Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Blair Watch Project

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Blair Watch Project

Article excerpt


Young reporters should be well-picked -- and 'picked on' -- as 'The New York Times' appears to be learning, the hard way

Since the press seems to be in full-disclosure mode these days, I want to finally come clean. Back when I worked for the Niagara Falls (N.Y.) Gazette (now the Niagara Gazette), our city editor asked me to find out what tourists thought about an amazing local event: Engineers had literally "turned off" the famous cataracts, diverting water so they could shore up the crumbling rock face. Were visitors disappointed to find a trickle rather than a roar? Or thrilled about witnessing this once-in-a-lifetime stunt?

I never found out. Oh, I went down to the falls, all right, but when I got there, I discovered that I just could not wander up to strangers (even dorky ones wearing funny hats and knee socks) and ask them for their personal opinions, however innocuous. It was a puffball assignment, but that wasn't why I rebelled. I just could not bring myself to do it.

So I sat on a park bench and scribbled out a few fake notes and then went back to the office and wrote my fake story, no doubt quoting someone like Jane Smith from Seattle, honeymooning with her husband Oscar, saying something like, "Gosh, I never knew there was so much rock under there!"

Of course, I got away with it. There was no Jane Smith to complain about being misquoted, and no one was going to call all the Smiths in Seattle to find out if she really existed. I suppose the world was none the worse for it. As a story, it wasn't exactly on a par with a sniper shooting up the suburbs of Washington.

Still, I felt bad about it for years and (obviously) have never forgotten it. On the other hand, I was, at the time, just 19, it was a summer internship, and I'd only been on the job about a month.

One of the many alarming things about the Jayson Blair scandal is that he never grew up, and no one at The New York Times ever seemed to notice. My ethical breach at 19 in Niagara Falls was bad enough. One expects a bit more from a 27-year-old with years of experience in New York.

That was just one of the points I tried to make last week in a column I wrote for E&P Online that I called "The Blair Watch Project." It seemed to strike a nerve, inspiring dozens of e-mail messages. With so much already written on the subject, I chose to take a darkly humorous approach, pointing out some oddities in the Times' exposE on Blair, for example, his addiction to Cheez Doodles and his apparent belief that the Times would let him charge cigarettes, magazines, and blankets to his T&E. …

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