Eye on the United States

A Perfect American Scoundrel

If you type “Saddam Hussein” on an Internet search engine, you will find 726,000 documents in which that name is mentioned. For 30 years in power, including 15 as a scoundrel on a worldwide scale, that’s not a whole lot. Now, if you type in “Jayson Blair,” you will find 27,000 entries to choose from. Given the fact that until the beginning of May, neither you nor I had even heard of this gentleman, that’s a phenomenal breakthrough.

Jayson Blair is the American scoundrel of the day. He is a journalist, 27 years old; he is black and his employer, The New York Times, has just come down on him with a volley of high-precision missiles that will destroy the guilty party while sparing the infrastructure. The venerable newspaper on 43rd Street in New York has hoisted the banner of honesty and “good journalism.” In 12,000 words on the front page of one of its Sunday editions, it unveiled the repeated misdeeds of the talented young man it hired four years ago, one who maintained a far too “creative” (as they say over there) relationship with reality.

Acts of plagiarism, lies, invented facts, embellishments; the young guy was overselling his stories, rearranging them and copying interviews that had appeared elsewhere to make his boss happy. Not only was the boss unaware of the fact, but he turned a deaf ear to the numerous warnings of his editorial team and promoted the young journalist to the prestigious national reporting staff. Thirty-six of the 73 articles written by Blair since his promotion last October contained some “problems,” the Times confessed, offering details in support—using its admissions as a weapon of commercial warfare.

But there is no such thing as a clean war. Trust has suffered a blow. The enemies of The New York Times are laying bare its nasty ways, its greed, and its determination to gain ground at any price, its hypocrisy, and its nepotism.

The editorial staff is in revolt. To win market share, the Times’ executive editor, hired before Sept. 11, had wanted to raise the newspaper’s “competitive metabolism,” speed up its pace, produce more scoops, launch exclusive reports out of the reach of the competition, and fight for causes, such as forcing a golf club to admit women.

Promoting blacks to the highest positions was also part of his agenda. “I am sorry that I have lost your trust,” he said most humbly to his staff. “I hope to win it back.”

Unlike Blair, he will have a chance. His name is Howell Raines. [On June 5, however, Raines resigned together with the Times’ managing editor, Gerald M. Boyd. —WPR] There are 17,000 entries with [Raines’] name listed in Google, including those that refer to his Pulitzer Prize, which he won for an article about a black maid from his childhood that was written in 1991, and those that retrace his 25-year career at The New York Times. A tough guy, but nice.

In contrast, the young Jayson, a guy who liked to drink and have a good time, a scatterbrain go-getter and, above all, naive, is a weak and lousy guy—a perfect American scoundrel.