It’s nearly impossible to consider The New York Times’ decision this week to eliminate its public editor after more than a decade without remembering the man who made the position happen in the first place: Jayson Blair.
Blair was no high-level editor or publishing executive at the Times in 2003 when he caused the biggest scandal in the paper’s history, which eventually forced the Grey Lady to create the ombudsman-like position.
He was just a reporter.
But the way he manipulated people and facts with a combination of distortions, plagiarism, and outright lies boosted his ability to affect the paper’s credibility and image as much as any top editor or publisher.
In the words of the Times’ own unprecedented 7,300-word investigative report about Blair's “long trail of deception,” which ran on page one and spanned four full inside pages of the Mother’s Day, 2003, edition:
He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.
And he used these techniques to write falsely about emotionally charged moments in recent history, from the deadly sniper attacks in suburban Washington to the anguish of families grieving for loved ones killed in Iraq.
The Times’ report warranted the bylines of five reporters and additional help from two other researchers to detail how Blair had spent years making up sources, quotes, and facts -- and even lying about being in locations where he had purported to covered news.
In the end, Blair caused the departure of the paper’s top two editors, sparked a massive internal investigation and mea culpa, and left the paper’s image so broken that it desperately sought to repair it by hiring an independent ombudsman.
But he did not wreak all of the havoc on his own. As the internal investigation found, Blair was aided by editors who ignored warnings of poor reporting and questionable actions, as well as colleagues who found his charm and flattery endearing:
The Times inquiry also establishes that various editors and reporters expressed misgivings about Mr. Blair's reporting skills, maturity and behavior during his five-year journey from raw intern to reporter on national news events. Their warnings centered mostly on the errors in his articles.
His mistakes became so routine, his behavior so unprofessional, that by April 2002, Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor, dashed off a two-sentence e-mail message to newsroom administrators that read: ''We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.''
The lengthy article went on to detail how Blair had been given chance after chance despite his poor record of credibility and reporting. And he did not just make mistakes of carelessness or laziness; there was outright deception.
One of the most notable examples was coverage of the 2002 sniper case in suburban Washington, D.C., which terrorized the area for months. Blair wrote two stories cited in the Times review about the two men arrested in the case that were later found to include inaccurate information attributed to unnamed sources.
As a reporter at newspaper trade magazine Editor & Publisher at the time, I was one of many media scribes who covered the historic scandal.
For anyone in the news business then, the Blair bombshell threw the Times’ then-152-year history of respectable journalism and reporting into a tailspin.
While the paper received credit for revealing so much of its scandal so openly, critics also took hold of the massive pile of lies that Blair had orchestrated and wondered if the paper’s image could ever recover.
And other news outlets felt the shock waves from the Times’ ethical earthquake as news in general came under scrutiny and new questions about how newsrooms reviewed sources and stories were raised. Many argued that if the Times could be taken in such a major way, what’s happening at other, smaller news outlets?
Eventually the Times made several moves to pick up the pieces of its shattered credibility.
Less than a month after the lengthy May 2003 report, the paper fired then-executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd. Raines, a former editorial page editor, had been hailed just a year earlier when the paper swept half of the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, many of them related to coverage of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Editor & Publisher had even named Raines editor of the year.
Soon after, the Times appointed a 25-person committee led by assistant managing editor Allan Siegal and including a number of staff as well as several distinguished leaders in journalism to review the paper’s practices and recommend changes to prevent future Jayson Blairs.
Among the recommendations in the eventual 58-page committee report was the hiring of a public editor who would have complete autonomous power to review complaints and issues related to the paper’s work. The editor would serve for a fixed term to allow even more independent review.
In the 14 years since the Blair scandal and the follow-up recommendations it spurred, six people have served in the public editor role. And on Wednesday, just hours after the announcement of the position’s demise, four of those past public editors told me the decision to end the position was a mistake.
In all, more than 900 public editor columns have been written and remain on the Times website, weighing in on issues ranging from poor coverage of pre-war weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to reporting on sexual assaults and sexual harassment.
And according to Daniel Okrent, the Times’ first public editor, the most discussed issue through all of those years has been the use of “unattributed sources.” It’s a problem he says the public editor role was able to seriously investigate, but one that still needs continued review -- and it’s now fueling public debate.
Times editors apparently think that enough time and criticism have tamed the problems that allowed the Blair scandal to occur 14 years ago. However, as the journalism world fights new battles every day, the need for the strong, independent voice of a public editor may be greater than even in Blair’s time.