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Should Bill Bennett's Gambling Have Been Made Public?; 'New York Times' Fires Jayson Blair

Aired May 11, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Rolling the dice. The press spanks Bill Bennett for his multimillion-dollar gambling habit. Is the morality czar just getting a taste of his own medicine, or being harassed for playing legal games with his own money? We'll ask columnist Andrew Sullivan and "The Washington Monthly's" Josh Green, who broke the story.
Cashing in. Steven Glass, a serial fabricator fired by "The New Republic" five years ago says he's sorry on "60 Minutes" and "Newsweek," just in time to flog a new novel.

And more evidence of phony stories and made up quotes by "New York Times" reporter Jayson Blair.

Also, the joke that Katie Couric just didn't get.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

A stunning admission of journalistic fraud this morning in "The New York Times." A low point, the newspaper says, in its 152-year history. Thirty-six fabricated stories by reporter Jayson Blair, in just six months -- made up interviews, plagiarized pieces, the pretense of being in Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio and Texas when he was still in New York. All laid out by "The Times" in excruciating detail, including the editors who raised severe doubts about the 27- year-old Blair, and kept (ph) by an apology to readers.

The question at this hour, how could this have possibly have happened? Joining me in New York, "Newsweek" media reporter Seth Mnookin, and here in Washington, veteran journalist Steve Roberts, now a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.

Steve Roberts, I have been living with this story for about 10 days, tracked down five people who were quoted by Jayson Blair, said they never spoke to him, including the parents of soldiers who were wounded or killed in Iraq. How low can you go? And a lawyer in the Washington sniper case. Now we know a lot more this morning. Was this a complete systems failure at "The Times?"

STEVE ROBERTS, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: I think it was. Now, you've got to understand, I worked for "The Times" for almost 25 years, including being a national correspondent, doing these kinds of stories. You really are off on your own, and the big mistake that they made was in selecting him in the first place, because you have to trust the people you're sending out there into the field.

KURTZ: You can't double check everything. You're calling in from far flung cities and people believe that you've actually talked to the people you are quoting.

ROBERTS: They have to believe that, or the system breaks down. Now, the two huge mistakes "The Times" made, they pushed this kid much too fast too far when he was not ready, and then they didn't supervise him carefully enough and they didn't heed their internal warnings. You had editors saying this guy should not be writing for "The New York Times" one year ago.

KURTZ: On that point, Seth Mnookin, he had negative evaluations, there were warning letters to him. He was in the employee counseling program for a while, one year ago, as Steve says, John Landman, the metro editor of "The Times," kind of a hero in this narrative, says, we have to stop Jayson from writing for "The Times" right now. How were all these red flags missed by "Times" management?

SETH MNOOKIN, NEWSWEEK: Well, I think one of the interesting things that has yet to come out is Jayson's sort of mentoring relationship with some people very high up at "The Times," including Gerald Boyd, the managing editor. That's something that's sort of flicked at in this story, but I think has to be more explored, because as "The Times'" story does lay out, there were warning signs every step along the way, back to when he was an intern there were warning signs. And what's amazing, is that he was put in a position where he was writing front page stories for "The New York Times" after there were very senior editors saying he should not be here.

KURTZ: He kept being promoted despite the misgivings, sometimes in writing, sometimes verbal, of "The Times" editors.

Let me run through, Steve Roberts, some of what we're talking about here. Jessica Lynch's father, Jessica Lynch, the former POW who was rescued, Blair claimed to have interviewed him, talked about the tobacco and the cattle in front of the house. There is no tobacco, there is no cattle, just a couple of chickens. Reverend Tandy Sloan (ph) in Cleveland tragically lost his son in Iraq, told me he never talked to Jayson Blair. Many of the quotes were taken from "The Washington Post." And in the Washington sniper story, Jayson Blair writes a piece that the prosecutor in Virginia calls a press conference to denounce as dead wrong. Again, you understand the culture of "The Times," having been there. The editors just didn't come to grips with it, looked the other way, didn't get the word?

