Bend it Like Jayson: The Ethics of Celebrity Journalists
    by Gene Lyons

 As one with firsthand experience of The New York Times' arrogant condescension, I've enjoyed watching
 its editors get a comeuppance.  Back when the newspaper invented the Whitewater hoax, executive editor
 Joe Lelyveld accused me of "wild and shoddy journalism" for deconstructing its coverage. Declining to appear
 at a Harper's magazine forum at the National Press Club, he maligned my work in a privately-circulated letter
 to Times subscribers alarmed by its revelations. Typical.

 In the end, my reporting held up. Badly-written Times dispatches filled with semi-facts and half-truths did not.
 Reporting a $200,000 real estate deal ain't brain surgery. Correct the errors, fill in the blanks, and Whitewater's
 "scandalous" aspects disappeared. But Times editors chose to help GOP partisans hogtie a president rather
 than write a correction.  Had Lelyveld paid attention, he might have been spared the Wen Ho Lee fiasco,
 among others. Alas for years, the newspaper's unvarying response to outside criticism has been :
 "We're the New York Times and you're not."

 Well, former Times reporters Jayson Blair, Rick Bragg and, some say, columnist Maureen Dowd have
 certainly taken care of that.

 But enough is enough. Blair's plagiarism and fabrications were embarrassing, but trivial in effect. Bragg's use of
 an unacknowleged stringer to conduct interviews was reckless and arrogant, but The Times uses reporting by
 unacknowledged "stringers" all the time. The difference is that editors make the assignments and the newspaper
 pays them. Bragg's assistant was off the books.

 But if we're going to talk about phony New York Times bylines, let's turn the wayback machine to 1996.
 Specifically May 4, when the Associated Press filed a story accurately pointing out that Kenneth Starr's
 prosecutors rested their case against Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and Jim and Susan McDougal "without showing how
 Clinton benefited from a $300,000 loan as another witness had claimed." That witness was David Hale,
 the noted embezzler.

 The AP even quoted prosecutor Ray Jahn acknowledging that an FBI agent's failure to link the $300,000 loan
 to Clinton damaged Hale's credibility, but not his case. Indeed, Jahn's closing argument portrayed Clinton as an
 innocent victim of Jim McDougal's schemes, as The Times and the rest failed to report.

 But the AP dispatch got turned inside-out at the New York Times.  When it appeared in the nation's newspaper
 of record, the article claimed that "jurors heard an FBI agent testify that nearly $50,000 from a $300,000 loan
 was used to cover Whitewater expenses."  Jahn's explanation of why the agent's testimony didn't hurt his case
 vanished, replaced by a detailed summary of testimony that hadn't been given.

 The article's byline was also misleading. Contacted by former Des Moines Register editorial page editor Gil
 Cranberg, the AP stood by its story. It had no idea where the "information" in the make-believe Times rewrite
 came from. (Probably OIC leaks.) Needless to say, the mighty Times refused comment. A stickler for accuracy
 and proper sourcing, Cranberg wrote it up for Harvard University's Nieman Reports.

 In short, the famous "$50,000 benefit to Whitewater" cited in many articles, columns and TV news shows over
 the next few years was as fictive as anything invented by Jayson Blair. The byline was more misleading than Rick
 Bragg's, putting the AP's imprimatur on erroneous information neither reported nor written by its reporters.
 (If anybody wants to argue, I have the the agent's testimony on a floppy disk.)

 Imagine the uproar on the right if somebody made up "FBI testimony" hurtful to President Bush, then hid behind
 a bogus byline. The offender would be hunted down and driven from journalism--and properly so.

 Under what I called "the Clinton rules," however, things were different, and it was mainly the New York Times and
 Washington Post that made them so.  Read Sid Blumenthal's engrossing book "The Clinton Wars" to find out why.

 Did Times columnist Maureen Dowd alter a statement by President Bush to make him appear more callow and
 boastful? Clearly, she did. Under the "Clinton rules," however, such trickery was commonplace. This column once
 exposed a 1995 "Nightline" broadcast that deleted 39 words from a statement by Hillary Clinton, then accused her
 of covering up the very information it cut.  Last week, Chris Vlasto, the show's producer, was quoted questioning
 Blumenthal's ethics in the Washington Post.

 Also criticizing Blumenthal was Michael Isikoff, the Newsweek sex sleuth whose book "Uncovering Clinton"
 reveals in a footnote on page 365 that, having examined her employment records, he knew Paula Jones's claims
 of job discrimination against President Clinton were false on the day she filed her lawsuit--precisely the grounds
 on which it was eventually dismissed.  Yet he kept that knowledge to himself and spent years attacking those who
 doubted her of a "cultural double standard" and an "elitist attitude."

 Would that be the elitist prejudice in favor of reporting the truth?

  back to

Privacy Policy
. .