CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Crisis at 'The New York Times'
Aired May 18, 2003 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Meltdown at "The New York Times." Editor Howell Raines comes under fire at a tense staff meeting on the Jayson Blair fiasco. How did "The Times"' editors miss so many warning signs that the young reporter was bad news? Did they give a minority journalist too many chances for racial reasons? Can Raines survive the anger of his own staff? A "New York Times" columnist joins our discussion.
Will Jayson Blair now cash in with a fat book contract, a reward for years of deception?
Also, in the wake of Janet Cook and Steven Glass, is there any way for editors to catch an employee who is determined to lie and cheat? Or are news organizations sitting ducks for fakers and fabricators?
ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, this is a special edition of "RELIABLE SOURCES:" Crisis at "The New York Times."
KURTZ: Welcome to "RELIABLE SOURCES," where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. We'll spend the next hour looking behind this stunning scandal at "The New York Times", how it happened, who is to blame, the role of race in this story, and what it means for the credibility of journalism.
"New York Times'" columnist Clyde Haberman, columnist Clarence Page and "Newsweek" editor, Mark Whitaker, will weigh in, along with other veteran reporters and editors.
But first, how it all unraveled.
KURTZ (voice-over): Jayson Blair's downfall began last month in Texas, when "The New York Times" asked him to interview Juanita Angiano (ph), the mother of an Army soldier who would soon be found dead in Iraq. Another reporter, Macarena Hernandez (ph) of "The San Antonio Express-News," had already written of the woman's plight. Hernandez (ph) was stunned to find that Blair's story contained the same details, even the same quotes as her article.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I called people at 2:00 in the morning to ask them if I wasn't insane for thinking that sentences sounded alike.
KURTZ (on camera): Jayson Blair, it turned out, had never even interviewed Juanita Angiano (ph), had never even been to Texas. After learning of this blatant plagiarism, I started calling other soldiers' parents who had been quoted by Blair, and reported the results in "The Washington Post."
(voice-over): The Reverend Tandy Sloan (ph), a Cleveland minister whose son died in Iraq, said Blair had never talked to him or visited his church. Blair had also written about the father of rescued POW Jessica Lynch, but botched the description of the man's West Virginia house, which has no tobacco fields or cattle in the vicinity, as he had claimed. The reason? Blair had never been there.
It soon developed that Jayson Blair had plenty of practice at faking things. Four years ago, back when he was an intern for "The Boston Globe" he claimed to have interviewed D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams. He didn't. He ripped off the quotes from "The Washington Post."
There were other warning signs, especially when authorities were grappling with the Washington sniper case last fall. A Virginia prosecutor called a news conference to deny one of Blair's "New York Times'" stories.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They have been wrong before, and they're wrong on this one.
KURTZ: Blair resigned on May 1, saying he regretted what he had done and was struggling with "personal issues." "The Times" launched an investigation, and last Sunday delivered a 7,000-word mea culpa, saying Blair had fabricated at least 36 stories.
Editor Howell Raines apologized, but said it was hard to stop liars.
HOWELL RAINES, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": And this system is not set up to catch someone who sets out to lie and to use every means at his or her disposal to put false information into the paper.
KURTZ: But "The Times"' report opened the media floodgates. Why had the paper's editors failed to uncover these serial fabrications? Why was a young reporter with 50 corrections in three-and-a-half years assigned to the Washington sniper investigation? And why did "Times" executives sit on their hands when metro editor Jonathan Landman wrote in an e-mail one year ago: "We have to stop Jayson from writing for "The Times. Right now."
Jayson Blair is now at the center of the biggest journalism scandal since "The Washington Post's" Janet Cook made up an 8-year-old heroin addict in 1980.
On Wednesday, Howell Raines, managing editor Gerald Boyd and publisher Arthur Sulzberger called a staff meeting, and hundreds of "Times" staffers showed up for a tense and angry sessions, Raines admitting he had made mistakes, but vowing not to resign.
(END VIDEOTAPE) Well, joining us now, Clyde Haberman, the NYC columnist at "The New York Times," and here in Washington, Michelle Cottle, senior editor at "The New Republic," Clarence Page, columnist at the "Chicago Tribune," and Terry Neal, columnist the washingtonpost.com.
Clyde Haberman, you have been through two weeks of hell at "The New York Times." Who do you blame for what happened?
CLYDE HABERMAN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, there's lots of blame to go around all over the place. It has been two weeks of hell. I've been at the newspaper for more than 26 years now, and this is clearly the worst period I've ever been through, and I guess any of us have been.
Blame. Blame falls all over the place, you know, and clearly the editors and the publisher have taken a fair amount of blame themselves. Many feel maybe it is quite not enough and more is to come internally, I suspect. We clearly have a lot of issues involving how we are led and how our communications develop internally.
