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News at the brink (continued)


WHY ARE SUCH media scandals occurring, or at least being discovered, more frequently than ever? There is no one definitive answer, but here are some partial explanations.

Technology makes it easier to cheat ó and easier to get caught. Blair pulled his scam with his trusty cell phone (which meant that he rarely had to leave New York in order to appear that he was traipsing about Texas or Ohio), with the Internet, and with unauthorized access to the Timesí photo files, which allowed him to describe vistas he had not actually seen. Brian Walski merged elements of two digital photos to create a more pleasing composite using nothing more than a laptop and photo-editing software.

Itís frightening how easy it was. Yet their tools, in the end, tripped them up. In a piece for the forthcoming American Journalism Review, San Antonio Express-News reporter Macarena Hernández tells writer Jill Rosen that she had made a habit of reading Blairís Times pieces online ever since the two had been Times interns several years earlier. Hernándezís habit, of course, led to her discovery that Blair had plagiarized one of her stories.

The competitive pressures of corporate journalism can lead to ethical lapses. It is ironic that the Times scandal played out at one of the most richly resourced news organizations in the world. But Blair aside, most media today are owned by large, publicly traded corporations that stress profits and the bottom line above all else.

Legendary media critic Ben Bagdikian, author of the oft-updated The Media Monopoly and a former top editor for the Washington Post, agrees with Tom Kunkel that in some respects the media are more ethical than ever. He recalls beginning his career by being ordered to run press releases from advertisers as is. But with profit expectations rising and newspapers losing circulation, Bagdikian adds, there is a temptation to cut corners in order to come up with evocative stories.

"There are spasms of these things that happen," he says. "And Iím not sure itís more misbehavior of journalists. But there is more pressure on journalists to provide something quickly and dramatic because their publishers and editors feel theyíre competing with television, or even competing with the Internet."

Geneva Overholser, who runs a Washington-based journalism program for the University of Missouri and who is a former Des Moines Register editor and Washington Post ombudsman, says that the "profit pressures" many newsrooms are under have resulted in cutbacks in training on such sticky ethical issues as the use of anonymous sources, as well as in dealing systematically with complaints from readers.

Editors, in too many instances, donít hold their journalists accountable. That was certainly the case at the Times, where Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd found themselves utterly charmed by the seemingly workaholic young reporter who kept breaking one huge story after another.

The Shorenstein Centerís Alex Jones is particularly critical of the lack of accountability in newsrooms. He would scrutinize résumés vigorously (if anyone at the Times had done that, he or she would have learned that Blair was lying about his college degree), publicly encourage readers to report errors, and randomly fact-check articles that have already been published.

"Itís too easy to cheat," Jones says. "Part of thatís technology and part of thatís anonymous sources and part of thatís, perhaps, something thatís gone missing in the newsroom culture: ĎThou shalt not.í I think thereís something thatís really going to have to be done. Not just for the Times, for everybody."

BUT THEREíS something else going on, the 95 percent of the iceberg that sits below the waterís surface, the sloppiness and laziness and inability to tell the news straight that eats at the mediaís credibility every day. Itís the something else that has allowed a bottom-feeder like Roger Ailes to transform the Fox News Channel into a huge success. Itís the reason that Web sites on the right (the Drudge Report) and the left (Media Whores Online) are flourishing. The public doesnít trust the news media, and many people perhaps believe that blatant bias is preferable to the hollow claims of objectivity put forth by the mainstream media.

Itís the way a story is framed. Itís the way small lies are repeated, over and over, seemingly as much for the entertainment of the reporters themselves as for anyone else. Bob Somerby, author of the Daily Howler Web site (, has exhaustively detailed how the media repeatedly and recklessly lied about Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000. Just one example: Gore never said he had "invented" the Internet, even though that claim, complete with quotation marks, was attributed to him repeatedly during the campaign. In such a close election, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the mediaís real lies about Goreís imaginary lies decided the election.

"Todayís press corps creates a pre-scripted story," Somerby told me in an e-mail. "All subsequent facts ó all subsequent facts ó are then rearranged to fit that preconceived script.... The truth is this: Facts play almost no role in modern press-corps culture."

Al Giordano, publisher of the online Narco News Bulletin, who wrote a particularly insightful analysis of the Blair scandal last week (go to, has tangled with the Times for the past several years over what he sees as the paperís bias toward business and moneyed interests in Latin America. In a follow-up e-mail, he told me that the problem is not so much inaccurate journalism as it is accurate journalism that does not get at the truth.

"What the Times excels at is taking Ďaccurateí quotes from sources and making a big lie out of an impeccably documented string of selective factoids," Giordano says. He adds: "In many cases, the more strictly reported stories, without any fabrication by commission, contain an even slimier fabrication by omission that creates a more false impression."

Needless to say, the Times is hardly alone in committing errors of omission.

I donít mean to make too much of Somerbyís and Giordanoís analyses. Obviously the outright fabrications of a Jayson Blair, a Brian Walski, or a Christopher Newton have to be punished quickly and harshly. The practices cited by Somerby and Giordano are in some cases softer, more nebulous, more difficult to root out or even define ó though, to be sure, both have caught the mainstream media in outright lies from time to time. Still, thereís a difference between blatant fabrications and bad, even dishonest, reporting. For one thing, the latter is rarely punished, even though it is as corrosive of credibility in the long run as the sort of offenses that get people fired.

"Basically, when you pick up a rock, underneath it you find rot," says Danny Schechter, executive editor of and author of the new book Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror (Rowman and Littlefield). Thatís true no less of media institutions than of the titans of Wall Street ó celebrated in the 1990s but ultimately proved to be hollow at their core.

Seen in this light, Jayson Blair isnít so much an anomaly as a leading journalistic indicator. Itís time to pick up the rock and take a good, long look at whatís underneath. The future of news ó and, ultimately, of democratic self-government ó depends on it.

Mea culpa. The last thing you want to do is to screw up when youíre writing about someone elseís screw-ups. Alas, I did just that in last weekís piece on Jayson Blair and Howell Raines (see "Don't Quote Me," News and Features, May 16), misidentifying the DC-sniper suspect whom Blair had falsely reported was on the verge of confessing. The suspect was, of course, John Muhammad.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a] Read his daily Media Log at

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Issue Date: May 23 - 29, 2003
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