Journalistic Principles Absent at the New York Times

by | May 20, 2003

In the old movie classic “Citizen Kane,” there is a dramatic scene where a political opponent has just found a way to thwart Charles Foster Kane’s bid to be elected governor. “This should be a lesson to you,” the politician says to Kane. “But you are going to need more than one lesson — and […]

In the old movie classic “Citizen Kane,” there is a dramatic scene where a political opponent has just found a way to thwart Charles Foster Kane’s bid to be elected governor.

“This should be a lesson to you,” the politician says to Kane. “But you are going to need more than one lesson — and you are going to get more than one lesson.”

The scandal of disgraced reporter Jayson Blair should have been a lesson to those who run the New York Times. But it is obvious from an account of a staff meeting at the Times in its aftermath that it is going to take more than one lesson to get through to the top brass — if it ever does.

First of all, managing editor Howell Raines announced: “I am here to listen to your anger.”

This is classic liberal condescension. Other people do not have ideas, knowledge or principles that need to be examined and considered. They just have emotions — and Raines graciously agreed to let them blow off steam.

Raines’ version of what happened was that “I was guilty of a failure of vigilance” while Jayson Blair spent years writing inaccurate and even made-up stories. But is that fact or spin? It would not seem to require “vigilance” when one of your own editors — more than a year ago — sent out a memo stating bluntly: “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.”

That’s not a subtle hint that anyone has to ponder. It was as plain as day — and it was plainly disregarded, as Blair was afterwards promoted to covering national events. The great emphasis now on the journalistic failings of Jayson Blair over the past several months ignores the fact that such a blunt warning a year ago was not just an emotional outburst without any factual basis, unless anything that goes against the grain with Howell Raines can be dismissed as just an emotional outburst.

None of this is peculiar to Mr. Raines or to the New York Times. Weighty national and international issues are often argued on the left in the same smug, dismissive style. Affirmative action controversies, for example, are pictured as being due to “angry white males.” Opposing viewpoints on all sorts of other disputes are depicted as showing that these are “emotional issues.”

Facts, logic, and principles do not have to be confronted by other facts, logic, or principles. That would be arguing on a plane of equality under the same rules on both sides. But the mindset of the left is apparent in such phrases as “raising the consciousness” of other people. They are like missionaries carrying The Word to the unlettered natives.

This was the stance of Howell Raines when addressing the view that, because Jayson Blair is black, he was the beneficiary of a double standard that allowed him to continue messing up for years.

“Our paper has a commitment to diversity and by all accounts he appeared to be a promising young minority reporter,” Mr. Raines told his staffers.

How can this be “by all accounts” when one of the editors bluntly urged that Blair be fired immediately — more than a year ago?

Whether or not Blair was “promising” when he was hired, for how many years can you remain promising as the record of your failures and deceptions keeps piling up?

Managing editor Raines admits now that he may have given Jayson Blair “one chance too many” when he let his promotion go through. But that sounds like very poor arithmetic in light of the record. And the fundamental problem was not that Blair was promoted but that he was allowed to keep the job that he was botching.

Howell Raines and the New York Times are not nearly as important as the mindset they represent. And it is not nearly as important that they learn lessons from this as that the rest of us learn the implications of their mindset and the kinds of things that it can lead to, not just in journalism but in the larger world.

The worst that Howell Raines can do is ruin the reputation of a once-great newspaper. But when the mindset that he represents takes hold in the seats of power, including judicial power, we can look for the same blind arrogance of the self-righteous — and far worse consequences for this nation and its people.

Thomas Sowell has published a large volume of writing. His dozen books, as well as numerous articles and essays, cover a wide range of topics, from classic economic theory to judicial activism, from civil rights to choosing the right college. Please contact your local newspaper editor if you want to read the THOMAS SOWELL column in your hometown paper.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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