After The Fabulist, after Shattered Glass, after pages of mea culpa in The New York Times and horror in other papers' editorials, it might seem like there's nothing left to say about journalistic ethics and plagiarism scandals. More than a year after Jayson Blair erupted into public view, Seth Mnookin, who covered the Blair story as a media writer for Newsweek, feels the time is right for an in-depth examination of the institutional culture that gave a young reporter with more talent for lying than writing access to the front page of America's paper of record. He's right about the need for a critical look at the failures of print journalism in the Internet age, and at its best, Hard News vigorously defends newspapering and newspeople against those who claim that the scandals reveal their irrelevance.
Mnookin doesn't blame the institution of national newspapers like the Times, The Washington Post, or USA Today for the cracks (or gaping fissures) that Blair and forebears like Janet Cooke slipped through. It wasn't the rush to get the scoop, the greed for Pulitzer glory, or even white liberal guilt that let slip at least 36 stories with faked quotes, nonexistent sources, and illusory interviews hiding the fact that Blair never left New York City. Instead, Mnookin explains Blair as an aberration nurtured by the atrophied trust in the paper's hierarchy under executive editor Howell Raines. He begins with the Times' almost mythical history: its bedrock in the Sulzberger family, its high road over the yellow journalism of the early 20th century, and its anachronistic refusal to diversify into television and radio during the postwar years' information boom. Raines, Mnookin writes, only makes sense if the Times is seen as a family business in which powerful, benevolent patriarchs find adoptive heirs for their legacy, and with a monarchial wave of their hands, pass down the leadership and status their predecessors struggled to attain. When that quaint tradition runs headlong into the outcome-based corporate culture of the New Economy, an invisible gulf grows between workers who see themselves as independent professionals and an executive who sees them as gears grinding out an image, a brand, a product whose chief function is to reflect glory on its inventor.
But Hard News suffers from its outsider perspective. Much of Mnookin's information must be glossed with authorial adjectives to make his point: Raines' stories are "embarrassing," the Times staff "dysfunctional," Blair "obsessed with the salacious and trivial." While Mnookin is careful to back these assessments with quotes from interview subjects, his entire argument is built on them, and their ubiquity in the story he weaves doesn't inspire the confidence that a first-hand account might. In the end, he can't make the leap from the case study of l'affair Blair to a sweeping thesis about American media, and perhaps his subtitle should never have promised as much. While his account illuminates the fragility of the Fourth Estate's great institutions, dependent as they are on the rare leadership of brilliant and dedicated public servants, the great work on Blair and his significance has yet to be written.