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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- Here are a couple of stark predictions.

Sometime soon, Congress and some states will move to consider legislation requiring the testing and licensing of journalists -- just as lawyers and doctors and shrinks are licensed before practicing.

Jayson Blair, the former New York Times reporter and liar whose printed prevarications are the catalyst for such dramatic thought, will be indicted for fraud by federal prosecutors.

Blair, you will recall unless you've been in a coma the last several weeks, was the Times' 27-year-old national staff reporter who resigned earlier this month in the wake of that prestigious newspaper's internal investigation -- a probe that revealed he had fabricated elements of at least three dozen of the 73 important news stories he'd written since last October.

Blair was very clever. Cozy in his Brooklyn apartment, he would write stories datelined from distant venues by lifting material from competing papers and Web sites, providing visual descriptions of unvisited scenes he'd garnered from the Internet and Times photo archives, quoting non-existent anonymous sources and simply making up stuff in his vivid imagination.

Why all the furor? Two big reasons.

First, The New York Times was the gold standard of news reporting. If even the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post -- or any other print or electronic news outlet -- screwed up the truth, there was an instinctive reaction among both the intelligentsia and everyday readers: "So what? These things happen ... mistakes will be corrected. ... " But one could trust The New York Times. If you read it there, take it to the bank. The experience and reputation of 152 years indicated so.

No longer. Blair so consistently and easily hoodwinked his editors and the reading public with his inventive balderdash that every investigative piece or cutting-edge article attracting national attention will draw scorn, derision and the smirking question: "Is that another Jayson Blair effort?" The syndrome will affect every newspaper in the United States, no matter how many Pulitzer Prizes they've won.

Pentagon Papers? You made that up. Watergate? Bunch of Nixon-hating pinkos.

I've been through this. When Janet Cooke of the Washington Post more than two decades ago concocted a poignant and beautifully written series about an 8-year-old heroin addict in the District of Columbia, only one small detail proved inaccurate. There was no 8-year-old heroin addict. She'd made the whole thing up. The Post immediately sent her into obscurity and a new career as a department store clerk.

Another reporter and I had won a Pulitzer Prize for an investigative series on religious financing and corruption we had written the year before. Some minor figures in the story sued us -- unsuccessfully -- for alleged defamation and libel, and it reached trial shortly after the Cooke affair. The first question I was asked by the plaintiff's attorney was, "Have you written any stories about eight-year-old heroin addicts lately?" The judge disallowed it with stern admonitions to the lawyer. But it made me realize how fragile is reader trust in the written or spoken word.

Don't take my word for it. Ask columnist Connie Schultz of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Shortly after the Jayson Blair scandal broke, she wrote a mild and non-related piece about human respect. It was garnered from interviews with a couple of immigrant cab drivers. She withheld their names to keep them out of trouble with bureaucratic types. Schultz had assumed the Blair scandal was just a blip on the journalism radar screen -- an insider story only the Manhattan media was interested in. She learned. She was inundated with complaints from Cleveland readers that she was making things up and was "no better than Jayson Blair."

"Every single message had Jayson Blair's name in it," she told Mark Fitzgerald of the trade publication "Editor & Publisher." "I don't think this one is going away."

When Americans lose all trust in their media sources, it will indicate a tectonic shift in the national fabric and will become a national security problem with immense social implications. It is already happening. The Jayson Blair affair speeds it along.

Second reason: Despite repeated denials by almost everyone involved, much of the Blair affair is about race.

Jayson Blair is black.

The internal Times investigation revealed that several concerned sub-editors had warned superiors Blair was untrustworthy, too immature and too distracted with personal problems to be given important assignments. They noted the Times had had to run corrections on at least 50 of Blair's sloppily-written stories. The metropolitan editor, Jonathan Landman, more than a year ago wrote, "We have to stop Jayson writing for the Times. Right now."

The managing editor, Gerald Boyd, also black, apparently ignored that and other memos and complaints about Blair -- widely considered on the paper to be Boyd's protege. So did Executive Editor Howell Raines, a liberal Southerner whose record on civil rights and diversity hiring has been impeccable.

Instead, incredibly, Blair was promoted to the prestigious Times national staff -- the journalistic equivalent of the military's Special Forces.

Would a white reporter with a record so full of holes and who engendered so much caution and warning even have been protected in such a fashion, much less promoted?

It's a fair question -- one being asked repeatedly in media circles. Even Raines admits it.

In a closed staff meeting -- held in a Midtown movie theater a few days after the scandal broke -- Raines mentioned his record of improving diversity at the Times: "You have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama with those convictions, gave him one chance too many. ... When I look into my heart for the truth of the matter, the answer is yes."

There may be something even deeper going on here -- a subtle surfacing of class warfare. Immediately after Cooke, also black, pulled her little stunt and was caught, the Washington area radio phone-in shows were blitzed with callers who congratulated her for being a righteous sister who had fooled whitey and his power establishment. People who identified themselves as white congratulated her for putting one over on the ruling class -- no matter what color it was.

One can find much of the same regarding Blair on current Internet traffic and in chat rooms.

Blair himself attributes his behavior to some of the same in terms of motive. In a recent interview with the weekly New York Observer -- the most Blair has opened up to anyone since his dirty work broke in public -- Blair tells writer Sridhar Pappu of his editors: "They're all so smart, but I was sitting right under their nose fooling them. If they're all so brilliant and I'm such an affirmative-action hire, how come they didn't catch me?"

The Observer interview (at www.observer.com) is both candid and startling. Blair himself explores the race issue: "Anyone who tells you that my race didn't play a role in my career at The New York Times is lying to you. Both racial preferences and racism played a role. And I would argue that they didn't balance each other out. Racism had much more of an impact."

Blair said to suggest that Boyd protected him and was his mentor is "not a fair characterization" and is a faulty assumption made merely because they're both black. "I don't particularly like Gerald," he told the Observer. "How did Gerald become my mentor?" Interestingly, he seemed to better like the critical Landman, "who helped save my life," calling Landman an "honest, honorable" man, but one misguided because "he wants to believe that we live in a meritocracy simply because he follows a meritocracy."

Blair -- currently in rehab -- described himself in the Observer interview as a "former total cokehead" and said drugs and alcohol were "definitely a part of my self-medication" in meeting the pressures of a high-profile deadline job.

The prediction of federal trouble for Mr. Blair stems from his controversial reportage last fall, when he broke several front-pagers as part of an eight-man team the Times sent to Washington to cover whoever was running amok and terrifying the nation's capital by killing random citizens with amazingly accurate sniper fire. In late October, Blair wrote that a federal prosecutor had interrupted questioning of one of the two suspects by local cops just as the probable shooter was about to confess -- and then, six weeks later, that DNA had ruled out one of the men as primary shooter. The Justice Department says both assertions were flat wrong and has started a fraud inquiry into Blair's possible damage to the case.

So, we are left to read of constant calls for the heads of Boyd and Raines, of a possible million-dollar book deal Blair might make for his version of the whole sorry affair and with incredible wreckage to the journalism profession as a whole. Even before Blair, we were at the bottom of the heap, along with used-car dealers, in most of the who-do-you-trust polls. Now, we're off the charts, at the wrong end.

Blair told the Observer he's already begun to write "a cautionary tale for anyone in a job who's self-destructing." It is, he says, very therapeutic.

How do I tell a class of incoming freshmen it is vastly important to tell the truth in this profession, when apparently there are few deleterious consequences for failing to do so?

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com May 27 2003