But at the risk of, you know, sounding perhaps a little apologist, I don't mean to, whatever failings took place that allowed Jayson Blair to have been in a position to perpetuate these frauds, the truth still remains the frauds are on him. It is an extraordinary thing that this young fellow did, and in fact I'm even going to take the word "young" out of there, because a lot of people have been pinning all sorts of things on, oh, because he's black or because of affirmative action or because he's young. He's not that young. He is 27 years old. By the age of 27, people have won Pulitzer prizes. It doesn't...
KURTZ: Clarence, let's...
HABERMAN: I'm sorry.
KURTZ: Excuse me. Let's pick that up with Clarence Page.
HABERMAN: I didn't hear that.
KURTZ: Why were the editors so lenient toward a guy who made so many mistakes?
CLARENCE PAGE, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, we don't know the total truth of that, but everyone focuses on race right away, because that's the most obvious thing about us besides our gender. The fact is he obviously did ingratiate himself with his supervisors. They liked him for a lot of reasons. A lot of people at "The Times" knew him, either liked him because he got along so well with people, or hated him because he was sucking up to the bosses, or whatever version you may hear, and I've heard several from different "Times" people I know privately.
But the important thing is here that the system itself, the people became overconfident in their own ability to police themselves. And at the impossibility that such a thing could ever happen, obviously it can happen. All of us need to be aware of it in our news shops.
KURTZ: What troubles you most, Terry Neal, the most about the way this whole Blair fiasco has been portrayed?
TERRY NEAL, WASHINGTONPOST.COM: I think the race question troubles me the most; that some would so quickly jump to assume that it's a racial issue and that other journalists of color who have worked, you know, with integrity their entire careers would feel like they had to answer for what this one guy, who was obviously a con man and a fraud, what he did.
KURTZ: Why should any other minority journalists answer for what this con man and a fraud did?
NEAL: Well, they shouldn't. But that's the way it's...
KURTZ: But you feel that that's the way it's been played?
NEAL: Yes, absolutely. There have been headlines and papers saying things like, diversity at newspaper, you know, creates fraud at "New York Times." There have been a lot of comments. As you know, I've taken you to task for a couple things even that you have said. One of the things that I think...
KURTZ: Well, you don't think it should be an issue at all? It shouldn't be discussed?
NEAL: Well, no, no, no. I think the question should be raised. I'm a journalist. I've asked questions. You know, my living is based on asking questions.
But here is one of the biggest problems I have. You know, the impression that the coverage has created is that there is a black guy and that "The New York Times" knew that he was creating fraud and deceptions as long ago as five years ago, whenever it was he was covered, and they said, well, you know, we're going to let him plagiarize and commit fraud because he is a black guy. And that's just -- that's stupid, that's ridiculous. It's not what happened.
KURTZ: Let me turn to Michelle Cottle. Gerald Boyd, the highest-ranking black editor at "The Times," says this is not about race at all. Do you buy that explanation?
MICHELLE COTTLE, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": No, I think Terry is correct in that other minority journalists should not be kind of nervous about this. This is specifically a pathological guy, who came in here with an intent to defraud. That said, I think the question has been raised in particular because Howell Raines is kind of famous. He's a guy who made his career to some extent playing on white liberal southern guilt. You know, segregated Alabama, he brings all the time.
And also "The Times"' own reporting has pointed out, you know, the metro editor said he didn't necessarily want them to hire Jayson Blair on as a full-time reporter, but it had been made very clear to him that diversity was very important. So things like that, the specifics of this have kind of fed the whole racial issue.
HABERMAN: May I correct that?
KURTZ: Go ahead.
HABERMAN: That's not quite right. The metro editor did say that Jayson had to be stopped from writing now. Jayson had already been hired as a report. Jonathan Landman, the metro editor, has said, a bunch of times said he didn't say Jayson shouldn't be hired. He said that Jayson needed to be slowed down and walked through a lot more of the fundamentals of our business than he had at that point. And then we can debate as to, you know, where along the line did the failure to put that into effect come about?
COTTLE: Yes, I'm not talking...
HABERMAN: But the notion that it was, no, this guy shouldn't be hired at all, as far as I understand it -- I'm hardly here as a representative of "The Times" -- but as far as I understand, it is -- that was never an issue.
COTTLE: In "The Times" big 7,000-word piece that they did, there was a line that said he did not -- when he was told that Jayson was going to be hired on as a full-time reporter, he did not raise a formal objection, but that he had recommended that Jayson not be hired that way. But it had been made clear. I'm not talking about the note that came later when it was clear that Jayson was doing terrible kind of mistakes.
KURTZ: Are we seeing an attack on diversity and efforts to bring more racial and gender-balanced newsrooms, would Jayson Blair now being used as kind of an excuse?
NEAL: Absolutely. I mean, I think he has become the poster boy of ideological opponents of affirmative action, and I think incorrectly so. A lot of people are clinging to a statement that Howell Raines himself made, I don't know whether it was Wednesday or Thursday, whenever that big meeting was, he said, you know, that...
