With all the words laundered over the Jayson Blair affair, why is my soul still disquieted? Why do I feel even further from the truth than on the day the journalistic fraud was first revealed? The New York Times followed what has become, since Janet Cooke hoodwinked the Washington Post, the prescribed script of a ritual of atonement. The paper could simply have fired Blair, disclosed the fraud and issued an apology, treating his conduct for what it is–differing in degree, not in kind, from what is, alas, all too common in the hypercompetitive, Internet- and cable TV-driven atmosphere of big-city journalism. Instead, it ordered an internal investigation and turned the episode into a major news event, publishing a 14,000-word account of the plagiarism and fantastical invention carried out in its pages for three years.
While the Times has notoriously opposed many of the attempts at reform of mainstream journalism–ombudsmen, the National News Council, responsiveness to the concerns of readers that is the hallmark of public journalism–it was unusually forthcoming in revealing its own internal operations and conflicts: top management resisting evidence of Blair’s fakery, ignoring protests from sources and subjects, and discounting warnings from its own reporters and editors.
“Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception” was less a news story than a trial in which the Times served as investigator, prosecutor, defense attorney, judge, jury and executioner. It was a show trial designed to expunge the record and memory of Jayson Blair, although “no articles are being removed” from the archives and “corrections and editors’ notes have been appended to the fraudulent documents.” In Blair’s absence, the Times made a public confession on his behalf while seeking absolution from readers for its own sins, implicitly rendering the paper an unindicted co-conspirator. Like most show trials, the story attempted to showcase the central virtues of journalism, to shore up the boundary between fact and fiction, borrowing and stealing, and to restore the bond of trust between the paper and its readers.
The Times was too circumspect to label Blair a sociopath, but other publications presented a psychiatric work-up of the perpetrator to show that the problem was not in journalism but in Blair. They also poured fuel on the secondary, and diversionary, issue of diversity and affirmative action, reducing the controversy to virtuous attempts to adhere to misguided social policies.
This ritual of confession, absolution and penance inadvertently hides as much as it discloses. Institutions get the kind of deviant behavior they deserve: A society that reveres property is likely to experience quite a bit of theft; universities that sanctify intellectual achievement are rewarded with breathtaking amounts of cheating; and newspapers that value the original, amazing and speedy are likely to run into a lot of plagiarism and fabrication.
In hiring and promoting Jayson Blair, the paper violated its long-professed policy of farming out young journalists to apprenticeships at small papers, where their errors can be corrected and their character scrubbed with steel wool without inflicting much damage on the community. In that setting, invention is likely to be quickly set to right by direct, face-to-face protests from the offended parties. (One of the reasons Blair’s deception went on so long was that few protests were received from the misquoted and the subjects of fabrication.) Flaws in character are quickly revealed and grasped in the intimacy of a small organization; the incompetent and pathological can be weeded out before graduating into the more anonymous atmosphere of the metropole. Instead of following this apprenticeship policy with Blair–though he did spend time at the Times-owned Boston Globe–the Times accelerated him into the ego-driven race to capture a place on the front page. Telling the youngest kid in town to sink or swim clearly taught that the institution values aggressiveness and star quality rather than the mundane virtues of truth and proportion.
Race had nothing to do with those qualities. But Blair had the added problem of compensating for the suspicion that gathers around an African-American prematurely pushed ahead. Such practices do not serve trust, truth or diversity. In fact, rather than promoting minorities, it ends up exploiting them as useful and prestigious labor through which the organization can demonstrate its honor and rectitude.
The gap between ideals professed and practices encouraged is precisely what a sociopath exploits. Such characters are peculiarly adept at taking advantage of the weakness and vanity of organizations and individuals, of knowing who needs to be flattered and in what way, and where corners can be safely cut. They recognize the power of a well-kept secret: The culture of journalism professes loyalty to truth, thoroughness, context and sobriety but actually rewards prominence, the unique take, standing out from the crowd and the riveting narrative. Sociopaths believe they are only giving their superiors what is secretly desired and deserved.
The supply of such journalists is likely to increase in the world we are creating. “Flooding the zone” with print reporters or concentrating attention on one story in a 24/7 broadcast cycle means there are more reporters chasing less news and being rewarded for the unique angle and the exclusive source. Editors and reporters are increasingly susceptible to the unsubstantiated, invented and exaggerated. We are beset by too much time and space relative to the amount of information available to fill it. As a result, news is displaced by hyperbole, rumor and innuendo.
These tendencies, ingrained though unacknowledged in the architecture of metropolitan journalism, are the mystery behind the mystery of Jayson Blair. Sociopaths, in all their abnormality, teach us once again about the deepest recesses of the normal.