "That Secret Sunday," was, coincidentally, about a reporter who faked a story, got caught and was booted down the back stairs of the city room.

Co-writer Phil Saltzman and I based the idea on Janet Cooke, who was famous at the time for having won a Pulitzer on a feature story she had fabricated. Cooke, then with the Washington Post, made up a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict. The piece brought tears to the eyes of its readers and eventually to members of the Pulitzer board. Tears of a different sort fell when she admitted it was all a lie.

Since then, other cases of high-profile fakery have emerged in the world of journalism, involving reporters and even (gasp) some columnists. All were summarily canned, joining my character in the movie at the bottom of the city room stairs. And now there's Blair.

"They should have been suspicious of him right away," Cinelli said.

"Because he was way too good?" I asked sweetly.

"Because he was too damned charming," she said. "Not one of your newspaper friends has ever been charming. No charisma. No electric smile. They have, in fact, been miserable human beings. But they were good reporters who didn't cheat and who double-checked everything, even when they were too drunk to see the typewriter keys."

I've known a couple of fakes over the years. One was Sinbad, which was our nickname for a reporter who said he was from India. He was hired by the publisher of the Oakland Tribune because he smiled a lot, smoked a pipe and looked properly reporterly. But city editor Al Reck didn't trust him. Reck had an instinct for bad dudes and wouldn't give Sinbad anything to do because he suspected the kid was a fake.

Reck reasoned that nobody who was truly happy was a real journalist. Reality and misery walk hand in hand. He had a reporter check the kid out and discovered Sinbad was from Baltimore, not India, as he had claimed, and had never even worked for a newspaper. So out he went. Thereafter, the publisher left editorial hiring to Reck.

Had I been doing the hiring at the New York Times and Jayson Blair had come chirping in looking for a job, all happy and puppy-eager, out the door he'd have gone and down with all the other charming people at the bottom of the stairs. And it wouldn't have been much later that he'd have been joined by a couple of editors too.

*

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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