KURTZ: Let me stop you so I can read the statement, and I'll let you pick that up. At the meeting, Howell Raines said, he was addressing the question of racism: "Does that mean I personally favored Jayson? Not consciously, but you have a right to ask if I as a white man from Alabama with those convictions gave him one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the sniper team. When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes."
NEAL: My feeling on that is that one man's, you know, acknowledgement of southern liberal white guilt is hardly an acknowledgement or evidence of affirmative action run amuck. What I've written in my two columns on this subject is that Jayson Blair was, in fact, an aberration. Look around the newsrooms of major newspapers and the networks and you don't see any other Jayson Blairs. It's not a problem of young black people being, you know, handed, you know, all of this responsibility that they can't handle. Jayson Blair was a specific situation, because he was a part, as you know, of Howell Raines' star system.
KURTZ: Are there other kinds of favoritism in the newsroom besides favoritism toward minority journalists?
PAGE: I'm shocked, shocked at the notion. You know, Howard, I'm always telling minority kids on campuses who aren't working for their student newspapers, and they say, well, there's all of this favoritism over there and they shut you out of the good stories. And I tell them, what do you think the real world is like? You know, real world newsrooms, real world workplaces have office politics and they have people who are part of the golden circle and those trying to work their way into it.
That was part of the problem here. I think -- well, people complain at "The times" about how the national staff was understaffed at a time when Howell Raines wanted to just gang-cover the sniper story. That was one reason why Blair kind of fell through the cracks here.
KURTZ: Clyde Haberman, do you think this whole question of race and perhaps going more leniently on a minority journalist has been overplayed in the coverage of "The New York Times?"
HABERMAN: Yes, I do. I think it was a factor, and I think it would be kind of foolish to pretend it wasn't a factor, but favoritism seems to be the greater theme here. And I think, again, you have to divide this thing into two halves.
One is: Why was Jayson is allowed to be in a position to cover those stories? And again, those are things that we're all batting around at "The Times" rather painfully over how this happened, because, frankly, I mean, I've heard in some of the shows that I've seen and stories I've read, you know, talented young man. Frankly, Jayson was an ordinary writer. And why he got there to begin with is an issue.
The second half, for me, is something you raised earlier, which is: Once a fellow is in a position to do that, however he got there, is there a way to stop him? And I would argue that Howell is right. At some level, if a guy is pathologically committed to perpetrating fraud, you're not going to be able to stop him very often. And when we send a guy out to Brooklyn to cover a fire, we assume he went out there and he didn't go to the bar around the corner. And because...
KURTZ: OK, that's exactly the question I want to...
PAGE: And this is the issue. And in fact -- if I could just finish -- with cell phones and e-mail, you haven't a clue where the guy on the other end of the line is. Maybe there are new systems that need to be devised, but at the end we do rest on trust.
KURTZ: We will pick up that point after the break.
When we come back, we'll look at Raines' star system at "The New York Times." How much is his hard-charging management style to blame for what happened? That's next.
KURTZ: Welcome back to our special one-hour edition of "RELIABLE SOURCES": Crisis at "The New York Times."
Terry Neal, if race was not a factor here, or perhaps a just small factor, how did this screw up -- I mean sometimes he didn't even show up for work -- get so many chances? Why did management give him so much rope?
NEAL: I think that's a great question. First of all, I want to clarify something. I never said in my columns that race played no factor. I agree with Clyde that it was a factor, but I don't think it was the most important one.
I don't work at "The Times," so I don't know exactly how it happened. Some of it I assume was institutional arrogance. But I'd like to respond to one very important point. The point keeps being made by you and others that this guy had 50 errors on his record before his fraud was discovered.
"The Weekly Standard," which is a conservative magazine, as you know, and did a little bit of poking around and went and did an extra search and found that two white reporters, middle-aged white guys, older white guys actually, who are far more important, getting paid a lot more money, Adam Clymer and R.W. Apple, R.W. John Apple, had error rates at almost twice what Jayson Blair's were. So, you can't just say that this guy's errors were overlooked. And I mean...
KURTZ: There are corrections and there are corrections.
NEAL: Sure and some of those...
KURTZ: And on this sniper case, as we saw at the top of the show, his story was denounced by the prosecutor.
I want to bring back Clyde Haberman. That staff meeting was extraordinary on Wednesday, because of all the resentment that seemed to bubble up about Howell Raines and his management style on his star system. Is that a factor here? Was no one able to walk into the editor's office and say, Mr. Raines, sir, I'm sorry to tell you this, but you've got a journalistic suicide bomber on your hands, a guy who keeps making lots of mistakes?
