- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

How does any editor recover from what has now been exposed about Howell Raines’ reign of terror and error at the New York Times? Two things stand out, to my mind, from the welter of news, gossip and speculation. The first, is that Mr. Raines has essentially confessed that the most flawed and irresponsible decision of the entire episode was his, and his alone. Here’s the relevant passage from Mr. Howard Kurtz’s Washington Post media column yesterday:

“The most difficult exchanges came when the metro desk’s Sexton asked why no action was taken after the strong challenges to Jayson Blair’s reporting in the sniper case — including from the paper’s own Washington bureau. The U.S. attorney in Maryland disputed a Blair article that said suspect John Muhammad’s interrogation was cut short just as he was about to confess, and a Fairfax County prosecutor called a news conference to denounce a second piece as “dead wrong.” Mr. Raines and his team ‘did nothing’ to verify ‘the authenticity or quality of his reporting,’ Sexton said. Why, he asked, did no senior editor demand to know the identities of Mr. Blair’s unnamed sources? Mr. Raines said it was his failure not to ask about the sources. He said he had ‘a political reporter’s DNA,’ not ‘a police reporter’s DNA.’ But he also said that after examining Blair’s story and a Washington Post account, he believed the story about the truncated interrogation was at least partially true.”

Wouldn’t it be great if the Times now replaced its famous slogan, “All The News that’s Fit to Print,” with a simple Rainesian slogan: “At Least Partially True, But We Haven’t Checked Yet.” If an executive at a major corporation, like, say, Enron, had made such a decision, do you think Mr. Raines would not be calling for a resignation?

Race or not race?

And then there’s the question of whether race and affirmative action had anything to do with the promotion of Jayson Blair. On this, as blogger Mickey Kaus has noted, Mr. Raines has said two separate things. Here’s what Mr. Raines said on PBS on May 8:

“BLOCK: … And I wonder now, looking back, if you see this as something of a cautionary tale, that maybe Jayson Blair was given less scrutiny or more of a pass on the corrections to his stories that you had to print because the paper had an interest in cultivating a young, black reporter.

RAINES: No, I do not see it as illustrating that point. I see it as illustrating a tragedy for Jayson Blair, that here was a person who under the conditions in which other journalists perform adequately decided to fabricate information and mislead colleagues.”

This is what Mr. Raines said at the fraught town-hall meeting with his staff last Wednesday afternoon:

“Our paper has a commitment to diversity and by all accounts [Blair] appeared to be a promising young minority reporter. I believe in aggressively providing hiring and career opportunities for minorities … Does that mean I personally favored Jayson? Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave him one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the sniper team. When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes.”

So Mr. Raines’ first instinct was to fib. That’s a great impulse in a newspaper editor, don’t you think?

The lies continue

And while Mr. Raines was promising a new commitment to accuracy and openness, another one of his acolytes, Ms. Maureen Dowd, was up to her usual tricks of dissembling the truth. Her Wednesday column featured a classic, well, distortion. Here’s Ms. Dowd’s dumb-as-a-post take on Bush’s conduct of the war on terror:

“Busy chasing off Saddam, the president and vice president had told us that Al Qaeda was spent. ‘Al Qaeda is on the run,’ President Bush said last week. “That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated… They’re not a problem anymore.’”

President Bush said:

“Al Qaeda is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly, but surely being decimated. Right now, about half of all the top al Qaeda operatives are either jailed or dead. In either case, they’re not a problem anymore.”

It’s perfectly clear that the president is referring, sardonically, only to those members of al Qaeda who are “either jailed or dead,” not to the group as a whole. Everything we know about this president tells us that he has always warned of the permanent danger of groups like al Qaeda, has always talked of a long war, and would never say the words that Ms. Dowd puts in his mouth. So, this is a wilful fabrication. Will they run a correction? Don’t count on it.

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