Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
May 19, 2003
POLITICS: Blair Wrapup
I was debating whether to write more on the Jayson Blair affair. The bottom line: yes, as I've already explained, race was a legitimate story here even before Howell Raines admitted it, even though I don't think it was the only or necessarily even the main reason for the problem. This was clearly something of a perfect storm of blind spots at the Times (affirmative action, the "star" system, Blair's sucking up to top management, etc.), but two additional features of the modern workplace have attracted perhaps too little notice:
1. The union. Blair belonged to a guild with a collectively-bargained contract:
In April 2002, according to Raines, the Times issued Blair a formal warning saying that further errors "could lead to your separation." Raines notes that people on the outside have wondered why Blair wasn't fired at that point. However, says Raines, the Times' guild contract prohibits summary dismissal for anything short of plagiarism for personnel, like Blair, working in the "intermediate reporter" program.
I'm not totally against unions, which have important uses, but one of their worst features is the tendency to protect the incompetent and the corrupt from being fired.
2. The ADA culture. The Times' own exhaustive account (now archived - you can't read it online anymore) points in two directions on this. On the one hand, there's at least the implication that Blair may have had severe emotional problems and/or a drinking problem (note the passage that says Blair "was unavailable for long stretches" without further elaboration); it is left unexplored to what extent this was known and ignored. Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a company that knows an employee has such problems actually finds itself less able to discipline that employee for fear of legal liability, even when common sense says that the guy's problems getting the facts straight are probably not coincidental.
But here's the whopper: when Blair was assigned to the sniper case, under national editor Jim Roberts, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd - the men who run the Times
did not tell Mr. Roberts or his deputies about the concerns that had been raised about Mr. Blair's reporting. "that discussion did not happen," Mr. Raines said, adding that he had seen no need for such a discussion because Mr. Blair's performance had improved, and because "we do not stigmatize people for seeking help."
You see the problem: it's not just that Raines didn't tell Blair's new boss that he had personal problems, but that he didn't tell him about Blair's problems with the truth because it might lead to questions about his personal problems or somehow relate to his "seeking help." In other words, by seeking psychological help, Blair - just like many of the worst offenders in the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandals (an apt analogy made by many commentators) - was able to build a protective shield around his professional problems.
I could say more; but Lileks has the last word on two other loose ends from the Blair scandal.