HABERMAN: Well, nobody did go in, that's for sure. Whether or not nobody could have, I'm not so sure. The 50 or so errors that have been discussed, I agree with Terry that, you know, not all mistakes are at the same level. To some degree, a lot of the corrections that we run are really almost minuscule. I'm not defending them. We should obviously go for an error-free newspaper. But we're much more Caesar's wife these days, and we print corrections on things that just a few years ago never would have even been bothered with. So, the correction rate is a factor and an indicator, but not necessarily the most perfect one. Look, all -- everything failed here. And clearly Howell and Gerald Boyd, the managing editor, are in a period of severe self-reflection here on how they go about to regain the confidence in a newsroom that clearly, to some degree, has been lost and something that has to do with how they run things. Now that's quite clear.
KURTZ: If everything failed, Michelle Cottle, as Clyde Haberman says, then how are the editors to be held accountable? What would "The New York Times" editorial say if this was a government agency or a big corporation that had made these kinds of mistakes?
COTTLE: Well, they would be asking these exact same questions. You know, who failed, why weren't there systems in place? I mean, "The Times" has been criticized over the years for not having systems in place like ombudsmen to have complaints launched to. But I think even more than the race factor or kind of what of this, this kid was an operator. I mean, editors are just like people in other industries. They like people who are nice, you know, and they kind of know how to joke and get along and do the office politics well. Journalism is...
KURTZ: You're saying he was a charming con man?
COTTLE: He was supposed to be the most charming guy, especially with kind of Howell and Gerald Boyd. So, you know, you can't kind of overlook that.
NEAL: And I want to...
HABERMAN: If I can interrupt, I want...
NEAL: ... and I want to make sure people understand what I'm saying here.
KURTZ: One second, Clyde.
NEAL: I want to make sure people understand what I'm saying here. I'm not that "The New York Times" management operated in the way that it should, particularly by not looking into more specifically the prosecutor's charges about his false reporting on the sniper case. But do I think that "The New York Times" said, you know what? He's a black guy, and, you know, we're not going to look into this because he is black. I just don't think that that's what happened. I think it was more institutional arrogance at "The Times."
KURTZ: But it was a -- it was a management failure, whether race played a role or not, agreed?
PAGE: That's right. Regardless of color and perhaps race was a factor, not the only factor, but there was obviously not enough checks and balances here. And now the question is for "The New York Times" future credibility, how well they can demonstrate to the public that they're taking strong internal action to try to correct this.
KURTZ: Clyde Haberman, you wanted to jump in?
HABERMAN: Well, I wanted to say, first of all, that there is no such thing that I know as an unlikable con man. It's an oxymoron, and that's part of the factor. I think all news organizations, all publications have to examine themselves on this. Michelle's publication clearly had a problem with Mr. Glass, who has now made a bundle writing about it. In fact, his novel, as I understand it, may be the only truthful thing he's ever done.
And so, we've all been victimized in one way or another. Every major publication that I know of has had a major scandal of some sort. And, again, part of it has to do with the fact that there may not be enough controls. Part of it may be going back to what I said earlier. At some level you can't control it all. If a guy is going to absolutely pull a scam like this -- and we are dealing with a guy who is pathological in this as far as I could tell.
KURTZ: That is true, but at the same time -- and we have to go to a break in a second -- I interviewed a "New York Times" freelancer the other day, whose work was horribly distorted by Jayson Blair...
KURTZ: ... who complained to the editors, and was brushed off, couldn't get a correction, couldn't get anybody to listen to her, and this woman worked for "The New York Times." So, I think clearly there were some missed warning signals here.
When we come back, a damage assessment: How badly has "The Times" been tarnished?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BOB HERBERT, COLUMNIST, "NEW YORK TIMES": It's embarrassing, and it goes to the credibility of a news organization that is based fundamentally on its reputation for being credible.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Welcome back.
How badly has "The New York Times" been tarnished by Jayson Blair's serial fabrications?
Clarence Page, 222 years later, people still talk about the Janet Cook fiasco at "The Washington Post." Will Blair be a permanent stain on "The Times" record?
PAGE: I would say parenthetically. You know, nobody talks about the more than 25 black reporters who have won Pulitzers that were not (UNINTELLIGIBLE), you know, the one who lied everybody remembers. And everybody will remember this episode at "The Times."
I don't know of anybody who has canceled their subscriptions over this. I am certainly not. I expect "The Times" to be a better paper in the long run as a result of this, and they've got to show that the world.
KURTZ: Michelle Cottle, how bad is the damage here?
COTTLE: Well, I agree with Clarence. I mean, people will never forget about this. We hear about Stephen Glass every time one of these cases pops up, even in lower-level cases like this. But that said, institutionally, you bounce back, you know, you do your time, you make your apologies, and you try to make sure that it is harder for it to happen again, if even not impossible.
KURTZ: Terry Neal, is this affirmative action debate, legitimate or not, kind of overshadowing the possible negligence by "Times" editors?
