Defending Howell Raines.

Media criticism.
May 13 2003 7:10 PM

Defending Howell Raines

He didn't catch Jayson Blair. You didn't either.

(Continued from Page 1)

I wouldn't deny anybody the joy of pillorying the Times, but don't automatically assume you'd have policed the Blair beat any better. My friend Dennis Cauchon, a national reporter for USA Today, no softie when it comes to his scorn for the Times' handling of the episode, kicks himself for not uncovering Blair's fictions. Cauchon writes via e-mail:

We covered two of the same stories: MIA Jessica Lynch in Palestine, W. Virginia, and MIA Brandon Sloan in Cleveland. I commented to USA Today colleagues that it was odd that I didn't see a New York Times reporter—I always look—at the scene and how the New York Times stories were full of inexplicable errors. In Palestine, he described the road to Lynch's house as a one-lane gravel road when it's a narrow two-lane paved road. How do you get that wrong? I wondered. And he got the name wrong: it's Mayberry, not Mulberry. How do you get that wrong when Mayberry is so much better? He described a church service in Cleveland that I attended with four other reporters. When I read his account eight days later, I thought, gee, he must have kept a very low profile because the church wasn't that big and I didn't see him. Good for him, I thought. And good for him for getting an interview with the minister father who refused to talk that day, other than receiving line chit-chat, saying it was a day of worship. The story had factual errors, including that the service happened a week earlier than the story indicated. But I chalked it up [to] ... well, nothing. I just thought it was odd.

That Blair hoodwinked Cauchon, as doubting a skeptic as you'll ever meet, proves to me how unwilling we all are to believe that a trusted reporter would lie, lie again, and lie some more.

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The obvious parallels between the Jayson Blair caper and the spy escapades of Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen should sober the gotcha patrol currently buzz-bombing Howell Raines. Accomplished liars will beat polygraphs, mislead interrogators, and hoodwink the most sophisticated security regime.So hate Raines as much as you want, and denounce the Times to your heart's content, and demand as much genuflecting from the paper's editors as you desire. Just remember the last time you were conned.

******

I read e-mail, fictional and factual, at pressbox@hotmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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