A Correction: Not A Crisis

How many civilians can ask the same question about your business before you start to pay attention? In the strange and horrible case of Jayson Blair and The New York Times, the query is ubiquitous. "Isn't everyone overreacting to this a little bit?" one woman said with a puzzled frown at a charity lunch while those around her nodded.

The answer is yes.

There's no need to recap the story of the reporter and his heinous print rip-offs. The guy was brought along too quickly at the greatest newspaper in the country. He was black and he was a suck-up and, depending on whom you listen to, one or the other or a combination of the two led higher-ups to elevate him way beyond his experience, his ability and his work ethic. He had more corrections on his work at the Times in three years than many reporters have in a lifetime.

Depending on whom you listen to, he was either too lazy, too broke or too coked-up to go out on assignment, so he stayed home and piped, as we say in the trade. Nonexistent tobacco fields around a prisoner of war's home in West Virginia. A made-up family photograph in the prayer book of an Ohio minister. Fictional filigree: not the sort of stuff that ruins anyone's life or gives a false view of big issues. The closest he ever came to that was to phony up stories about the D.C.-sniper case, the kind of spider web of a story that should be assigned only to someone with a long history of slogging through official sources and staged press conferences.

That's the lesson, say pundits, editors and all the others who never miss Jim Romenesko's Web site about what we call The Business (because there's no Business like our Business, and nothing we like to read about more). Insufficient editorial control. Bad management. Not enough interoffice communication. It turns out the Times is run like virtually every other American corporation: hierarchically and sometimes dictatorially.

There's one question that all this raises that doesn't come up as much as it should in The Business. It's a question that should be asked at the copy desk when a story is being edited, in the meetings when placement is being decided and when someone's sins are being delineated on page one of the newspaper of record and on four full pages inside.

Does it serve the reader?

That's really the question that matters most in delivering the news day after day, under deadline pressure and with all the human shortcomings that reporters have. Does the reporting, the writing, the editing, the placement, serve the reader? If it serves the reader poorly, how poorly? Does it deserve a correction? A follow-up? A firing? A conflagration?

Jayson Blair's stories obviously didn't serve the reader. Nor did they serve Blair himself, whose name has overnight become industry shorthand for the most flagrant malfeasance and who continues to make himself loathsome by making light of his dishonesty. But the newspaper didn't only make a mistake hiring him, it made a mistake covering him. The exhaustive look at his behavior and the paper's insistence that his confabulations were one of the most important events in its history sent the message that the story reflected systemic corrosion when it was instead a classic man-bites-dog, a grotesque aberration. And it puzzled the hell out of readers, who, at least in my unscientific survey, found it a bizarre combination of self-flagellation and navel-gazing.

There's apparently a funereal atmosphere in the Times's newsroom right now, leavened with black humor atop a bedrock of barely banked rage. And no wonder. Times reporters and editors are as gifted a bunch as ever tried to make sense of the world every 24 hours. (I was once lucky enough to be one of them.) While all this is swirling around them, like one of those trash storms on a windy day in Times Square, they are still managing to turn out as good a paper as the country has ever had. The New York Times is better now than at any time in its history. If you don't believe me, go to the microfilm at the library. Stolid prose. Narrow focus. Undue deference to government. Intentional blindness toward the disenfranchised and the different. That was once the stock in trade of much of American journalism.

Even the unconcealed joy of Fox News at this story, the sheer delight of the flagrantly right-wing network at the toppling of the industry leader its commentators love to hate, says something important about The Business. There is something for everyone now, from the small community dailies to the television polemicists to the news shows that attempt to remain dispassionate and substantive to the great national newspapers, in hand and online. If you take the time, it is easier to be well-informed in this country than at any time in history.

Nothing Jayson Blair did has changed that. He is as insignificant and spurious as those made-up tobacco fields. It's time to leave him in the dust and move on to serve the readers.