By Harry Haun
24 Feb 2012
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
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.
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.
|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."
|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."Continued...