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Only Outsiders Can Get the Inside Story

May 30, 2003|James D. Zirin | James D. Zirin is an attorney in New York.

Americans love special prosecutors. Special prosecutors are independent and fearless, with no ties to those being investigated. Special prosecutors remove the suspicion that arises when an investigation is done from within. With a special prosecutor, there can be no shifting of the blame by the people on top, no scapegoating of lesser fry.

No one loves special prosecutors more than the New York Times. The independent counsel law, created in 1978 and scrapped in 1999, has been invoked 20 times in history to investigate allegations of wrongdoing against Washington's political elite. The Times has usually favored, sometimes demanded, such probes, particularly when it doesn't like the administration being skewered. So what's wrong with a journalistic "special prosecutor" to investigate the Jayson Blair affair at the New York Times?

Blair is the 27-year-old Times reporter who filed stories datelined from places he hadn't been, based on confidential sources who didn't exist, interviews he didn't conduct and "facts" that resided only in his imagination.

Indeed, the Times launched its own investigation of this sordid matter, appointed a team of reporters and editors apparently more into fact-checking than Blair, and Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd accepted lukewarm responsibility.

"While we deplore Jayson's conduct," Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. sanctimoniously proclaimed, "we also recognize that, however difficult it may be, it is the responsibility of the Times, its publisher, its executive editor and its managing editor to prevent such occurrences or, at the very least, to uncover them rapidly. In the case of Jayson Blair, our organizational safeguards and our individual responses were insufficient. Howell, Gerald and I accept the responsibility for that." Oh.

Raines elaborated a "second step" that would follow. He described the formation of an independent committee that "will shape its own agenda" and "include outside members." There was no mention, however, as to just who would be the outside members.

But would the Times accept this approach if the scandal put the Bush administration in a bad light? The question answers itself. Suppose a Pentagon official with ties to the White House had consistently and knowingly filed false reports, had been reprimanded by his superiors for inaccuracy and, instead of being summarily dismissed, had been promoted to an even more sensitive position.

Would the New York Times have been content with an internal investigation by the leading ethicist in the Department of Defense? Would it have been enough for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to fire the recreant official and accept organizational and individual responsibility? Or would the Times have called for the appointment of a special prosecutor or, better still, a board of inquiry to investigate who in the chain of command also knew, or should have known, and when did they know it?

What's sauce for the goose....

This scandal has shaken public confidence in this great institution, the New York Times. It has produced glee among conservatives who resent what they regard as the paper's liberal biases. If the newspaper is truly what its distinguished columnist William Safire calls "the most rigorously edited newspaper in the world," why not expose its inner workings to public scrutiny, with an independent board of journalists to investigate the Times from Blair to Boyd to Raines to Sulzberger?

Was the Blair case a fluke? Or are there institutional failings at the Times? As the Greek proverb puts it, a fish stinks from the head. An "internal" investigation directed from the head won't do much to dissipate this particular problem.

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