NEAL: I think so, and I think that that is a legitimate issue. But to your larger question that you asked Michelle and Clarence, I think that, you know, we'll survive this. I think most reasonable people understand that most of us are trying to do a good job, just as they don't hold all of corporate America responsible for the things that Jeffrey Skilling and, you know, Andy Fastow and Ken Lay and Bernie Ebbers did.
KURTZ: Clyde Haberman, back in 1966 you played a little joke at "The Times," and you inserted, as a prank, some jokes in a graduation story. What happened to you then?
HABERMAN: I was fired, and 10 years later I came back. And I was correctly fired. The link between what I did, and it was a prank, in the three very small lines of type. The link between me and Jayson Blair is that we both knowingly put false things in the newspaper, and that's the one cardinal sin that you commit in our business. That having been said, what I did was a parking ticket compared to his first degree felony here.
Now, I have to just say ditto to what everybody else said. You know, we've definitely been hurt here, and we're going to have to fight back to win the credibility that we'd like to have. But in the long run, I think we will. I don't know if it's, you know, pertinent, but the stock didn't change either. So, people bought the paper. People still think...
KURTZ: Well, at least you're not being hurt in the 401(k) department, but...
HABERMAN: Well, not even that. But, I mean, people are still buying us, and I think they think we put out a darned good newspaper. And those who think we were no good before now say that we're definitely right. And those who liked us before, many of them have been saying to me all week, you know, you're in the most navel-gazing business in the world, and perhaps you might not flagellate yourself quite so hard, although a little flagellation is definitely in order.
KURTZ: Well, there has been no shortage of that in the media in the last couple of weeks and no shortage of it here on this program. But, Clyde Haberman, in particular I appreciate your coming on...
HABERMAN: Thank you.
KURTZ: ... to talk about the very difficult period at "The New York Times." Clarence Page, Michelle Cottle, Terry Neal, thanks very much for joining us.
Up next, we'll get the latest news developments from the News Desk in Atlanta.
And when we come back, we'll ask top newspaper and magazine editors: How do you detect a liar in your midst, and whether the Blair fiasco will change the way that journalists do business?
KURTZ: Thanks, Heidi. And welcome back to our special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. We've been talking about the crisis at "The New York Times" involving an enormous string of fabrications by reporter Jayson Blair. He is on the cover of this week's "Newsweek," just out today, "Behind the Scandal at 'The New York Times', the Secret Life of Jayson Blair." And with us is New York is "Newsweek's" top editor, Mark Whitaker. In Chicago is James Warren, deputy managing editor of "The Chicago Tribune," and here in Washington, Geneva Overholser, former ombudsman at "The Washington Post." She was the editor at "The Des Moines Register" and is currently a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.
Welcome to everybody. Mark Whitaker, you move a lot of copy every week. How do you know whether somebody is fudging the facts or cutting corners or making up quotes? How do you check, or does the whole system kind of run on trust?
MARK WHITAKER, NEWSWEEK: Well, you know, it can be difficult, but I think one of the more troubling aspects of this story as it's emerged, and I think the management side of it is Howell Raines, has he admitted himself in that town meeting they had, an atmosphere which created "The Times" where people felt that they couldn't come to the top editors with problems. And I think one of the things you have to do institutionally is make it clear that you will not only be allowed to but actually encouraged to report the bad news, whether the editors like it or not, and I know that in my organization, the one unforgivable sin for me vis-a-vis the people who report to me and I also the people I report to, is if you know there's a serious problem, you don't come and report it, and I think it's important to have that in the culture.
KURTZ: Right. But Judy (ph) Overholser, when you were running "The Des Moines Register," don't you think young reporters were intimidated to come into your office and say, gee, there is a colleague of mine, I really think that their work is sloppy? I mean, isn't there a certain intimidation factor? GENEVA OVERHOLSER, UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI: No question about it. Howie, I definitely agree with what Jim is saying. We have got to work against this very real situation you talk about. I got to say as I watched this coverage, at the beginning we all thought surely "The Times" is the one place where it couldn't happen; now we seem to have swung around to "The Times" is the one place this could happen, and neither is true. It could happen anywhere. Newsroom cultures are very hierarchical. And not only young people but the people who don't feel favored almost always feel as if they are not going to be heard, and I think Howell put his finger on it when he said people are fearful in this newsroom. They think I don't want to hear what is not in my favor.
KURTZ: Jim Warren, could a Jayson Blair have gotten away with some of the earlier mistakes if he was on your staff at the "Chicago Tribune"?
JIM WARREN, CHICAGO TRIBUNE: Early ones perhaps, but not I think such a pattern. I think it points out how, first of all, you really got to know as much as you can, Howie, about the background and personality of the folks you hire. Then you have to have systems in place, particularly with young reporters, where you are monitoring them closely, mentoring them as best you can, and be conscious of possible methodological flaws and tendencies like over-reliance on unidentified sources. Then when it comes to errors, and we are very vigilant, you make one mistake, whether it's spelling or something big and substantive here, you have got to fill out a questionnaire, and everything is compiled. You've got to do that.
