Title: The Blair Archive
Publisher: The New York Times
Cost: Free (registration required)
Tested: May 19-20, 2003
About a year ago, when reviewing The New York Times Digital Archive for the Péter's Picks & Pans column in Online magazine, I noted that "I have much less respect and enthusiasm for the Times than before not only because of the stunning errors I found in the course of a few days preparing for my 2002 Information Today April Fool's Day column but also because of the out-of-touch-with-the-real-world attitude [of the current chair and publisher] so poignantly demonstrated in the reaction to the Supreme Court decision in the Tasini case." The bracketed text was omitted from my manuscript. I went on to say that, after all, it's the current publisher's father, grandfather and great grandfather whose intellect and managerial competence defined the prime century of the paper. Others in the dynasty also made some controversial decisions (who doesn't?), but I was not surprised that the current chairman of the Times holds the bragging rights when it comes to the biggest embarrassment brought to the Gray Lady.
The Jayson Blair scandal is not the first fiasco during the 10-year reign of Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. at the Times, but so far it is the biggest. It is also the one that best reflects the consequences of the ultra-autocratic managerial style and the arrogant attitude of the publisher-chairman and his minions -- who would never tell young Arthur when the emperor has no clothes. They just stood there with their pants down while the competition broke the news, and it became clear that the three top brass of the Times were much to blame for having chosen, nurtured, protected and promoted a grossly under-qualified and obviously troubled staff writer throughout the years, in spite of the many clear signs of big problems.
I would not be surprised if patrons in many libraries asked for direction at the reference desk for details about the fabrications by Blair -- after all, the Times has been the paper of record. I wonder, however, how many public libraries have a subscription to the Times and how many of them still have those pages from the May 11 issue that provided the most detailed account of what Blair did.
The Times' policy has been to make freely available the last seven days of the paper on the Web. It is to be applauded that the Times made an exception in this case and rather quickly posted a list of all 720 stories penned by Blair since June 1998 -- with links to the full-text articles. You need to be a registered user to access this archive, but registration is free. The home page suggests that coverage extends only to late October, but when you click on the link you will see that the entire Blair oeuvre is posted.
As of this writing, only his most recent 73 stories have been analyzed and annotated by Times' staff members, but from the introductory comments it is clear that the Times will try to put the record straight for earlier articles as well, asking readers to provide information about Blair's "articles that may be false wholly or in part." The editor's note provides background information about the investigation.
There is a separate section that summarizes the types of misrepresentation for each article. These include misrepresentations about the whereabouts of the event and the presence of Blair, straight plagiarisms, fabrications, denied reports, factual errors and other issues. You can see a good medley of these in the annotations for a single story filed by Blair.
As for the "other issues" category, most of them are basic ethical questions, such as off-the-record statements described by the interviewees as such, which Blair nevertheless published. Honoring these does not even require a Journalism 101 course, even if Blair managed to pass such a course before he quit his studies, was hired by the Times as an intern and quickly promoted to full-time employee.
As for the factual errors category, I am more understanding as I myself make such errors, but many of them classified as such in the Times are just plain lies, and not exactly white lies. Factual errors are unintentional mistakes or the results of temporary sloppiness. Lies are intentional acts of misrepresentation. If you want a euphemism you may call it confabulation at best, such as the series Blair included in one of his stories about the family of Pfc. Jessica Lynch. These nuances matter, of course, if only to lawyers and indexers. What matters to the public, who want to go beyond the sound-bites of talk shows and pseudo-news reportage to form their opinions, is the availability of the full text of all the articles with Blair's byline.
While the annotation section provides a good summary of Blair's concocted quotes, made-up stories and distorted facts, the collection of whole stories better reflects his cliché-ridden overall style, which may qualify for the National Enquirer when it needs a filler. The excerpt from the list of titles of his stories illustrates his penchant for tabloid headlines and the vocabulary of soap operas. You can also get a sense of his mind set and style from an interview in the New York Observer.
It is a good solution that the articles are already enhanced with the annotations in the digital archive. Hopefully, the third parties who license the Times will incorporate these in their digital version, too.
The full text of the articles can be searched. The search engine offers Boolean operators; exact phrase searching; and limiting to headline, byline and summary by using the advanced search template. However, you can't limit one search element to the author field and another to, say, the summary. While Blair is a common name, and the Times has many articles about Tony Blair, the story-teller's first name is unique enough. Combing the phrase "Jayson Blair", the Boolean AND and a term (any word or geographic name or personal name) should yield good results , so those who were interviewed or allegedly interviewed can check to see what Blair wrote about them. With that said, I have to add that one of my test searches for a piece he wrote about a mall near the Newark Airport could not be found by the search engine, even though it was searched for in all of the sections.
The print subscribers will have a harder task in alerting readers to the massive volume of corrections. Maybe at the end of the investigation, the Times will issue a bound volume with the annotated versions of the original articles and send them for free to all the libraries that keep bound archives of the Times. Maybe I am naïve and the Times will only sell such a volume, so you had better download the annotated collection in case the digital version will later be removed.
As for who's selling what, there is some news that Blair is to sell: his story for a book, a TV series and a movie. I bet a musical comedy is not out of the question for this farce. The more money the better, not to mention the gratification he'll get when many of the misled readers make the pilgrimage and wait in line at the bookstore with a forgiving smile while asking him for an autograph. This is what happened to another pathological liar, Stephen Glass, who landed a job at The New Republic.
Maybe this is a good lesson for Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. and he will replace his executive director Howell Raines with the legendary Abe Rosenthal, who held this job until young Arthur fired him. He would certainly tell the chairman when he has no clothes. After all, according to the biography of the Sulzberger dynasty, as quoted by the Columbia Journalism Review, "once when Arthur Jr. walked into a news meeting with his shoes off, A.M. Rosenthal grabbed his arm and hissed: 'Don't you ever come to this office again without your shoes on.'"
After I finished this piece, I received the May 26th issue of Newsweek which, in its excellent summary, quotes executive editor Howell Raines opening his talk with the Times staff after the bomb exploded: "You view me as inaccessible and arrogant. . . . Fear ['in the newsroom] is a problem to such an extent, I was told, that editors are scared to bring me bad news." He was perfectly right on this one. According to the Newsweek story, when a business reporter asked Raines if he is "going to resign? The answer : No." That's one more reason why Raines will never be in the same league as Rosenthal.