Building blocks are essential

By Bob Paslay

I don't care if you are building the Biltmore House or a little summer house on the lake, the basic building blocks are the same. It has to be level and square and the foundation must be strong.

The same is true of my chosen profession, journalism. You can argue about whether you start a story with a human being or a hard news AP-style lead. You can argue whether the story needs to be prominent on the front or inside the paper.

You can't argue these truths. Journalism collapses if you don't have these elements: The story has to be accurate. You can't say, "Oops, I thought it was accurate." The story has to be fair. You can't slam Councilman Jones for embezzling and not give him a chance to respond in that story. You can't let the editorial page position on an issue dictate how you cover a story or display it. The story needs to be thorough and complete. It needs to be timely. You can't have any conflicts that pull you away from the search for the truth. And you don't put your name at the top of a story you didn't write. A bank robber is stealing people's money with a gun. Plagiarism is stealing someone's exact words or work with a keyboard.

Journalism is under siege at the moment. I can't imagine living in a world without a free and active press. So I think the tremors that are shaking the profession will kill some careers, shake out some problems and then will not severely damage or destroy the profession.

None other than The New York Times, the 152-year-old institution that has come to be regarded as the Mercedes of journalism, is under scrutiny at the moment. It is getting a taste of what The Washington Post got in 1981 for printing a story about a child on heroin that was made up entirely by reporter Janet Cook.

Three volleys across the bow this year have caused the 43rd Street structure to list a bit in Midtown New York City this year.

First, after pushing hard on the theory that women should be allowed on the board of the Augusta National club, the paper wouldn't run a sports editor's column that disagreed with this concept. Far more important, a 27-year-old black journalist, Jayson Blair, was unearthed as a plagiarist and someone who made up stories. Now the spotlight is on my hero, Rick Bragg, for a series of questionable acts. Arrogant Blair boasted of how he fooled the editors and how stupid they were, he raised the race card and thumbed his nose at the profession and the paper that pushed him along much faster than his ability should have allowed. Defiant Bragg counters that everyone does it, using interns to report and not give them credit, that he was a victim of the Blair witch hunt.

I believe this: A lily white profession of the '40s and '50s and '60s has pushed hard to diversify its newsrooms and in this rush has installed some very fine reporters and editors. It has also hired some reporters not qualified to do the job, who do not love or respect those basic building blocks of the profession and do not have the experience or talent or drive to do what is being asked of them. Editors who try to rein these reporters in are told either in words or actions not to do it.

The last paper I worked at was owned by one of these politically correct chains. A reporter who turned in copy so sloppy it made you cry routinely did things like killing off people in wrecks who didn't die but were just injured. This reporter happens to be black. When his editor, who happened also to be black, although it is irrelevant to this discussion, attempted to make him conform to basic journalism standards, she was run off from the paper.

That same paper had an editorial writer who basically lifted an entire story from Time magazine and swiped it for an editorial column because she didn't feel like writing one. When Time called their hand, they cooled her off in another department for a while before bringing her back. I was amazed at the time at how flippant some were, saying, well everyone does it. That writer happened to be white. I say that only to point out that safeguards are colorblind and meant to stop sloppy or inaccurate work from getting in the paper, regardless of who the perpetrator is.

The problem is that some editors in the trenches are worried about the Vietnam body count syndrome and not about nurturing and pacing young diverse reporters. If they truly cared, they would not be afraid to use tough love and make someone better.

Consider my last paper. The managing editor walks into a morning budget meeting and doesn't see the one Jewish editor present. So he starts out the meeting with an anti-Semitic joke about a new microwave that holds six people. When I challenged him later about it, he said, "It might be objectionable, but it's not actionable," meaning it might offend, but you can't sue. That same editor when challenged about whether something in a story could be considered offensive to black readers said, "It's just your white liberal guilt kicking in."

Around that same time, a really talented black reporter who had been at the paper several years was leaving and was waiting outside the executive editor's secretary's office to complete some paperwork. The executive editor spotted her and thought she was a person from the outside and said seriously, "Are you being helped?" This after being in the same newsroom with this reporter for several years. She regaled the staff with the story later, telling them half-jokingly "all blacks look alike to editors."

Journalism has installed some fine safeguards. Anyone along the process in the newsroom can challenge a story and its accuracy or fairness. People from the community are welcomed to call or stop by and challenge the accuracy and fairness of a single story or continuing series of stories on one topic.

The problem is that with their eyes fixed firmly on the goal of diversity, some papers have trampled on these safeguards.

Journalism will only survive more scandals when it allows these safeguards to work and when it stresses again the basic building blocks of the profession and makes sure they are being adhered to.

Bob Paslay is the assistant managing editor of the News Daily and Daily Herald. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, extension 257, or by e-mail at bpaslay@news-daily.com.