And managerially, you have got to trust the mid-level and lower level editors who monitor these folks in a way that apparently didn't happen there.
Finally, I just add this point, I think in the last decade or so as the case of Ruth Shalit and Stephen Glass have underscored, I think a lot of editors in journalism, but mostly particularly in magazines have become a little bit too enamored of I think a potentially toxic mix of youth, edginess and buzz, the flashy writer, and paid a little less credence to kind of old-fashioned, seemingly moth-eaten values of good old-fashioned shoe leather and reporting, and precision and I think we've got to be mindful of that.
KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Right. You know, it's funny, journalists love whistle-blowers when they help them with stories, but when we talk about journalistic whistle-blowers in their own newsroom raising questions about their own procedure it's a little more difficult.
Let's take a look at what Howell Raines had to say days after this story broke on the PBS "News Hour with Jim Lehrer" about how newspapers can protect against this sort of thing.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HOWELL RAINES, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, NEW YORK TIMES: In the journalistic culture, there is a tendency when someone cheats as spectacularly as this young person apparently did to blame the institutions. This is an institution that is always ready to examine itself and take whatever criticism and whatever corrective action is merited.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Mark Whitaker, I want to read something from your "Newsweek" story just out today. Your reporter talked to Jayson Blair, who said: "I feel a range of emotions, including guilt, shame, sadness, betrayal, freedom and appreciation for those who have stood by me, been tough on me, and have taken the time to understand that there is a deeper story and not to believe everything they read in the newspapers." Very ironic, last comment there from Jayson Blair.
Wanted to ask you, we talked in the earlier part of the program about the issue of race, how much of a factor it might have been. You worked your way up from the lower rungs at "Newsweek" over many years. Does it make you mad when you hear people say, oh, you know, it is easier for black journalists to get ahead?
WHITAKER: Well, you know, one of the realities that we all live with, people of color in our business and other businesses is, you know, ultimately it's always made about race. If you're a success, it's partly due to race. If you're a failure, it's partly due to race, and it's just something we have to live with.
You know, one of the things we point out in our story, by the way, is that his personal story was a lot more complicated than it's made out to be. I mean, yes, he had, you know, a streak of pathological lying, but he also had serious personal problems, substance abuse problems, psychological problems, which on the one hand I think make this story in some ways more understandable from a personal point of view, but also, frankly, make the management failure even worse, because I think "The Times" was aware of some of these problems and should never have thrown him off the deep end, particularly on the sniper story, with no supervision.
WARREN: But, Howie, Howie, Howie Kurtz, when you're looking at Mark, you're also looking unfortunately at an exception. It clearly empirically has not been easy -- easier for minorities to make it to the top of our institutions. Which is why I don't think this is anything particular to the media, particular to "The New York Times." I think this is a thorny issue throughout American society. Take a look at what is probably the most fascinating tough case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, the University of Michigan Law School affirmative action case, which will undoubtedly be five to four and be a pretty bitterly decided one.
Look around the country, not just in our newsrooms, which really have failed to meet, even as Geneva knows, their own mid-1980s goals of diversity, but look around not just in newsrooms but our corporate boardrooms. Look at the decision-making process around you in Washington in most of the federal agencies there, which is why I think this is really less about race and more about, again, that mix of youth and a desire for buzz and edginess and young talent.
OVERHOLSER: I think diversity has taken the rap for the star system here. What was unusual was that he being black was part of the star system, which is too rare.
KURTZ: But on the larger issue, Geneva, when you're a newspaper editor as you were in Des Moines, isn't there a pressure on editors to improve their minority numbers, to recruit and retain minorities? "The New York Times" actually had a better than average record for the industry, about 17 percent minorities in their newsroom. But can that pressure that managers may feel, unless you disagree, lead in some cases to a softening of standards?
OVERHOLSER: Sure, the fact is that having pressure that we're not meeting is an ever-constant issue with us, and I hope that most people are trying to meet it in thoughtful ways, but I really do think that what we ought to be thinking about harder is whether we have newsrooms that are able to listen to readers when they call in, whether we have a culture internally that can hear one another, and whether we're selecting talented young people based more on their jazz and their buzz, or on thoughtful and substantial qualities. And I think, you know, the race thing is such a small part of that.
KURTZ: Go ahead, briefly.
WHITAKER: Howie, can I make a point? Just, you know, one of the reasons it's important to have more people of color, not only in top management but middle management is actually I think that black editors tend to be tougher on young black talent than white editors, because they know that they have to be held -- or sometimes held in closer scrutiny. So this whole idea that, you know, you have more black editors and the standards go down -- in fact, you know, I think that black editors tend to ride young black reporters very hard to make sure that they're up to snuff.
KURTZ: Well, I think...
