Blair's deception hurts media, but has U.S. done far worse?

June 01, 2003|By Dick Fleming

The case of disgraced former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair is journalism's worst nightmare, but its potential repercussions extend beyond the news industry. The more the media's credibility is eroded, the greater the danger that citizens will be deprived of - or just tune out - information they need to form enlightened opinions.

Journalism's defenders point out the Blair case is a rarity, at least in the brazenness of the reporter's offense and the breadth of the institutional laxity at one of the nation's largest and most respected newspapers. Blair is believed to have plagiarized or fabricated information in dozens of stories and evaded detection by editors for months despite warning signs that something was amiss.

The incident has prompted much soul-searching at newspapers, including The Herald-Mail. There have been numerous discussions among editors and reporters here about what went wrong at The Times and whether it could happen here.


The consensus is that The Herald-Mail's system of accountability probably would prevent any reporter from getting away with the most blatant of Blair's indiscretions - quoting people he never spoke to, describing places he had never been and making up "facts." Among this newspaper's safeguards against such deceptions is a firm policy against quoting unidentified sources except in extreme circumstances, and then only with great caution to ensure the information used is reliable and relevant.

That's not to say mistakes are not made. But The Herald-Mail takes mistakes seriously as well, as reflected in its policy of immediately publishing corrections when errors are discovered.

Despite those efforts, the newspaper sometimes must defend its credibility against detractors amid a steady erosion of the public's trust in journalism.

That erosion has been fueled in part by the industry's own missteps.

Some of the major cable television news outlets, especially, seem to have abandoned standards of objectivity and journalistic independence in the quest for ratings. The trend from reporting to pandering culminated in the disturbing spectacle of a competition to see who could corner the market on patriotism in the coverage of the war in Iraq.

Meanwhile, politicians and others with their own agendas often exploit the public's skepticism, blaming the messenger for delivering information that conflicts with what they wish us to believe.

Perhaps we should take some comfort in knowing the public seems to demand more of the journalists who report on the workings of government than of those in government who sometimes resort to lies, half-truths or distortions to shape public policy.

For months, policymakers told us Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to our safety with weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons dangerously close to deployment, and through links to al-Qaida terrorists. With little debate, we have adopted a policy of striking first against enemies we perceive to pose a threat.

Now that neither the weapons nor the terrorist links can be found, the policymakers have blithely changed the subject. The long-term harm to our national credibility and security is incalculable.

Responsible journalists are pained to see an opportunist like Jayson Blair tarnish a noble profession. But I am more troubled by the possibility we have been led to wage war under false pretenses. The consequences of that deception, if it is proven, will be far more disastrous than the actions of one misguided reporter.

Dick Fleming is weekend editor at The Herald-Mail. He can be contacted at 301-733-5131, extension 2329, or by e-mail at

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