Reporter violates cardinal tenet of trade

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 14, 2003

A former reporter with The New York Times became a byword this past weekend for reprehensible journalistic behavior.

In a front-page public apology on May 11 with follow-up on May 12, The Times devoted 15,000 words to the national affairs reporter's pattern of plagiarism and deception.

The newspaper claimed that Jayson Blair, 27, while writing for The Times, had "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."

He perpetrated his fraud in articles on such "emotionally charged" subjects as last year's sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., area and war casualties in Iraq, The Times said.

"Mr. Blair repeatedly violated the cardinal tenet of journalism, which is simply truth."

After reading the paper's apology, I contacted our e-mail coffee companion Henry Heald for his reaction. Henry's a freelance journalist and ethics-and-the-media critic who has contributed to this column before. He replied:

WARREN, the Chinese have a proverb: "Cheat me once, shame on you. Cheat me twice, shame on me." That is something the editors and reporters at The New York Times can ponder as they work through the repercussions of the scandal over a reporter who plagiarized and falsified stories.

The story of Jayson Blair is not unique. It is not the first time a reporter has misused his power and talent for his own glorification. And it won't be the last. It is the criminal mind. It is no different than the person who robs a bank, breaks into a house or steals a car. No different than the actress who shoplifts, the bank manager who embezzles, the investment counselor who defrauds his clients. The fact that so many people get away with it for so long says something good about our democratic society, as well as something bad.

Con artists are successful because people in general expect the best from their fellow citizens. We don't cheat and we don't expect to be cheated. However, there is also a streak of greed and a little laziness in most of us. If someone offers us a good deal we are tempted to take it. We stifle the little voice inside us that warns, "This is too good to be true." Because we want it to be true and we are too lazy to lift the stone and see the dirt underneath.

How does a whole building full of some of the best journalists in the world have the wool pulled over their eyes for four years by one con man? Because they wanted Jayson Blair to succeed – they wanted this hotshot reporter to do well. And they wanted the glory his good work brought to their paper. Some of those who had concerns about Blair felt it was not their job to interfere. And some of those who did were told – by managers too proud to have their judgment questioned – to mind their own business.

A good manager – publisher, editor, news director – is just as interested in the reporter who writes the story as he/she is in the copy the reporter produces. The editor whose only interest is the look of the paper that hits the street can easily be conned by an unethical reporter who doesn't let the facts get in the way of a good story.

New technology – cell phones and e-mail – simply reinforces the need for editors to abide by that old adage: "Check Your Sources."

—Henry F. Heald, Ottawa

THANKS, HENRY. Plagiarism and other forms of theft of intellectual property are not limited to journalism, of course. We can readily see early signs of such behavior right within the classroom.

When students have easy Internet access to all kinds of articles that they can cut, paste, and pass off as their own, what can parents, teachers and school administrators do to affirm honesty in the research and writing process?

Suggestions, readers?

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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