KURTZ: ... holding everybody to the same standard is a great idea. Jim, got to hold off because we need to get a break.
And when we come back, was there something about the culture of "The New York Times" that allowed this journalistic fraud to flourish? In a moment.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Geneva Overholser, you were the ombudsman at "The Washington Post," dealing with reader complaints. You also worked on the editorial board of "The New York Times." Isn't there an insular culture at the "Times" that maybe contributed to the fact that these mistakes were brushed off and warning signs were missed, is something in the water there? OVERHOLSER: You know what, I think any newsroom that thinks it could only happen at the "Times" is really courting disaster, including "The Post."
KURTZ: It has happened in other places.
OVERHOLSER: It has indeed; it's happened elsewhere. And we learned from the mistakes, but not conclusively. I would say that newsroom cultures have in them the seeds of this, because of the very hierarchical culture. But it has achieved perhaps its highest form of expression at "The Times," under Howell Raines, who is a very decisive leader. I mean, I really think he's sort of a high-risk, high-gain kind of leader. He pushes people hard. He does this (UNINTELLIGIBLE) his own thing, that we've all heard him talk about, and look at the kind of gain that they've made under him. But I do think it's very high risk, because you don't necessarily listen to all the talent in your newsroom when you're this headstrong.
KURTZ: The plus side is, they've won seven Pulitzer prizes last year. The downside is, a lot of people felt alienated from this system.
Jim Warren, the thing that I've been sort of puzzling over is how could so many people be misquoted by Jayson Blair and not complain? I talked to one guy this week who said, well, I assume all reporters spin things. People just expect newspapers to get it wrong and therefore -- you know, it seems to me one phone call might have stopped this early.
WARREN: Howie, you touched on something that I find as sort of stunning if ancillary to this -- ancillary in the reporting of this. Geneva talked about the importance of staying in touch with readers and being sensitive to their complaints, but look how few complaints there were here, and I think if one gets closer to the subject, you'll find out that Terry Neal's assertion in the previous segment about ultimately we don't have to worry too much because folks trust us I think is increasingly untrue. I think the level of mistrust in this country toward the media I think is both visceral and unfair on one hand, but still right there, and I think if there's a real problem with this is the extent to which folks will say, well, even if it can happen at "The New York Times," it must be prevalent everywhere, and that's what I think could be the absolutely awful legacy there, which is simply accentuating, again, this visceral sense out there that we're all bums and cheats, and this is at a time of continuing declining circulation, whether you're "The New York Times," "The Washington Post" or "Chicago Tribune."
KURTZ: No getting around that. Mark Whitaker...
WARREN: Increasingly, sadly, disassociated from folks.
KURTZ: Mark Whitaker, why is the Jayson Blair debacle so much of a bigger story than last year's revelation that a reporter for the Associated Press, Christopher Newton, had fabricated material in 39 stories? WHITAKER: Well, I think for a variety of reasons. First of all it's "The New York Times." I mean, it is the most prestigious and in some ways the most powerful newspaper in the country.
KURTZ: Is that why you put the story on the cover?
WHITAKER: Well, we put it on the cover -- I mean, yes, I mean, it's a personal tragedy. It's, it's, you know, an institutional icon, and we broke some news that hadn't been reported. So that wasn't a hard call.
OVERHOLSER: But also, we all jump on the same lilly pad, we all tell the same stories all the time. We'd all be better off spending an hour talking about the FCC cross-ownership rules, but we are talking about this because that's what we're all doing.
KURTZ: So I think there's a degree of media self-absorption here?
OVERHOLSER: Absolutely. A degree? Howie!
KURTZ: OK, so you think it's self-absorption run amok.
Jim Warren, Howell Raines was controversial even before this, because he had been the editor of "The Times'" liberal editorial page. Conservatives have accused him of sort of pushing the news coverage to the left. Is the fact that he's sort of a lightning rod an element here in the fact that it's become such a big story?
WARREN: Well, I'm not a corporate cultural anthropologist. If I was, I'd be charging out about 300, 400 bucks an hour making more money than I do now, and I don't know exactly everything about "The Times." But if you just look at the accounts of things that we've heard, Howie, about that staff meeting the other day, boy, there was a degree of animus there that I think one would have to be very, very sensitive to, particularly if one is the publisher. I cannot imagine that sort of being -- that animus being repeated in any meeting here. We had our own ethical problem with Bob Green last year, and I think nobody doubted the veracity of our two top editors, the editor and the managing editor, and they were cut slack that clearly folks don't want to cut Howell Raines.
KURTZ: Got to cut you off. Mark Whitaker, 15 seconds, do newsrooms need to change their cultures to protect better against this kind of journalistic fraud?
WHITAKER: Absolutely, but you know, journalism is always a work in progress. But just -- I don't want to disagree with Geneva, but you know, I think this is an important issue, because at the end of the day, the fourth estate is a very important check on the power of the government and of other institutions, and it's very important that we have credibility, because if we lose it, and particularly if a paper like "The Times" loses it, I think we're all the worse off for it.
