Smudge Mark at The Times: Off-Broadway's CQ/CX Tackles Journalism Scandal

News   Smudge Mark at The Times: Off-Broadway's CQ/CX Tackles Journalism Scandal David Leveaux, Gabe McKinley and the cast of the world premiere of CQ/CX, inspired by the plagiarism and fiction scandal that rocked the New York Times, talk about the fact, fiction and faces of the drama.

Gabe McKinley
Gabe McKinley Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was The New York Times at the turn of the last century when headlines screamed of 9/11, Afghanistan and anthrax.

For a dozen of those years (1996-2008), Gabe McKinley was as an assistant on the Times news desk, standing behind the plate with catcher's mitt, making sure All the News That's Fit to Print was also accurate, catching errors and half-truths as they whizzed by and reprinting them — cx'ed — the next day on Page 2 of the newspaper.

CQ/CX — copy-editing shorthand for "check" and "correct" — is his way of saying Catch Me If You Can, a cautionary play about, arguably, the most infamous error to crop up on his watch: a human error camouflaged as a colleague.

McKinley calls him Jay Bennett, this not-very-veiled version of Jayson Blair, the hot-shot cub reporter who copied or, in a pinch, created stories for The Times, where, of course, such things were just not done but somehow were in this instance. It's an intimate, inside peek at Times machinations. "At the end of the day, I wanted to be authentic," says McKinley, whose brothers still report at The Times (James reviews music; Jesse covers Albany). "I wanted to tell a story and have that story be a kind of window into that world. You got The Front Page. It's a romanticized ideal, but I don't know if it has been done right yet, and I wanted to do it right."

The Blair incident provided a perfect opportunity to get under the skin of The Paper of Record, unraveling like a thriller in a series of progressively sickening steps. At least 36 (and, likely, more) stories were found where Blair had played fast and loose with the facts — and the fallout from a lowly reporter's mischief reached the highest echelon of The Times, resulting in the resignations of executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd (i.e., Hal Martin and Gerald Haynes in the play). The hard-nosed metro editor who was the first to red-flag Blair's work — called simply "Ben" in the play — is Jonathan Landman, now culture editor for The Times.

Tim Hopper in CQ/CX.
photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia

With conspicuous fair-handedness, assuring no fingerprints would be found on the copy, Times management had a freelancer (Frank Rizzo, longtime critic of the Hartford Courant) review CQ/CX. One salient "commercial announcement" was tucked into the second graph: "In an unprecedented front page article in 2003, The Times reported that Mr. Blair, a young reporter on its staff, had committed journalistic fraud. In more than 7,000 words the paper described how Mr. Blair had made up events and had plagiarized in his reporting on national events. It called the widespread fabrications 'a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.'"

Landman caught a late preview of the play and, unsurprisingly, had no comment to make, but his surrogate character is as close to a hero as the play comes — the kind of precise and impeccable reporter that one would expect a Times man to be.

Tim Hopper's performance of this Ben is terrifyingly tight-assed enough to give sweaty palms to the most seasoned of newsmen. "It's always fun to play someone who is smarter than you," the actors proffers lightly. He says he got there simply by "just reading some books about the Blair scandal and talking about it to Gabe."

Peter Jay Fernandez, who as Haynes must do battle with this character, was awed by Hopper's work: "We would watch him in rehearsal and would think there were 12 people in the room, just by the way he runs that newsroom. He's on seven different phones, talking to 10 different people at once. It's a marvelous piece of acting."

Kobi Libii and Peter Jay Fernandez
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia

Like Bennett, Haynes is an African-American, and, if there is a race card in the play, it is played by him to trump Ben, believing Ben is holding Bennett back for reasons beyond disliking and distrusting his copy. "The play brings in that whole larger specter of race and how we deal with it in our institutions, especially in that job," says Fernandez. "You're under such pressure to get a newspaper out, and you think you know each other, and you do by the decisions you make — then you find out, 'Wait a minute, there's a wall here I didn't know was. How do we examine that wall? Do we have the time? Should we start making these assumptions about each other?' What I love about the play is we have that discussion we all say we want to have and never do. We broach things we really need to deal with in this society."

The first black managing editor at The Times, Boyd died of lung cancer five years after the scandal — but not before writing his book, "My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at The New York Times." Blair also got his book out: "Burning Down My Masters' House: My Life at The New York Times," and it became actor Kobi Libii's main entry into the complex personality igniting this upending uproar.

"I never met Jayson or dealt with him specifically, but I've read his book and some interviews he has given so I feel I know a fair bit about him," he admitted, "but ultimately the character we created is an invention, based on him but not intended to be some biographical representation of him. It's a fictional creation, really."

