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Lou Ziegler column: No newspaper is immune from a potential scandal

The New York Times story began with a dateline from Palestine, W.Va. It reported how the father of rescued POW Jessica Lynch "choked up as he stood on his porch here overlooking the tobacco fields and cattle pastures." Problem is, such scenery do...

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The New York Times story began with a dateline from Palestine, W.Va.

It reported how the father of rescued POW Jessica Lynch "choked up as he stood on his porch here overlooking the tobacco fields and cattle pastures."

Problem is, such scenery doesn't exist.

Lynch's family doesn't recall even talking to the Times reporter who wrote the story.

And that story contained information that sure looked plagiarized from an Associated Press account.

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How could this have happened in, of all publications, the New York Times?

Reporter Jayson Blair's journalistic flimflam created what the Times last week said was "a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper."

It wasn't over just this one mistake. The newspaper reviewed 73 articles written by Blair from late October to May 1, when he resigned.

It found reason to believe at least 36 of the stories had problems, leading the newspaper to conclude Blair "committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud."

The Boston Globe, where Blair interned and worked on free-lance assignments a few years ago, last week had a four-person team reviewing 85 of his stories that appeared in The Globe. That team found several questionable stories.

Evidence abounds that Blair played loose with the facts and top management at the Times was aware of it.

About a year ago, Blair's supervising editor Jonathan Landman sent an e-mail to his bosses that said: "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now."

However, top management, even knowing of Blair's failings, gave the 27-year-old a plum reporting assignment as part of last fall's D.C. sniper coverage team. There is good reason to believe he falsified information about John Muhammad, one of the accused.

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Stories and columns I've read this past week refer to Blair as a "schmoozer" who played up to the bosses at the Times.

Blair had the audacity to file stories from Brooklyn, while his editors thought he was working on out-of-state assignments. On April 6, he filed a story on a Cleveland church service, held in honor of a soldier killed in Iraq. Again, nothing showed Blair was at the service. The Times determined he plagiarized at least six parts of the story from other published accounts.

A story on April 26 was the beginning of the end for Blair, when he reported on a missing solider in Iraq. The editor of a Texas newspaper saw strong similarities between Blair's story and one that appeared in the Texas paper a week earlier.

Questions about that story led to Blair's resignation and his apology for his "lapse of journalistic integrity."

As expected, New York tabloids that rival the Times had a field day with the story. As they hammered away at the Gray Lady from the outside, newsroom employees piled on upper management for allowing Blair such a long leash, knowing he'd caused problems for the paper.

As for Blair's legacy, his former employer must say it's a stink and a mess.

Several of our editors discussed whether something like this could happen at The Forum.

The consensus is, yes, it could.

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However, the indiscretions probably would not reach the magnitude of Blair's, since our reporters aren't jet-setting around the country every week, covering stories as Lone Rangers.

Obviously, distance from field assignment to home office made it easier for Blair to falsify information. Technology, like untraceable cell phone numbers, helped Blair trick editors into believing he was in some place he wasn't.

Size of the Times' newsroom also was a factor. Blair's editors on the national desk weren't informed of his problems with local stories. In a newsroom with more journalists than Hankinson, N.D., has people,  problem employees aren't marked targets.

The Times says it received few complaints about Blair's work from outsiders. Our readers generally know their communities and would contact us if false information appeared.

There must be an implied contract of trust and integrity between reporters and their editors. When, say, a reporter goes to the fair on a very routine assignment and quotes a carnival worker from Tupelo, Miss., editors need to trust that those quotes were real and not fiction.

But once that trust is breeched by intentionally falsified information, that reporter, as Landman wrote, must be stopped.

It's time the reporter look to greener pastures -- or tobacco fields -- for work, and hopefully not at another newspaper.

A footnote and sign of the times: On Wednesday, the New York Post's Keith J. Kelly reported the following:

"Disgraced former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair may be out of work and out of friends -- but he could be looking at up to a $1 million payday if he wants to come clean in a tell-all book."

Suppose he'll be telling the truth?

Ziegler can be reached at lziegler@forumcomm.com

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