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Interview with Steve Roberts

Aired May 12, 2003 - 19:36   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to move from what is happening over seas to a story that has been capturing the headlines since this weekend when it broke. It was one that is especially troubling to journalists. That's because it involves a reporter's integrity or in this case the apparent lack of integrity. A reporter for the "New York Times."
Jayson Blair was described as the "Times'" golden boy, on the fast track for success, they said. That was until the paper revealed a astonishing truth, Blair's story were not his own and the fraud may have begun even earlier. Blair interned at the "Boston Globe." And today the "Globe," said it is questioning in quotes, "in four of the stories that he wrote for them."

Jeff Greenfield look at the anatomy of deceit.


JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Sunday's "New York Times" told the story in 14,000 words splashed across four full size pages, the biggest black eye in its 152 year history. A "Times" reporter, Jayson Blair had written dozens of store that were wrong, fabricated or plagiarized from other papers. In spite of repeated warnings from his editors, Blair had been assigned to prominent role in report big stories like the beltway sniper tale. Although his exclusive reporting had been flatly challenged by the authorities.

ROBERT HORAN, FAIRFAX COUNTY, VA, COMMONWEALTH ATTY.: I want the media to know that. Particularly the media that follows like lemmings behind the "New York Times," and says whatever the "New York Times," says as if it is gospel. They've been wrong before and they're wrong on this one.

GREENFIELD: Blair, was finally undone by his reports from the family of a Gulf War casualty. Complete with powerful false descriptions of the home and quotes ripped off from another paper. Blair resigned last week and is now said to be hospitalized with emotional problems. What remains are some hard questions.

Howard Kurtz of "The Washington Post" and CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES" broke the Blair story.

HOWARD KURTZ, RELIABLE SOURCES, WASHINGTON POST: Jayson Blair, told so many laws, had to many problems in his personal life and journalistic corrections and expense accounts that it is really hard to understand in retrospect how it is that it took "Times" management so long to catch on to the fact that this guy was a fraud.

GREENFIELD: It is hardly the first time a major news outlet has been embarrassed. "The Washington Post," had to return a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 when it learned that reporter Janet Cook (ph) made up the story of an 8-year-old heroin addict. NBC was shaken when an "Dateline" in 1992 rigged a truck to explode. The "New Republic" published a series of stories by Stephen Glass (ph) that were holy inventions. And in 1998 CNN suffered its own big embarrass when it retracted a story saying U.S. Forces used nerve gas in southeast Asia. Now the spotlight is on the "Times" and it's recently executive editor, Howard Reigns (ph). Why were the warnings ignored? Did the papers commitment to diversity lead it to put Jayson Blair on a fast track. And the fallout from all this is likely to go well beyond the "New York Times".

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People are not going to forget this and unfortunately it is going to cast doubt not just on the times but all of journalism among those skeptical by whether reporter just make things up.

GREENFIELD: One note, we did ask somebody from the New York Times to talk us to, they declined our offer. And I think is the other fallout that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) was mentioning beyond that. When people tell us journalists what they don't like about us, it is really well, we claim to be the tribune of the people, where he defending the public's right to know. A lot of folks see us as another one of the big institutions out for glory, money, ratings, circulation, as opposed to playing it straight and narrow. So if may in a rare journalistic understatement, Anderson, this ain't going to help.

COOPER: Well, that is truly true. It is hard to quantify deception. You reviewed in your piece in all the sort of deceptions there have been accidental or not.

Where does this compare, where is this on scale?

GREENFIELD: For the sheer breadth of the number of errors this one ranks high because you would have thought whatever the procedures for checking new journalists, particularly a place like the "New York Times." If one of his previous editors sends an e-mail and says we have got to stop Jayson from writing and we've got to stop him now. You just have to ask what was in place that permitted this guy, not only to survive, but to flourish.

COOPER: Right, months after that e-mail went. I mean, that e- mail went out months ago and still -- I want to bring in another guest.

I want to bring in Steve Roberts right now. A professor of media and public affairs at George Washington university. He teaches budding journalist about ethics. He also happened to spent 25 years working at the "Times." Steve, thank you for being with us.

From your experience at the "Times" and also with journalists, I mean the details on this case are fascinating. The details of the deception. How do you think it happened and how did it go on for so long?

STEVE ROBERTS, PROF. MEDIA, PUBLIC AFFAIRS: I think Jeff is right. There are important questions about how the editors of the "Times" let this go on for so long. I think we have to say that one of the possible explanations is that the "New York Times" quite properly is deeply devoted to diversity in the news room. And I think this is absolutely critical for journalists to do this. If it is just white guys like you, Anderson and Jeff and me reporting and producing the news that's not nearly good enough. So I think they have the best motive. But I think they took this young person, they pushed him ahead too quickly, and they ignored the warning signs out of good motive because they wanted to promote diversity, wanted black reporters and other minorities but they willfully ignored the red flags.

COOPER: You agree with William Safir's column where he said the desire for diversity in the news room sort of motivated copy editors, and editors to overlook these things, these inconsistencies repeatedly because they wanted diversity?

ROBERTS: I think this is one of the possible explanations. The "Times" editors said repeatedly that no newspaper is set up to catch fabrication. If someone wants to deceive us, if someone wants to lie, we can't catch them. That's right. I've done these jobs for the "New York Times." I've been out there on my own as the only "Times" reporter in a city or even in a country, and your editor do have to rely on you. But that's not an excuse. It is precisely why you have to be so careful in picking the right people. And why they make such a bad mistake they put in someone they couldn't trust, because they knew the system was designed to rely on the trust and confidence of these people. That's where the mistake was made.

GREENFIELD: It is important to point out that just because there is such a strong element of faith and, you know, unlike television which makes its own mistakes, but in our case you can't fabricate people because you got to show them. You know, we just had a case "60 Minutes," did the piece last night of Steve Glass, a notorious case. A, young, bright guy, not a minority who worked for the "New Republic" and other magazines and was a rising star, until it was discovered he was -- he was fabulous. Virtually every one of his great stories was made up.

And while we'll find out, I am sure this is going to be a case of enormous self-examination from the "Times." They've already done 14,000 words and will do more. Outsiders will be looking at this because the "Times" is the "Times." It is the closest thing we have to the paper of record. But it is also true that whatever the color of the journalist or the gender, sexual preference or whatever other standards, if a journalist, particularly a print journalist, wants to make stuff up and is skilled enough at covering his or her tracks, it is going to be very tough for that to be found out.

COOPER: Because in many cases you are your own copy editor, you are your own (UNINTELLIGIBLE). GREENFIELD: Steve said it perfectly. He's out in Lambertville, (ph) Ohio, covering a story about some amazing political event. There's no minder with him. And if the "Times" can't rely or any paper can't rely on the reporter that is a fundamental problem. I do think this case raises eyebrows because of the number of whatever the color flags. Red flags, white flags, whistles went off, and they still said, no, you're our guy.

COOPER: You miss your days Lambertville, Ohio, don't you there?

GREENFIELD: Hey, pal, I went to school at a public university in the Midwest. Let's not play the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) elitist game with me, Anderson Cooper. At least I got one first name.

COOPER: True enough. Actually we just have to leave it there. I am really sorry, Steve, we're a little tight on time because of the situation we're following in Saudi Arabia. Steve Roberts, really appreciate you joining us, it was good to talk to you. And Jeff, as always, thank you. You give and gave back pretty good there.


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