ROBERTS: I really think there are two things. One is, the Internet is a great research tool. But it's also a great tool if you're a fabricator, if you're a plagiarist, which he clearly was. But this was clearly a troubled young man. This wasn't one or two mistakes in judgment. This is such a systemic pathology.

KURTZ: He even claimed falsely to have lost a relative in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.

ROBERTS: The point that Seth makes is an important one. I think that he had rabbis at "The New York Times," he had mentors who so wanted him to succeed that they looked the other way time and time and time again, even in the face of these warning signals.

KURTZ: "The New York Times," Seth Mnookin, raises the question of race in this lengthy piece this morning, because John Landman, again, the metro editor, opposed his promotion from probationary status to a full-time staff position, and was told that the paper had a commitment to diversity. Blair is an African-American. Does that suggest that, perhaps, in an effort to bring him along that he was held by the newspaper to a lesser standard?

MNOOKIN: I think it certainly suggests it, and Howell Raines and the other top editors at "The Times" said that's not the case. I don't think people are convinced at all that's not the case. In fact, internally at "The Times," reporters are worried about the effect that this is going to have on young minority reporters in the future, if sort of the opposite is going to happen now, and they are going to be unfairly tarred. So I think it's amazing that in four pages of newsprint there were issues that were not adequately addressed, but I think a couple of things "The Times" still needs to talk about is the real issue of whether he was pushed along because he was black. I know it's a thing that you've raised in the past.

KURTZ: And it would be a shame, it would be an absolute shame if talented, hard working minority journalists, and other young journalists, 99.9 percent of them don't make stuff up, were in any way tarred with this incident.

ROBERTS: These were among the people when I read the story that I felt most badly for, were the hard-working, honorable and effective minority journalists at "The New York Times." But also I think there's another question. Look, "The Times'" policy of promoting diversity is the right one, it's important. We cannot cover the news adequately if it's only middle-aged white guys like you and me, Howie, covering and producing the news. So the diversity is essential. But you don't do anybody a service when you push people beyond their limits.

KURTZ: Executive editor Howell Raines told me an interview this week that when you publish bad journalism, as everybody now acknowledges that "The Times" clearly did repeatedly, the only thing to do is to go out and do good journalism, to try to rectify that. Seth Mnookin, this is an extraordinarily candid admission of failure by "The Times," a very lengthy piece. How did they do in terms of holding themselves up to a mirror?

MNOOKIN: Well, I think they did a good job to start, but the proof is going to be in what happens from here on out. And there are some indications in this piece in "The Times," and also from what people have said that I've talked to there that there was going to be an ongoing investigation, not only into what Jayson Blair did, but how he was able to do it.

I think from this story right here, the blame is put pretty squarely on Jayson's shoulders, and I there's some institutional blame. This isn't just a sort of pathological liar who was able to pull the wool over everyone's eyes. This is someone who was helped along the way, and who was not held back despite the warning signs.

KURTZ: I think this is a classic example where the newspaper can use an ombudsman with an independent look, because, after all, the same editors who are at least implicated here are the ones supervising this investigation, and somebody from outside that power structure might have raised a question, for example, about Howell Raines sending an e-mail to Jayson Blair about that disputed sniper story, saying "great shoe leather reporting."

ROBERTS: I think you are absolutely right. "The Washington Post" and a number of other papers do have ombudsmen. I think they are an absolutely essential tool. Because, after all, think about journalism. We are different from almost every other profession. We have no official mechanism of accountability. Look at what happened on Wall Street. You had all of these securities regulations, look what happened in the accounting industry. There were licensing procedures, and we have none of that and we can't because of the First Amendment, but if we're going to enjoy this immunity from any official form of accountability, we have to be accountable to ourselves. And "The Times" has done a pretty good job in doing that, I think.

