Times Readers Need A New Decoder Ring

The New York Times is like Webster’s Dictionary. It’s the final authority. If you say, “I read it in The Times ,” it’s a true fact and the discussion is closed. Hence the newspaper’s confession that one of its reporters had been writing fiction set off perturbations commensurate with the place The Times occupies in the minds and lives of ruling-class America.

The exposure of reporter Jayson Blair’s experiments in creative writing also detonated various reactions in other publications and various effusions by journalists which it would not have caused had Mr. Blair been writing for another newspaper. The Times is special, and those who detest its politics or are envious of the people on its staff or have other chickens to fricassée took full advantage of the moment.

Yet more were attracted to the fray because Jayson Blair is an African-American, thus giving all concerned an opportunity to writhe and wriggle over affirmative action, racial favoritism and reverse racism, and to rehearse all the arguments we’ve heard on this topic for the last generation. (For Mr. Blair’s take on the newspaper, see The Observer ‘s interview in the May 26 issue.) For some blacks, The Times’ seeming to tolerate a sub-par African-American performer because he is an African-American is insulting and patronizing. For others, it is one more egregious instance of idiotic liberal guilt. For yet others, it is another fratricidal incident in an institution which has won itself a reputation, whether justly or not, as a rattlesnake pit of resentful, conniving and feuding people.

With so many juicy elements, it’s no wonder all of us have been having such fun. In the frolic, it may have escaped notice that The Times has had an accuracy problem long before Mr. Jayson Blair became a large, if transient, figure in American journalism.

Readers of this space may recall an October 2000 piece discussing New York Times inaccuracies. It used as an example a risible front-page article proclaiming the disappearance of the North Pole’s ice cap. In subsequent editions, the North Pole was rediscovered-along with its ice cap-by the newspaper’s editors.

Joshing aside, for some years now the paper’s reliability has been subject to question. Given the pressures of daily journalism, no newspaper is going to be error-free, so it’s a question of how many errors can be tolerated and how glaring the errors. Misspelling a name is one thing, misquoting an Undersecretary of Commerce is another. The burden of The Times , because it is The Times and wants to remain being The Times , is that it must have fewer and less obvious errors than other publications.

The Times being The Times is akin to certain animals of the forest who have no natural predators: There is no competitor breathing down the newspaper’s back. Even readers who want to chew nails in fury after incidents like the paper’s eccentric treatment of the Augusta golf-club controversy have no other paper to buy which offers what The Times offers. There are only two other national papers: USA Today , which is fun and does do good things, but hardly counts, and the Wall Street Journal, which is much more accurate but, even though it has begun to cover the arts and sciences, still not competitive. Also, it comes out 104 fewer times a year than The Times , which makes it easier to get the story right.

Truth to tell, Times readers, unless they live in a few cities like Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, have no other good newspaper to buy. Most daily newspapers simply suck. The Times, even with Mr. Blair covering the news in his own special way, is incomparably better than any other printed matter out there. And more’s the pity, since The Times has little-in the short run, at least-to worry about when it comes to losing readers to other places.

While The Times is the best even at its worst, the Blair fiasco can be chalked up to a failing which is endemic to American news organizations in general, but especially newspapers. It is characteristic of them to crush their middle management, and middle management at The Times knew Mr. Blair’s talents lay in the direction of checkout-counter tabloids. Middle management warned upper management that Mr. Blair should not be writing for the newspaper, but middle management didn’t have the authority to suspend, demote or safely dispose of Mr. Blair. That decision was reserved to the bigfeet above, who, not for the first time, acted on opinions (theirs) rather than knowledge (their subordinates’).

The slang expression “to bigfoot,” which means a superior, usually poorly informed, coming in, taking over and messing things up, originated, I believe, in the news business. Middle managers who have up-close knowledge of their subordinates’ talents and capacities seldom have the authority they need to do their jobs as well as they can. It’s a situation which occurs in other industries, but the reason it may be so prevalent in the news business is that the top editors are ex-reporters who can’t reconcile themselves to being away from the action.

Times readers have more than inaccuracy to contend with. This is a newspaper you have to read with a decoding machine. It is, I am sure, the recipient of more leaks and special access than any other news medium. There are days when The Times looks more like a bulletin board for various entities than a paper with articles chased down by enterprising reporters. Behind every leak there is a motive. The motive may be to soften the public up, to float a trial balloon, to send a note of warning to a foreign government, to threaten a member of Congress, to advance a feud with another government agency, to signal a lobbying entity that it’s time to make a drop. The possibilities are endless and invisible to the ordinary lay reader, who doesn’t know what’s going on.

The unclued-in readers think they’re getting reasonably straight news when they may, for instance, be getting another one of those Judith Miller specials on spies, Middle Eastern intrigue, bombs and weapons of mass destruction. Ms. Miller is famous among those with decoder rings for her government-supplied stories which are accurate in detail and as inaccurate in their overall thrust as anything Mr. Jayson Blair has written. For those in the know, a Miller special is taken with a pound of salt. Such relationships between the newspaper, its reporters, and organs of power and prestige are by no means confined to Ms. Miller. For different subject areas, one needs different decoder rings, which can make reading The Times on certain days a bit of a migraine.

The Times might also be asked about the stories it doesn’t cover or doesn’t publish. Some are doubtless stories which carry much political freight, but there are other stories which don’t appear because they’ve been broken by others. The news business hates to acknowledge other organizations’ scoops by publishing catch-up stories. Thirty years ago, The Times ignored the Watergate story as a Washington Post exclusive until it blew up to such gigantic proportions that it couldn’t be ignored any longer. The late start The Times had imposed on itself prevented it from having a really significant journalistic part in that extraordinary drama. More recently, the Washington Post ran a three-part series on the Nature Conservancy, depicting the organization as little better than a racketeering combine. For those who care about the preservation of unspoiled land and the animals who live on it, the only description for this series is shocking and enraging, but The Times chose not to jump in.

By the standards of professional journalism, the paper has much to be criticized for. But to what extent are the loudly broadcast standards of journalism those of a real profession rather than the advertising hoopla of an industry which finds it profitable to deck itself out in the clothing of truth, justice and the American way? It is an unsettled question as to the extent that an industry or a company should be held to its own advertising claims. Maybe the product they are delivering is the only product they’re likely to deliver, and we consumers had better make the best of it and cultivate other sources of information as needs be. But The Times ought to be able to get most of the names spelled right, and outright lying is still a definite no-no.