WHILE INTERVIEWING for a job teaching journalism ethics at the University of Maryland in 1999, I fielded questions from a student representative called in to assess me, one Jayson Blair.
Mr. Blair was poised to begin his first full-time reporting job, not at the Frederick Post or Montgomery Gazette but at the lofty New York Times. He was confident, witty, charming and charismatic. He seemed oh so serious about ethics. Talk about appearances being deceiving.
His recently exposed spree of fabrication and plagiarism in the Times has done to journalism what the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal did to baseball. "Shoeless" Jayson Blair is now the world's best-known ex-journalist and the Terps' most notorious former student. Say it ain't so.
Just a month ago, the public seemed to have softened its feelings for the news media after reporters braved fire to report on our troops in Iraq. That didn't last long. Because the Times is widely seen as the world's most reliable paper, Mr. Blair has tainted not only one newspaper but journalism as a whole.
He fooled me when I met him. He fooled the Times in at least 36 articles by the paper's own admission, just as Stephen Glass fooled the sophisticated New Republic magazine with a series of sizzling reports exposed as fakes five years ago this month. Just as Janet Cooke bamboozled The Washington Post and the Pulitzer Prize people in 1981 with a fabricated story about an 8-year-old heroin addict named "Jimmy."
Are con artists really so hard to detect or deter? Not necessarily. News media would go a long way toward restoring the public trust simply by using common sense in hiring new reporters. And by bringing back the sort of Lou Grant-esque, no-nonsense editor who is too quickly becoming passM-i in the age of keyboard-to-reader Internet "blogs" and motor-mouth commentary. Here are three ideas:
Rely on the farm club.
Insist that reporters learn the craft at a small paper where newsmakers and readers know the editor and are not shy to complain. There, young reporters learn to develop good habits such as getting quotes right and facts straight with little temptation to plagiarize because they are often the only reporter on the story. No one should start at The New York Times, where Mr. Blair put words in the mouths of people who hadn't spoken them, confident they would not see the article or would see no point in complaining.
Test for steroids.
News stories that have the power of fiction too often enthrall editors rather than making them skeptical. Stephen Glass once handed in a story about "the First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ," where the flock worshipped former President Bush as a reincarnation of Jesus. Lou Grant would have smelled a rat. These editors rushed the yarn into print, to their later dismay.
Then there was Mr. Blair's block-busting revelation that squabbling prosecutors had spoiled a potentially fruitful interrogation of a Beltway sniper suspect. Even after prosecutors denied the story, his editors continued to back-slap Mr. Blair rather than demanding to meet his anonymous sources. Any deal for anonymity should be three-way, with the editor free to step in and audit for accuracy.
Of course, there are times when an account that seems like fiction is actually fact. During my 1999 interview for the journalism ethics job, Mr. Blair said he preferred me because the other candidate had been hazy about the misdeeds of Mike Barnicle, a Boston Globe columnist accused of plagiarism and fabrication. A decent ethics prof had to know the Barnicle case cold, he suggested.
I know this sounds like something out of a movie script, but it was real.
Don't reward foul play.
Simon and Schuster has paid Mr. Glass a reported six-figure fee for a roman a clef on his misdeeds, and reports that Mr. Blair was considering a big book and TV deal surfaced Thursday. The Glass book is drawing loads of coverage from the unbent journalists he betrayed, inducing the public he duped to pay him for having done so. If Mr. Blair goes that route, is it too much to hope that his former colleagues reward him with icy silence?
Christopher Hanson teaches journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.