KURTZ: It was the ombudsman at "The Washington Post" there for the huge embarrassment there in 1991 over Janet Cook and the invention of an 8-year-old heroin addict who ran an exhaustive report.

Steve Roberts, assess the damage. There have been a lot of news organizations that have had huge embarrassments. This one is going to stick with "The Times" for a while, just because of a sheer magnitude of it.

ROBERTS: It will. You know, it's Mother's Day. I'll quote my mother, who I talked to on my way over here, an astute reader of "The New York Times" for 50 years who said, you know, when I pick up "The New York Times," I expect to be told the truth. And there is a shadow over that now.

KURTZ: Happy Mother's Day to Mrs. Roberts.

Seth Mnookin, I want to touch on a related point, and that is perhaps Jayson Blair should have learned from the example five years ago of Stephen Glass, who was fired by "The New Republic" magazine for 27 fabricated stories. Huge embarrassment for that magazine. Now, Glass has come out and apologized. He is going to be on "60 Minutes" tonight. Let's take a brief look at what he had to say on that CBS program.


STEPHEN GLASS: I would tell a story, and there would be fact A, which maybe was true. And then there would be fact B, which was sort of partially true and partially fabricated, and there would be fact C which was more fabricated and almost no true, and there would be fact D, which was a complete whopper.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Seth Mnookin, you also interviewed Glass for this week's "Newsweek." What did you make of the way he presented himself? Are you buying his apology now that he's basically out there peddling a book?

MNOOKIN: Well, I don't know how to answer that. I mean, the people I talked to who he harmed most directly, his colleagues, some of the people he wrote about, he has not apologized to them in person, and they were all unanimous in saying if he wanted to come out and make amends, he should make it to us, he shouldn't monetize (ph) his apology. I think that's a very valid criticism.

Whether he is now living truthfully and living honestly is another question, which I think the proof will be in the pudding. I didn't find the book convincing as an apology, and I didn't find what he was saying convincing as an apology.

KURTZ: Why journalists continue to do this when the odds are very good in the age of Nexus and Lexus of getting caught, remains a mystery that perhaps we'll talk about on other shows. Seth Mnookin in New York, Steve Roberts here in Washington, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, the press outs Bill Bennett as a high stakes gambler. Is the morality czar fair game? We'll ask columnist Andrew Sullivan and the reporter who broke the story, Josh Green of "The Washington Monthly."


KURTZ: Bill Bennett, the conservative movement's leading moralizer and author of the best selling "Book of Virtues" had a little known sideline as a high stakes gambler. "The Washington Monthly" and "Newsweek" disclosed Bennett's frequent trips to Las Vegas and Atlantic City last week. And joining me now, Joshua Green of "The Washington Monthly" who broke the story, and journalist Andrew Sullivan, who writes daily on his own Web log,


KURTZ: Joshua Green, how come all these hotshot reporters in Washington didn't get this story, and you're working for a small magazine came up with these casino documents?

JOSHUA GREEN, WASHINGTON MONTHLY: I don't know. It's been an open secret in Washington for some time. You know, it's been going around for weeks. There were people that knew about it.

KURTZ: Were these people conservatives who perhaps didn't like Bill Bennett?

GREEN: I mean, I think it was an open secret among conservatives. I can't really judge what they thought of Bennett, but certainly some of the social conservatives that Bennett is affiliated with, were unhappy with the gambling. We just decided to chase down the story and see if we could find out more about it. We did. KURTZ: If you were still editor of "The New Republic," would you push the Bennett piece?



SULLIVAN: It violates the basic principle, which is that someone's private life is their private life. And if they haven't actually stated in public something that is contradictory to what they're doing in private, then I think there is no story. And...

KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) full of all kinds of stories about people's private lives?

SULLIVAN: Yes, but I don't want to sink myself to the level of the rest of the press. I mean, the truth is that the press has no rules protecting privacy anymore, and Josh is just part of that media circus. But I think it's hard for Josh then to turn around and say that he would disapprove of David Brock (ph), for example, or outing people, for example, if they just fall into a category, political category with which you disagree.

