Blair taught newspapers many lessons

Marci Kacsir

The Jayson Blairs of journalism may have put a temporary black mark on the profession in the eyes of the public, but their internal effects on the business have been a blessing.

Not only have newspapers begun internal changes to prevent the further invasion of unethical reporters and editors, but we have yet another lesson in the horror of media conglomerates that function more as businesses than public watchdogs.

Jayson Blair, the disgraced former reporter of The New York Times, wormed his way into fame with fabricated sources and lifted material from other writers while he sat in his cozy New York apartment.

After Blair was exposed, Times executive editor Howell Raines resigned after the May 2003 fiasco along with managing editor Gerald Boyd.

Thanks to Blair, newspapers have begun an internal cleansing and have since flushed out other disgraced reporters like Rick Bragg, also of the Times, and Jack Kelley of USA Today.

Bragg opened the debate in May 2003 about the use of interns and stringers at newspapers, whom he used unethically to gather the majority of information included in his features without giving them due credit.

Kelley is just another Blair, although he vehemently denied his fabrications during January investigations of several questionable pieces he wrote. He created one of these stories from a photograph of a hotel worker whom he claimed was an immigrant worker who had died, while in truth she is alive and healthy, and he has managed to jeopardize her citizenship in the U.S.

Because of the disgraced reporters like Blair, Kelley and Bragg, editors everywhere have followed the lead of new Times editor Bill Keller and added reporter investigative panels and fact-checkers, sharpened their watch on the newsroom and provided ombudsmen and public editors to keep reporters accountable to readers.

Some newspapers have tightened their rules concerning the use of anonymous sources and demanded more authoritative sources. They have also cracked down on loose attribution in writing.

Blair suggested in an interview with Larry King Live that newspapers do random fact-checking by a team of people each week, and also make sure that phone and travel expenses add up correctly.

Thank you, Jayson Blair, for all the good you’ve done journalism.

But while adding more fact-checkers, ombudsmen, and internal panels will help scare those reporters on the ethics fence into honesty, the real solution is to keep newspapers small and local.

It’s true that big media companies reach a bigger audience, rake in more money to send reporters around the world, buy better machinery and function well as businesses.

But media conglomerates, because of their impersonal vastness, provide a playground for those already prone to lying, like Blair, Kelley and Bragg.

The newspaper functions as the public’s source of honest information, and the extra bodies added for internal surveillance could be covering more of the community instead.

While a small newspaper can’t afford to have more bodies around the newsroom to keep reporters in line, that same newspaper has an entire body of people in the community to keep it honest.

Maybe it’s easy for some to lie to a nation, but if they try to lie to a small community it won’t take long for Jane Doe down the street to take herself downtown and expose the deceit.

We don’t often realize that journalism is a double-edged sword – on one side newspapers serve as the watchdogs for the public, but on the other the public holds them accountable.

Marci Kacsir is a senior English and print journalism major from Indianapolis.

This commentary does not reflect the views of the Herald, Western or its administration.