NEW YORK — On which floor of The New York Times’ building is the executive dining room located? It might not matter to you, but it does to Vanity Fair contributing editor Seth Mnookin, whose book, “Hard News,” is all about a lapse in journalistic accuracy. The book, which will be issued in paperback next month, chronicles a tumultuous period at the Times that included the revelations of Jayson Blair’s serial deceptions and the ouster of executive editor Howell Raines. WWD caught up with Mnookin for his take on the events that ushered in a prolonged era of media soul-searching.
WWD: The paperback edition of your book has a corrections section pointing out a handful of minor errors from the hardcover version. That’s fairly unusual. What made you do it?
S.M.: One of the things that I spent a lot of time thinking about while working on the book was the conflicting pressures on reporters to make sure that they get everything right before it gets into print, and then not to acknowledge that they could have gotten anything wrong afterward. In the kind of high-pressure, fast-deadline environment most journalists work in, mistakes will happen, and if reporters can acknowledge that and not treat it as something to be terrified of, we would all be better off.
WWD: There’s been so much written about how the institutional culture of The New York Times created the conditions for the Jayson Blair episode. How much has that culture changed in the time since? Could it happen again?
S.M.: In some ways, it’s incredibly different, and in some ways, it’s not different at all, and I don’t mean that to be a cop-out. My day-to-day focus on the Times ended a year ago, but even at that point, it seemed clear one of the things [executive editor] Bill Keller and [publisher] Arthur Sulzberger were trying to do was use what had happened as a way to open up the culture at the Times, to try and foster a culture where ideas flowed more freely. Then, too, Howell Raines was such a unique personality and ran the paper in such a unique way, with him not there, things are going to change. That said, the Times, out of necessity, like every daily newspaper, will always be a dictatorship, and you hear some of the same complaints now as you’ve always heard.
As to whether it could happen today, it’s impossible to safeguard against someone determined to perpetrate a fraud, especially at a daily. What would not happen today is that fraud being replicated again and again over weeks and months, despite some pretty explicit warnings.
WWD: Speaking of Raines, some people think he made the paper better and didn’t deserve to take the fall for Blair’s actions. What do you think?
S.M.: Howell was not fired because of Jayson Blair. Howell was fired because there was an almost unanimous staff uprising against him, against everything he stood for. I actually tend to think that had Jayson not come along, Howell still would not be the editor of the paper today. That staff uprising would have occurred over something else.
WWD: What was your first-hand impression of Jayson Blair?
S.M.: He can be very charming, but he seemed almost constitutionally incapable of being honest. He would say something to me that was just patently untrue, and it was hard for me to tell if he believed it, or if he wanted me to believe it. He called me up one day while I was still at Newsweek and said he was calling from a pay phone at a hospital that was out of state, and the next day there were these paparazzi-like photos of him mooning around at a downtown Starbucks. I found it hard to get a handle on him, and I eventually decided there was really no need to.