Sympathy for the New York Times

Often plagiarized. Seldom plagiarizing.

Although rarely reluctant to join in a schadenfreude festival, I nevertheless feel sorry for the New York Times. Duped by one of its own reporters, hemorrhaging rumors and leaks like the institutions it is used to covering, its extravagant public self-flagellation merely inviting flagellation by everyone else, the paper is at a low ebb. Much of the criticism and self-criticism is deserved. But after two weeks of Times-bashing, it’s time for a bit of therapeutic outreach.

One reason the Times has my sympathy over being duped by a writer is that I’ve been there. And let me tell you: The clarity of hindsight is remarkable. A couple of years ago, Slate published a vivid, rollicking yarn about an alleged sport called “monkeyfishing.” The author claimed to have used a rod and reel, with rotten fruit as bait, to catch monkeys living on an island in the Florida Keys.

As editor of Slate at the time, I read the piece before it was published and didn’t like it—for a variety of wrong reasons. So I cannot even claim to have been blinded by enthusiasm. Others at Slate did like it and so we published it. When outsiders challenged it, I read it again.

It was like reading an entirely different article. Red flags waved from every line. At first the author stood by his story and we stood by him. But within days, poking around by ourselves and others made this position untenable, and so we both caved. The question remains, though, why my baloney-detectors didn’t function beforehand, when they could have saved us considerable embarrassment. All I can say is: Congress is about to exempt dividends from the income tax—i.e., stranger things than monkeyfishing actually do happen.

Whatever the reason, reading an article with doubts raised is a different experience from reading it in its virginal pre-publication freshness. As Slate’s Jack Shafer has pointed out, most readers of Jayson Blair’s Times articles did not spot the hints of fabrication or plagiarism either. This includes many of the critics who now say that the Times missed important clues because of institutional arrogance or political bias or an affirmative action mentality.

Of course readers are entitled to assume that published articles have been pre-skepticized. And Jayson Blair duped the Times again and again. But holding foresight to the standards of hindsight is a bit unfair.

My second reason for feeling sympathy for the New York Times is that it now wears the Scarlet P, for plagiarist, when in a way we are all plagiarizers of the New York Times. Plagiarism technically applies only to an article’s words, not to the ideas and information contained in them. But the value of a newspaper article lies more in the ideas and information than in the precise words. And much or even most American news reporting and commentary on national issues derives—uncredited—from the New York Times.

Even if you don’t read the Times yourself, you get your news from journalists at other media who do. The Times sets the news agenda that everyone else follows. The Washington Post and maybe one or two other papers also play this role, but even as a writer who appears in the Washington Post—a damned fine newspaper run by superb editors who are graced with every kind of brilliance, charm, and physical beauty—I would have to concede that the Times is more influential.

It’s not just the agenda setting. Our basic awareness of what is going on in the world derives in large part from the Times. How do you even know that Baghdad exists? Have you been there? Touched it? How do I, sitting in Seattle, know the current status of the Bush administration’s Mideast road map, about which I may choose to opine with seeming authority? Column-writing is an especially derivative form of journalism. But even the hardest of hard-news reporters starts with basic knowledge that probably comes more from the Times than her own two eyes.

It’s true that the journalistic food chain runs both ways: Big media like the Times often pick up stories and information from smaller fish, often with insufficient credit or none at all. But it is the imprimatur of the Times or the Post that stamps the story as important before sending it back down to other papers—as well as up to the media gods of television.

This near-universal dependence on the Times helps to explain the schadenfreude (dependence causes resentment) as well as the more serious alarm about the Times’ reliability. It also puts Jayson Blair’s rip-offs of others, if not his fabrications, in perspective. No one gets ripped off more than the New York Times.

The social critic Dwight Macdonald, reminiscing about the left-wing Partisan Review crowd of the 1930s, wrote: “The N.Y. Times was to us what Aristotle was to the medieval scholastics—a revered authority, even though pagan, and a mine of useful information about the actual world.” Today’s equivalent of that sect-ridden, conspiracy-minded, alienation-proud political world is on the right. I was listening to a right-wing broadcast crank the other day as he carried on about how the Times can’t be trusted, among half a dozen current issues. I don’t know where he got his information, but I have a guess.