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REGARDING MEDIA TIM RUTTEN

Hard to find truth in a story of lies

May 24, 2003|TIM RUTTEN

Of all the mischief Jayson Blair wrought during his five-year fraud spree, nothing quite matches the malice he displayed this week, when he signaled that his own defense of the indefensible will be built around race.

The 27-year-old former reporter's deceit has deeply shaken the New York Times, forcing it into a searching self-examination of the journalistic problems and human discontents that appear to have piled up in the 20 months since executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd took over the paper.

With all that high-profile wreckage in his wake, the tireless Blair now appears poised to launch himself along a now-all-too-familiar and well-traveled American arc -- from disgraced pariah to controversial figure to rehabilitated celebrity.

As a defeated rival once said bitterly of Lincoln, Blair's "ambition is a little engine that knows no rest."

Whether the rest of the U.S. media now allow themselves to abet that ambition and how they choose to treat the claims Blair makes in its service is a challenge in some ways more profound than the one confronting his former employer. Blair plunged the Times into an organizational crisis; it's not too late to keep him from dragging the rest of the news media into a crisis of the soul.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 31, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Lincoln quote -- The Regarding Media column in the May 24 Calendar, about the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times, incorrectly attributed a quote about Abraham Lincoln -- that his "ambition is a little engine that knows no rest" -- to a political rival of Lincoln's. The comment was made by William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner.

Consider the claims he raised this week, when he delivered his first extended apologia to the New York Observer's Sridhar Pappu: "I was young at the New York Times. I was under a lot of pressure. I was black at the New York Times, which is something that hurts you as much as it helps you. I certainly have health problems," said Blair, who described himself as "a former total cokehead" and also described his abuse of alcohol and treatment for depression.

"Is the problem the substance you pick up, or do you pick up the substance because of the environment you're in?" Blair rhetorically asked Pappu. "Was I too young? For a newspaper reporter's job at a great newspaper, maybe not. Was I too young for a snake pit like that? Maybe."

The serpents in his particular hole, according to Blair, were the "idiot" editors to whom he was assigned and the "hundreds" of racists among their junior colleagues.

"Anyone who tells you that my race didn't play a role in my career at the New York Times is lying to you," he said. "Both racial preferences and racism played a role. And I would argue they didn't balance out. Racism had much more of an impact.... There are senior managers at the New York Times who want African American reporters to succeed, and there are hundreds of white junior managers who resent that and don't.... There are a lot of people who are not racist. But there are a lot who are. I have anecdotes upon anecdotes upon anecdotes that I'm not going to share. A book full of anecdotes."

There's a threat -- though what precisely is the value of anecdotes compiled by a con man who has spent his whole working life betraying his colleagues and readers with his lies? Here, we get to the subtle uses of Blair's malice. When the book comes out, as it inevitably will, anyone who calls one of his anecdotes untrue can be dismissed as one of the hundreds of racists who persecuted him. (Don't look for a lot of corroborative witnesses to those anecdotes -- unless, of course, they've plagiarized from somebody else.)

Still, to adequately gauge Blair's calculation and recklessness, it's necessary to look elsewhere in the interview.

Take, for example, the description of the Times' metropolitan editor, Jonathan Landman, whose independence and early recognition of Blair's problems have made him something of a hero in this sorry affair. Blair calls Landman an "honest, honorable, misguided man." According to Blair, Landman's implementation of meritocracy blinded him to his subordinates' racism. "He's convinced that because Jon Landman doesn't think race is a factor in anything, that the editors who work for him do not use race."

So, his strongest -- and most unassailable -- critic was clear-eyed about Jayson Blair's faults, but blind to his own subordinates' racism.

Then there is the litany of senior editors who either mistreated Blair or were indifferent to him, including one who he alleges "only cares about pretty Jewish girls."

Anyone with an ounce of sense or experience knows that, in the American context, to insert invidious comparisons of blacks and Jews into a discussion framed in racial terms is the equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theater.

It's the kind of speech proscribed not by law, but by decency -- and people of good sense and good will ought to treat it as such.

One of things essential to Jayson Blair's progress along the arc to celebrity is his transmutation into a symbol of something larger than his pathetically sordid self. Resisting that is the challenge the media now face.

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