KURTZ: Here's the argument. Rich guy, gambles, loses his own money, breaks no laws, not a public official, why is that a story?

GREEN: Well, first of all, he is a public figure and he is one who has gotten very rich and very successful by criticizing other people's morality. Anytime a public figure gets into any kind of trouble, Bennett was usually first on CNN or Fox News to get up there and kick him in the shins, and I think a lot of people...

KURTZ: You decided to kick him in the shins?

GREEN: Well, I'll leave that for readers to judge. I think a lot of people saw the inconsistency in the fact that he's decried everyone else's morality and given himself a free pass of one vice that he himself happened to indulge in.

SULLIVAN: So he can't win. I mean, if he actually had said gambling is a vice and wrong, you have a case that he's a hypocrite. But he didn't so he is not a hypocrite, but you still nail him.

GREEN: But he has. I mean, he wrote a book (UNINTELLIGIBLE) cultural indicators, he listed gambling as one of the indicators of social decline.

SULLIVAN: Yes, of course, it wasn't him, it was some army of paid researchers that produced it for him.

GREEN: His name is on the book.

SULLIVAN: Yes, his name is on a lot of books, but it doesn't mean he wrote them.

(CROSSTALK) KURTZ: Well, before we accuse him of that, look, you know, Josh has a point. Bill Bennett talked about people's personal lives, he certainly talked about Bill Clinton's personal life on TV about six times a day. So why should he be exempt from this kind of scrutiny? He was reported to have lost as much as $8 million over a decade. We're talking serious money here, not just a weekly poker game.

SULLIVAN: I agree. This is a very hard case, in that sense. I mean, he's -- I think he's not a hypocrite on gambling, but he's a hypocrite on privacy. He doesn't give a hoot about anybody else's privacy, never has, and so it's a little hard for him to turn around and then say, well, my privacy has been violated. On the other hand, on the other hand, I'm not Bill Bennett, you know. I don't have to defend that. All I can say is that I think that our public life has been terribly wounded by the fact that nobody has any privacy anymore, and even if it means defending someone like Bill Bennett, whom I really would rather not defend, I think the principle is worth defending. And I'm worried about the consequences if we allow this to carry on. Is everything up for grabs? If we find out that Bill Bennett rented a porn movie, is that up for grabs? What isn't up for grabs?

GREEN: I don't think it is at all. I don't think it is at all. Let's remember, Bennett was one of the folks who pioneered the idea that a person's private conduct has a bearing on their public conduct.

KURTZ: On the public character.

GREEN: Exactly. Exactly.


GREEN: That's a position I happen to agree with. I mean, one of the arguments I've heard most, you know, since the story ...

KURTZ: That's a position you agree with, but you basically took it upon yourself as a journalist to invade his privacy and talk about his own perfectly legal gambling. So aren't you a little (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

GREEN: No, not at all. What I was going to say was the example I've heard most is, well, you know, all you liberals, you know, you complained when Monica Lewinsky came out and so on and so forth. How can you turn around and whack Bill Bennett? But you know, I was going to say, I think that the Clinton/Lewinsky story was a perfectly legitimate one. I didn't think that...

SULLIVAN: You liked the Starr report?

GREEN: No, I...

SULLIVAN: You liked the invasion of his privacy in a way that that...?


GREEN: I think it was a legitimate public story.

SULLIVAN: It was a legitimate story because the president...

GREEN: I think Bill Bennett was a legitimate story.

SULLIVAN: No, the president broke laws. He actually violated certain laws. He was accused of sexual harassment, sexual abuse. There is no comparison with Bennett, who is doing something legal and private, which you just disapprove of, or you thing -- you disapprove of his broader political philosophy.

GREEN: I don't disapprove of it.

