July 29, 2003

I Am Not Making This Up

The hand wringer of the day among the guardians of the gates of journalism is the return to print of the plagiarizing fabricator Jayson Blair and the fabricating fabulist Stephen Glass - who have found assignments for Esquire and Rolling Stone, respectively.

Robert Leger, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, told Newsday: "These people have committed the most egregious sins against journalism. It doesn't make any sense that anyone would want them back, and I think it hurts us with the public."

Scammers and scoundrels abound, even, (shockingly!), in the (shrinking) world of newspapering, which, ironically, once flourished as a refuge for those very types.

Newspaper journalists should worry less about how the public perceives the resurrections of Blair and Glass (I do think the readers distinguish between Esquire and the New York Times. Or is this a dubious perceive-ment?) and concern themselves with public perception of those journalists who continue to toil in the ink-stained trenches.

Look, Blair is scum and Glass is the fungus that lives on scum, but journalists need to adopt a more three-dimensional view of themselves that goes beyond serving as acolytes in a church of the First Amendment.

Newspapers are a business and journalism is part of their product (advertising, of course, is the rest). So we need to forget the religious role-modeling and concentrate on the product.

The Newsday story on Blair and Glass is a good example of one of our chief failings - writing a lede that is unsupported by the reporting. The first two grafs read:

"How badly must journalists misbehave before they no longer can work in the media?

"That question was raised anew last week as Esquire magazine hired former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair to review a forthcoming movie about another disgraced journalist, Stephen Glass. Experts debated why the press doesn't banish its rule-breakers and whether a failure to do so erodes the public's trust in the media. Some worried that Blair's new assignment, along with Glass' recent gig at Rolling Stone magazine, will feed growing public skepticism about the truthfulness of news reports."

"Experts debated," "some worried," "Leger and others were responding " So reads the story. Yet, Leger, the SPJ president, is one of only two people quoted in the story who expresses any sort of concern. The other, a journalism professor, offers a canonically pragmatic interpretation: "We can excommunicate you out of our church, but there are other acceptable churches you can get into." Hardly an expression of distress.

Did the Newsday reporter make up the story? No.

Did he lift it from elsewhere. No, again.

Did he overstate his reporting to support a clever lede? You bet.

Is that, to borrow Leger's words, "an egregious sin against journalism." No, but it is a minor crime of marketing - a product that fails to deliver. And that's the kind of journalism that sooner or later sends the consumer elsewhere.

Links
 Newsday Writing After Wrongs Fuels Debate

Posted by Tim Porter at July 29, 2003 08:25 AM