Truth on the Scaffold: Jayson Blair, Journalism and Reality
In the tiny town of Combermere, Ontario, which is best known for being the site of Madonna House, there is a cemetery that houses the remains of Eddie Doherty.
BY Don DeMarco
June 15-21, 2003 Issue | Posted 6/15/03 at 1:00 PM
A simple cross marks his grave and speaks to prayerful onlookers with the words, “All my words for the Word.” The once-flamboyant journalist, Eddie Doherty was, at the height of his career, the highest-paid journalist in America. His own story of his conversion, his marriage to the baroness Catherine de Hueck and his priesthood is better than any of those he penned for the Chicago Tribune or incorporated in his many novels.
I once stood before the simple cross that bears that simple but profound message. “Whatever is not eternal is eternally out of date,” C.S. Lewis wrote. Journalism carries a dateline. It is anchored to the moment.
The Catholic journalist, in wedding the jour of the moment to the toujours of the Gospel, captures something of God's eternal word. He bears in his own multitude of words the truth that cannot pass away and has no dateline.
Here, I thought, is the perfect encapsulation of the Catholic writer's vocation. As a wordsmith, he is dedicated to the larger truth the world buries under an avalanche of information, whose bits and pieces might or might not be true. Our information glut and data smog obscure the higher truth. Edna St. Vincent Millay saw the problem most clearly, long before the information superhighway made its appearance in the contemporary world:
Upon this gifted age, in its darkest hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts … they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun, but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric.
In this context, the hullabaloo about Jayson Blair's prolific series of journalistic fabrications while with The New York Times seems at first blush, somewhat puzzling. Today, it is not unusual for journalists — caught up in the frenzy of the moment and often working under the pressures of meeting unreasonable deadlines — to lie, distort, deceive and dissemble. Peddling disinformation today is practically a way of life. And commercials almost always lie. In the battleground of “spin wars,” truth is often the first casualty.
By comparison, how comforting is the remark of St. Thomas Aquinas, who once said nearly all of his knowledge comes from two sources that cannot lie: nature and Scripture.
Gary Dunford, a journalist for the Toronto Star, for example, had this to say about the Holy Father during World Youth Day in Toronto last summer: “I acknowledge the Pope as I do Billy Graham, Osama bin Laden, the Dalai Lama, Jimmy Swaggart and Ronald McDonald — all celebrated for their singular tunnel vision” (July 25, 2002).
The New York Times, for whom Blair spent his brief but tempestuous tenure as a journalist, has justly earned the reputation for printing, “All the news that fits.” It would not publish novelist Walker Percy's letters to the editor for the ostensive reason that they came from a National Book Award winner who was too pro-life.
When it carried the obituary for Jerome Lejuene, it made sure of mentioning that the great geneticist was guilty of the now politically incorrect habit of smoking cigarettes. The day after the Vatican released Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life, a notification on bioethics), the Times saw to it that maverick Daniel Maguire's evaluation of the document, “Born into obsolescence,” appeared on the front page.
The secular press has a great deal of latitude for unchastized villainy.
Blair's antics have been sensationalized because they are an embarrassment to the liberal world. His case depicts the liberal establishment falling on its face while attempting to do what it holds dearest. Blair demonstrated journalistic incompetence, a secular sin.
He lied about graduating from the University of Maryland's College of Journalism, another secular sin, though perhaps not as egregious as a football coach embellishing his resumé. He was the beneficiary, as an African-American, of affirmative action. And he aroused in his employers that unforgivably distressing feeling of white guilt. The New York Times is making it difficult for the National Enquirer not to cultivate a superiority complex.
Moreover, Blair appears unrepentant — “I fooled some of the most brilliant people in journalism.” In fact, he is threatening to cash in on his notoriety by writing a book. In the secular world (how can we forget Monica Lewinsky?) the wages of sin are not death but higher wages.
Words are cheap. Yes, they are, when they do not serve the truth. And even truths are cheap if they do not serve the ultimate truth. “Woe to humanity,” Pope John Paul II warns, “should it lose the meaning of truth, the courage to seek it and the confidence of finding it.”
One gratifying lesson emerges from the Blair fiasco. In “the unmasking of a counterfeiter,” as another journalist puts it, we realize that despite such current trends as deconstruction, radical subjectivism, relativism and skepticism, even the secular world will not tolerate a steady diet of lies. This is a most heartening realization, for the small truths, after all, are the initial steppingstones leading to that ultimate truth, which is also called wisdom.
Don DeMarco teaches at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.
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