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Question: How can journalism organizations prevent Jayson Blair-style scandals?

Daniel Okrent: You know, I think that there will always be small scale scandals.  There will always be plagiarists.  There will always be people who didn’t make the phone call they claimed to have made, but the chronic repeated abuse that Jayson Blair was engaged in, I don’t think could happen at a newspaper that has a public editor, or ombudsman.  

Yes, there was a phone number published in the newspaper in The Times every day for people to call if they had something that they objected to.  And when I got there, I thought I’d try out the system.  Well, it said mailbox full.  Nobody had been paying attention to it.  If you have somebody whose job it is specifically to respond to readers who are complaining or are pointing out error, or pointing out misbehavior on the part of reporters, it’s very hard... I can’t imagine that it would not be caught after the second or third time because somebody’s reading that mail.  Somebody’s paying attention to it.

What ethical issues do today's journalists face that previous generations didn't?

Daniel Okrent: My biggest concern about the digital technology as it’s coming to the newsroom is it’s anonymity of writers; whether that’s the person who’s writing a blog, or who’s commenting on a signed blog.  We don’t know who those people are.  And one thing, and this is not an ethical issue, this is a question of civility and taste.  I mean, it allows cowards to hide behind that scrim while they have the freedom to say really awful and disgusting things.  And I can’t stand that.  It’s very upsetting to me.  

But beyond that, there have been a few instances where that person whose been commenting on this Web site or that Web site, in fact is a principal in the story, is in fact a figure who has a self-interest, but is hiding that self-interest.  I would really be delighted to see the Web sites of the world just suddenly declare, put on your real name or we don’t care what you have to say.  And in fact, I don’t care what you... you shouldn’t care what I have to say unless I’m willing to put my name behind it.

Were journalistic standards better in the past?

Daniel Okrent: I think that the peak years for quality journalism in this country were 1970’s and early 1980’s.  If you go back before then, I mean, pickup a copy of the New York Times in 1965 some day.  It was unbelievably dull.  It was official-ese.  If the new Peruvian Ambassador appointed, there it was in the paper, the shipping news, just the sort of the kind of deadly required drone of news in those days was really pretty awful.  The paper got much, much better after that as did all of American journalism.  And I think that Watergate, obviously, had a great deal to do with that.  Watergate and also the magazine writers of the ‘60’s, the people like Gay Talese and David Halberstam who both came out of The Times, but then moved to other arenas to be able to do more than simply chronicle.  They could write.  They did more.  

Coming together, that and the great victory for journalism that was Watergate created a, I think in the ‘70’s attracted better people to the industry, it was a more exciting thing to do and people did their greatest work then.  And the standards were very, very high.  As we get into the ‘90’s, and we begin to have economic trouble begin to show up, Time Magazine, where I worked for quite a while, in 1990 had eight full-time critics on staff doing different things.  Today, I think there’s one full-time critic and that’s not that criticism is not the most important thing in the world, but I use it as an indication of how things have shrunk back because of the economic problems.

Recorded on: April 16, 2010

More from the Big Idea for Wednesday, May 12 2010


Stopping the Next Jayson Blair

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