David Leveaux
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Arliss Howard, slowly drawling out his Southern-fried facsimile of Raines, hews the same piece-of-fiction company-line and ironically, also like Libii, confesses that passion is the quality that he admires most about the character he is playing. "The thing that was tragic about Howell Raines is that he was actually right," says McKinley of the man who rejuvenated The Times by insisting on a racially diversified staff. "They had to invigorate the newspaper. It was actually stodgy, old-fashioned, dying when he took over — and he was totally on point with that."

David Pittu gives a grounded and credible performance of the paper's dynastic publisher — addressed throughout the play by one and all as "Junior" — and got there by avoiding the real-life reference. "I did think about going to meet the real guy," he admitted, "but that was early on. As we started working on it, I realized that was not the point of the play. It's not him. He's a whole other story. The story of the family is incredible, but the play is not taking on an analysis of Arthur Sulzberger Jr."

The lone woman and last-billed actor in the cast is Sheila Tapia, playing the stand-in for Macerena Hernandez, who interned at The Times with Blair and had her piece in the San Antonio Express-News plagiarized by him. Although she didn't meet with Hernandez, she did venture through the hallowed doors of The Times for research.

"I got a chance to go to The Times and meet some of these people who worked with Jayson Blair, and they were each so affected by the experience," she says. "Some people were, like, 'Well, let me tell you what it was like working with him' and some people didn't want to talk to me at all. I got quite a spectrum of responses."

There are a couple of composite characters in the play representing different worlds at The Times. Steve Rosen stands for the young-Turk faction, here a business writer (with a lot of McKinley in him) who palled around with Blair. The old guard, just playing to the end of their string, is sentimentally depicted by Larry Bryggman. "As a kid," says McKinley, "I spent a lot of time with the old-timers from the news industry — they kinda taught me the business, guys who actually made the paper, who worked in the composing room, with printing presses. I have a great affinity for those guys, especially the ones who worked on the Harris System before the Atex."

Steve Rosen
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia

As befits a 22-scene play, director David Leveaux keeps things moving at a lively clip — abetted by David Rockwell's swirl of sets. A Brit, Leveaux seems a surprising choice to address American journalism — but only superficially, according to Atlantic Theater Company's artistic director, Neil Pepe: "When David directed Through a Glass Darkly for us last spring, we went out for drinks after a preview and started talking about journalism and criticism on the various papers. I felt like he had an inherent interest in this whole culture of journalism. I thought it would be a good match, and it was."

Sure enough, Leveaux says he signed on because "it's about print journalism, which is something I care personally very much about, and I thought it was a kind of zeitgeist thing in the sense that there is this question now about the responsibilities and reliability of the press and our faith in these very important institutions.

"There is also an interesting, generational aspect to this. Early on, when he's talking about the Internet, you realize that Jayson Blair had a great facility for something that wasn't fully understood by these serious newspapermen back in 1998. I wanted us to be clear about the fact that there was this almost a generational leap that had gone on, and, in the middle of it, was this huge hinge of history, which is 9/11.

"Howell Raines put a newspaper out on September 12 — that is remarkable — so, in one sense, you think 'Cometh the hour, cometh the man,' and yet, at the same time, he had this idea of making The Times more than an accurate reporting institution.

"You have to believe these things occur through the best possible intensions. Howell Raines' ambition for The Times was an immensely positive thing. If you say 'Who else should have been executive editor on Sept. 11?,' you have to say he was the man who met that challenge. At the same time, there is this departure from the fundamental responsibility — reporting the facts — and hubris will bring you down."

Eschewing the blacks and whites of this situation, one could get very lost in the gray matter at The Gray Lady. "It took me two years to write the first draft," admits McKinley. "It took me a long time to figure out how to write it. Intellectual property theft is not something you normally see done on stage. Watching someone type is not very interesting. To find a way into the play took a lot of time, and it had to be through character and the research — even though I worked there. I was socially friends with Jayson Blair, and I worked under Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd."

These days, Blair is a life coach in Virginia. "Apparently, he's trying to turn all this into a positive spin," reasons McKinley. "I thought I was very betrayed. He was a very dramatic, and traumatic, experience. A great newspaper deals in trust and truth, the unassailable truth. He took that and destroyed it. I did a lot of favors to him in dramatizing him. When I first started writing the play, I realized — in all deference to Jayson, who, at one time, was a friend of mine — that you can't watch him for two hours on stage because he was a duplicitous person. That's not fair to anybody to watch that on stage, so I had to create a character — reverse-engineer a character — that I found at least somehow sympathetic, even if it's just for a moment.

"The play kinda ended up 50-50 because I needed it to be comprehensive. It had to be comprehensive about the newspaper and also about the true story. The circumstances that allowed him to do what he did are as important as what he did."

(Harry Haun is longtime staff writer for Playbill magazine whose writing — including the Broadway Playbill On Opening Night column — frequently appears on Playbill.com.)

Steve Rosen, Sheila Tapia and Kobi Libii
Steve Rosen, Sheila Tapia and Kobi Libii Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia
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