HOLLYWOOD — With the New York Times in full self-flagellatory mode, few at the nation’s leading newspaper expect the scandal of Jayson Blair’s fraudulent reporting to dissipate anytime soon.
Times editors are looking into whether other reporters committed journalistic sins similar to Blair’s, and, while it is unclear how serious a federal prosecutor is about an inquiry into the Blair case, criminal charges are not unthinkable. Despite publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s pledge of support for executive editor Howell Raines, at an emergency staff meeting on May 14, many at the paper are questioning whether Raines is fit to decide what is fit to print.
A day after the meeting, various Times staffers reported a sense of “total gloom,” as one said, in the newsroom, fatigue from discussing the Blair affair, and anxiety over what’s in store for the newspaper.
A Times spokeswoman confirmed May 15 that the paper has received “a variety of tips and suggestions” from outside the paper on journalistic frauds — such as fabricated quotes, fudged datelines and plagiarism — committed by reporters other than Blair.
“Those phone calls have produced no information that appears to warrant action at this time,” the spokeswoman said, “but we continue to investigate whatever suggestions we receive.”
For their part, Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd, who even before the Blair scandal had alienated many in the Times newsroom through what was perceived as their autocratic management style, followed up on the May 14 staff meeting by writing in a memo, “We heard the anger and the sadness in what you said. You’ll be seeing a lot of us, and we’ll still be listening.”
Acknowledging a climate of fear and a resentment of their management techniques, they wrote, “We apologize and commit ourselves to fixing it.”
The various analyses of just how Blair was allowed to perpetrate his sham have opened the floodgates to complaints about Raines’ leadership since he took over as executive editor in September 2001.
One reporter labeled the last week at the Times “a Prague Spring.”
“All of a sudden people are talking in the open about these 20 months of simmering frustration,” the reporter said.
The Times newsroom is especially anxious about the prospect of another reporter with problems like Blair’s being uncovered.
“If this goes on, Howell’s got to go,” says a Times staffer.
Even if Blair is an isolated case, federal prosecutors could move forward in their investigation of the Blair saga.
U.S. Attorney James Comey, who has earned an aggressive reputation since he was appointed by President George W. Bush in January 2002, has remained mum on what his office is looking for in its probe of the Blair affair.
Outside legal experts, though, say an ambitious prosecutor could try to indict Blair or the Times under federal wire and mail fraud statutes.
A notoriously malleable and broad segment of criminal law, federal fraud cases can theoretically be brought against nearly anyone who benefits from misleading people by misusing interstate communications.
“To a publicity-seeking prosecutor, any ugly conduct can be construed as a federal crime,” says Harvey Silverglate, a Boston-based criminal attorney.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they said the purchasers of the paper were deprived of their property,” says Timothy Lynch, who directs the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice.
He added though that such a prosecution would be unusual and novel. Any case would likely lead to a First Amendment challenge by the Times.
The paper, which has not replied to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and as a policy does not voluntarily provide information on its news operation to law enforcement, is not likely to sit idly by if the feds attempt to call in its editors and reporters for grand jury testimony.