Time to return to the basics

If The New York Times was the great paper it used to be, or even something less but still alert, still socially sensitive, still a paper with standards instead of an agenda, it could have used its extraordinary resources to thoroughly investigate gross injustice in Durham, N.C.

It could have done electrifying work on how a two-bit, ethically amiss district attorney overlooked conflicting statements by a woman claiming Duke lacrosse players raped her at a strip-tease party and closed his eyes to varied evidence that contradicted her words. It could have hammered away at how this DA broke all the rules of established procedure by having the woman identify her alleged assailants from pictures of no one but those at the party, and how one of those indicted for the rape had an alibi as good as gold.

Looking squarely at the prejudices swirling around the case, it could have demonstrated how many Duke faculty members and others played a bigoted game by simply assuming prior to any persuasive information that here was a story of rich, arrogant white men taking sexual advantage of a poor black woman.

Instead, as some devastating criticisms amply illustrate, the Times played the game itself, especially in one front-page story that minimized the hard facts while falling for flimflam that would not have fooled the rawest newsroom rookie in the land.

Now the DA is under fire from the North Carolina bar, and, some think, could face disbarment. It turns out that on top of a series of inflammatory statements about the untried young men — whose lives he has severely damaged — he did not turn over some exculpatory DNA evidence to defense attorneys. He has dropped the rape charges, while still clinging to other bogus felony claims. One question remains: where, oh where, is the Times going to hide now, especially given the hard, countervailing work of a top-notch reporter like Stuart Taylor of the National Journal, or some very bright, diligent bloggers?

What’s needed from the Times, if it wants serious people to again take it seriously, is a confession acknowledging that its ideologically driven publisher and play-along editors have repeatedly led it to inexcusable behavior that it will henceforth avoid. That won’t happen, of course, and so I will myself confess something — I subscribe to the Times and enjoy it. At its best, it remains highly literate, educational and entertaining. The sad thing is that it too often lacks the essential ingredient it used to have: sound, consistent and reasonably objective journalistic judgment.

The judgment can be so bad, so at the mercy of concerns having nothing to do with producing honest, accurate, fair, responsible stories, that Howell Raines, the failed editor before the current one, elevated reporter Jayson Blair to major responsibilities despite all sorts of warnings from lower-echelon editors that Blair was untrustworthy.

A wise editor, even a meagerly competent one, looks at the record, listens to urgent advice from people who have proven themselves and insists on some fundamentals that the Times apparently has skipped on either a few occasions or many, such as having an editor check on whether anonymous sources cited in sensitive stories are real and reliable.

Raines did not do these things, and we got the embarrassing revelation that Blair was plagiarizing some of his stories and simply making up others. The next editor, Bill Keller, allowed the last minute, front-page publication during the 2004 presidential campaign of a highly suspect story about missing explosives in Iraq. The story’s implication was that the Bush administration had been hugely negligent, but the evidence was spotty, to say the least, and there was no time before the election for careful double-checking, just for Democratic candidate John Kerry to make hay out of a supposed administration blunder.

Keller is also the editor who ignored bipartisan pleas the newspaper not print stories about the administration’s perfectly legal undercover efforts to follow the trail of international terrorist financing. He excused his actions by saying the story’s disclosures — which may have put us all more in danger from terrorist attack — were not really secret, even though the story itself said they were and no official had publicly spelled out the specifics of the strategy.

For Times haters, the good news is that, like many newspapers, it is suffering from some business setbacks. But I wish it no evil. I just want it to get back to what it once was.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)