BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's journalistic misdemeanor such as Rick Bragg's use of unnamed stringers to gather facts for his stories, and then there's journalistic grand larceny -- that catalog of fabrication and plagiarism committed by Jayson Blair. When a practice like Bragg's comes to light it's usually corrected by a change in the rules; but when a scandal like Blair's hits the headlines -- well that's supposed to change the profession. "When a reputable newspaper lies, it poisons the community; every newspaper story becomes suspect," declared a New York Times editorial. "Great publications magnify the voice of any single writer. Thus, when their editors or publishers want or need to know a source for what they print, they have to know it and be able to assure the community or the courts that they do. Where this is not now the rule, let this sad affair at least have the good effect of making it the rule." That editorial was published on April 17, 1981 about the presumably profession-transforming transgressions of a Washington Post reporter named Janet Cooke. Cooke was 26, talented and black -- a big plus in a mostly white newsroom in a mostly black city. She was rapidly promoted. She wrote a powerful piece about drug abuse in D.C. centered on an 8 year old heroin addict named Jimmy. She won the Pulitzer Prize. Then it became apparent that she'd invented her star character. She was in many ways like Jayson Blair.
MICHAEL GETLER: These were both attractive people. I mean they were smart, they were articulate; editors get caught up with them and they perhaps give them too long a leash to operate in ways that perhaps some other reporters don't get to operate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Michael Getler is a former Post reporter and editor; now its ombudsman. He says that after the Cooke debacle, the paper changed.
MICHAEL GETLER: One of the things that did happen at the post is that the star system was diminished, because it did exist here, and it exists at the Times, I'm sure. There was also I think an immediate impact on the culture of the newsroom. It was clear that editors had to inquire more frequently about the sources of stories -- that communications generally had to be improved throughout the newsroom --that had to be a much more open process so that doubts by reporters or junior editors about particular stories could surface.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Back then the post was run by Ben Bradlee, a flamboyant, autocratic, risk-taking editor like the Times' Howell Raines today. The newsroom culture was similar and their scandals were similar, but not entirely the same.
HENDRIK HERTZBERG: The kind of thing that Jayson Blair did is very different from what Janet Cooke did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hendrik Hertzberg is a staff writer for the New Yorker.
HENDRIK HERTZBERG: No, hers was a great big invention. Janet Cooke's was more like a big bank robbery, and Jayson Blair's was more like gradual embezzlement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So the editors responsible for Cooke failed to catch her in her one big lie. But the Times' top editors had plenty of chances to catch the myriad distortions of Jayson Blair. One prominent reason they didn't? Blair's victims never called to complain! Some critics say that's because they had no one to complain to.
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LOU GELFAND: I think readers want to have someone -- a name -- that they can call and ask for and talk to instead of just leaving a message. It's very impersonal, and I think it's arrogant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:For years Lou Gelfand used to call the New York Times switchboard to point out errors of fact. He would be transferred to the "national desk" where he says the response was courteous and unavailing. Nor have more recent calls to the correction line resulted in callbacks or printed corrections, although he concedes that the Times does print a lot of them. He counted 214, almost 8 a day, in the four weeks ending May 10th. But, he says, that's not good enough.
LOU GELFAND: The plain and simple fact is that they don't want to be criticized. If they wanted to be criticized, if they wanted to be responsive to the public, they'd have ombudsman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Gelfand is the longest-running ombudsman in American journalism, serving that role for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for the last 22 years. The ombudsman is the person to complain to -- an independent observer --neither apologist nor scold. But he takes the complaints and unpacks them, usually in a column, and responds to hundreds of readers a week.
LOU GELFAND: I think they can enhance the newspaper's credibility by taking an issue and discussing it thoroughly and if the ombudsman feels that the paper blew it - was wrong - to say so.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The Washington Post had an ombudsman back in 1981, but no ombudsman could have prevented the Cooke debacle. But what about Jayson Blair? What if readers were used to complaining to a person at the Times, and what if suspicions about Blair, instead of merely circulating in memos among mid-level editors, found their way into an ombudsman's column in it's pages?
LOU GELFAND: Well, I think if the Times elects to name an ombudsman, that the other papers will follow suit. Jayson Blair definitely could be the best thing that happened to not just the Times, but the other papers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right now there are only 32 papers that employ ombudsman out of more than 1400.
HENDRIK HERTZBERG: I do think that for small papers a single ombudsman makes sense.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg.
HENDRIK HERTZBERG:But for the big, importance national papers, something a little more elaborate is probably called for -- the equivalent of an inspector general's office.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Maybe that'll be a lasting legacy of Jayson Blair, and maybe a reduction of the star system -- better communication among high and low-level editors -- and better checking up on facts, starting with a reporter's resume straight through to his confidential sources. But as the Times noted in its editorial in 1981, that should have been the lasting legacy of Janet Cooke. I put it to the Post Ombudsman Michael Getler.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did Janet Cooke have any lasting impact on the profession? Cause it sure doesn't seem like it.
MICHAEL GETLER:Well, it's like the Vietnam War. You know, you've got a new generation of reporters who don't even know about it or hadn't heard about it or weren't aware of the impact of it. But I think it did put in place a general culture which guards against that happening again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you think maybe you need a Janet Cooke or a Jayson Blair in every generation.
MICHAEL GETLER: Well, hopefully not. I mean hopefully you, you don't need that, but it sure provides a stimulus. [MUSIC]