Gabe McKinley worked at The New York Times for 12 years. His brother Jesse still works there, working as a theatre reporter and San Francisco bureau chief. So does his other brother, James, who writes about music for the culture desk. The McKinley family, it can be said, knows the Paper of Record.
So there are perhaps few people better equipped than a McKinley to have written CQ/CX, a new play at the Peter Norton Space on West 42nd Street, about the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal that rocked the Gray Lady in 2003. Five-time Tony Award nominee David Leveaux directs, with the Atlantic Theater Company producing.
"I worked at the Times during the time when the scandal was taking place, and it affected me deeply," says Gabe McKinley. "I always thought it was such a dramatic situation, the confluence of personalities, and the news breaking at the time, from 9/11 to Afghanistan to sniper attacks and anthrax incidents. It felt like the whole world was ending. At the same time, the paper was turning over from print to digital. There was a lot of great strife in the building. I thought I wanted to write about it."
McKinley — whose father was also a journalist, working at Esquire and Playboy in the 1970s — worked as a news assistant for the news desk, a center of constant activity at the broadsheet. It was his daily responsibility to compile the corrections that appear in the daily on Page 2. As such, McKinley was familiar with the two pieces of journalistic shorthand that make up the title of his play. CQ is short for the Latin cadit quaestio, meaning "the question falls." An editor uses the abbreviation when he or she questions a fact. CX indicates something that has been corrected.
Though the names have been changed, and some characters are composites, CQ/CX closely tracks the real events surrounding Blair and the Times. McKinley says he knew the now-disgraced reporter: "Jayson used to spend a lot of time with the clerks. He wasn't much older than me. We used to hang out quite a bit." Still, he admits, "It's hard to know what he was actually like. He had a secret life, obviously. He was a gregarious, fun-loving, charming guy. He enjoyed the nightlife. He liked the idea of the work-hard, play-hard journalist. He really embraced that as part of his identity."
McKinley, who graduated from NYU as an actor and later got his MFA from the New School, left the Times in 2008, but he retains an affection for the publication.
"I think of The New York Times as the greatest newspaper in the world, but ultimately it's run by human beings and therefore it's fallible," he says. "This play is a look at traditions, at legacies and ultimately at hubris. There are great minds involved who were basically hoodwinked."