KURTZ: Let's not -- let me just pick up the question about partisan affiliation, because "Washington Monthly" is a liberal magazine. Most of those kicking Bennett around are liberals. Few conservatives have criticized Bennett. Not many. And so I just wondered, you know, if it was Jesse Jackson, would the tables be reversed?

SULLIVAN: They're all as bad as each other, Howie. I think that the right wing especially has so violated people's privacy. They have no scruples, and their knee-jerk defense of Bennett has a really phony aspect to it. Doesn't mean there isn't a principle here. And we shouldn't be concerned about it being violated.

KURTZ: Wouldn't we expect liberal journalists or liberal commentators to be more tolerant of things like gambling that don't necessarily have any overt victims?

GREEN: Sure, I think they should. I wouldn't disagree that some of the commentary, you know, in response to the Bennett situation hasn't been a little bit over the top.

SULLIVAN: Let's say there is a Republican...


GREEN: ... whether or not it is a legitimate news story, I do think it is.

KURTZ: Did "the Washington Monthly" debate whether it was a legitimate story?

GREEN: Yes, we did. And in fact, the example we used was to sort of bat this around with was if Ralph Nader had an offshore bank account, would we talk about this? You know, would we write the story? Absolutely, we would. And there were other things too. I mean, there really was an element of hypocrisy involved here, whether or not you want to get into one of these Clintonian things about...

SULLIVAN: Oh, it's not Clintonian to say the guy actually said gambling is OK and gambled, therefore he is not a hypocrite. That's a pretty straightforward argument.

KURTZ: Did Bill Bennett in effect concede, Andrew Sullivan, that it was a legitimate story by saying, I'm not going to gamble anymore, I'm sending a poor example for the country?

SULLIVAN: Yes, I think he wimped out on that. I think he should have said, sure, it is my private life and I'll do whatever I want with it.

KURTZ: Do you think he should have gotten on a plane, gone to Las Vegas and invited the television cameras to follow him?

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. Said, watch me. If that's his position, which it was previously -- but he is a political animal and he decided that it wouldn't help his religious right supporters and allies, and he wouldn't get those 50 grand speaking fees if he took that position, so he didn't.

KURTZ: "Slate's" Michael Kingsley is one of the liberal commentators who has just been openly jumping for joy about this, so I can't hold you accountable for what others are saying about your story, but it does seem like journalists who are on the left are just -- just have been waiting for something like this to use as a tool to sort of slap Bennett around?

GREEN: Well, I think there's an inescapable element of poetic justice involved in the story, and it's something that Andrew recognizes, that everyone really recognizes, that here's a man who was a public scold and it turns out he's not, you know, the virtuous Mr. Morality...


SULLIVAN: Let me ask you a question. If you found out that a leading Republican official who never said anything about homosexuality, for example, not a word, turned out to be privately gay, would you out him?


SULLIVAN: Why not?

GREEN: What he does in his bedroom is his business. I mean, Bennett was out in public...


SULLIVAN: No, no, no, you didn't reveal that. You could have taken a camera there. You got private documents from a casino. Very, very private documents. I don't know how you got it. Now, that is exactly the same thing.

GREEN: But, again, Bennett's complaint wasn't that it was an invasion of privacy. His initial response was, yes, I've gambled. I've always been open about it.


SULLIVAN: It's my point that it's an invasion of privacy. OK? How do you... (CROSSTALK)

SULLIVAN: No, no, I'll take it up with you, because...

GREEN: Bennett's defense was I've been open about this all along. I've never talked about this. Everybody knows about my gambling. What is the big deal?

SULLIVAN: The amount, the amount of money was private. And you violated that.

GREEN: Well, that's splitting hairs.


KURTZ: I'm willing to bet that this debate goes on possibly between the two of you, Andrew Sullivan, Josh Green, thanks very much for joining us.


Our earlier discussion on the Bill Bennett controversy, and our apologies for the initial tape mixup. We'll be right back.


KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Be sure to join us next Sunday morning for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right after this recap of the hour's news.


'New York Times' Fires Jayson Blair>

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