KURTZ: I'll second that emotion. Mark Whitaker, Jim Warren in Chicago, Geneva Overholser, thanks very much for joining us.
And up next, cashing in. Is there a book publisher out there ready to pay Jayson Blair some major bucks? We'll find out the answer when we come back.
KURTZ: Welcome back. Could Jayson Blair actually turn his fabrications at "The New York Times" into a big bucks book deal? "New York Post" media columnist Keith Kelly joins us now from New York. So, is Jayson Blair now a hot new celebrity who is going to get a fat book contract out of this terrible behavior?
KEITH KELLY, NEW YORK POST: Well, what's been out there so far is some publishing executives, literary agents saying that he thinks it could be a $7 million deal -- rather a seven-figure deal, $1 million deal, a seven-figure deal, and that seems logical, possible. What we don't have yet is a major book publisher saying, yes, I'm going to give this guy a million bucks. So it's a few steps removed from that. Do I think...
KURTZ: Speculation right now about how marketable this story is. But, you know, I've got to ask, what about the fact that he is a liar, cheat, thief and a faker? Does the publishing industry really want to reward that?
KELLY: They'll all officially say absolutely not, but you look at the Stephen Glass book, believed to have gotten about $250,000 for his novel, and all the publishers at the "Times" said who would want to buy it? He had to go out and complete the thing and hand in a completed manuscript before anyone would buy it. But there's always people out there.
KURTZ: You're talking about Stephen Glass, who committed his fabrications five years ago at "The New Republic," you know, much less well known figure now thanks to this intense media coverage than "New York Times'" Jayson Blair.
But you know, I guess what I'm asking is it's all about making a buck and the fact that this guy is a disgrace, that he's tarnished the reputation of "The New York Times," is ultimately not going to matter to the Random Houses and Simon & Schusters of the world who might want to do business with him?
KELLY: Well, it seemed like it didn't matter to Simon & Schuster in the Glass case. I mean, they paid him, -- so all the publishers when you ask them right now will say, oh, no, no, no. But over the course of time...
KURTZ: You're skeptical. I can tell from your voice.
KELLY: I think -- I'm skeptical. I think when push comes to shove, somebody will take a contrarian gamble and will give him a big, fat contract. You know, your wife may ask, gee, what kind of an example does it set when this happens and everybody in the publishing industry will wring their hands, but unfortunately I think it will happen.
KURTZ: I think there should be kind of a Son of Sam law, where people who commit journalistic crimes shouldn't be able to profit from them. And at least in the case of Glass, he waited five years. I mean, the idea that Blair could do this, could lie to his bosses, his friends, his colleagues, and then turn around and shop the story to the book industry just strikes me as amazing. You seem to feel it's par for the course.
KELLY: Well, unfortunately the story will be "how I duped 'The New York Times,'" and they'll throw a little in what's this, substance abuse and the late night partying, and the sex, you know, what was going on with that, and you got a great story there. Unfortunately.
KELLY: Yes, could very well be. Glass is a made for TV movie as well.
KURTZ: When I first started talking to Jayson Blair two and a half weeks ago, working the story, when no one had heard of the guy or any of his problems, he lied to me as well as he did to so many people who were close to him and who he worked for. How could the publishing industry have any idea whether he would actually tell the truth in a book, if indeed there is a book?
KELLY: Well, that is a big problem. One of the questions is, what kind of money would they have to spend vetting it and copy- editing it and fact-checking it. It could be enormous, so that may hold the price down, but my guess is he gets a deal out of this, unfortunately, at some stage down the road. And he does have an agent, so obviously there's somebody -- I don't think there's a proposal out there just yet, but one rumor we heard, that he was actually (UNINTELLIGIBLE) blowing up was that he was actually trying to shop a book on the sniper case, but -- that's strictly rumor.
KURTZ: OK, we'll see how your bet pans out on reading the confessions of Jayson Blair. Keith Kelly of "The New York Post," thanks very much for joining us.
KELLY: Thanks very much.
KURTZ: When we come back, the president and the intern, and her name isn't Monica. A belated disclosure by the press.
KURTZ: At first it seemed she would be just an anonymous footnote in a Kennedy biography by Robert Dallek, but then "The New York Daily News" trumpeted this unforgettable headline, "JFK Had a Monica." Now the search was on for the 60-year-old woman who as a White House intern back in the day had a sexual relationship with President Kennedy. "The Daily News" soon outed her, and Mimi Fahnestock found herself being trailed by a Lewinsky-era crush of cameras. Fahnestock put out a statement confirming the relationship, but asking that her privacy be respected.
Will she succumb to the lure of the talk shows, a big book contract, maybe host a dating show like Monica's "Mr. Personality," or will Mimi just say no? How refreshing that would be.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at our regular time, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media.
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