Imagine your writing career is about to take off. You’ve interned at the New York Times and by some straight miracle that you have helped to manipulate, you land a job there. You are ecstatic. But also imagine that you have a few character flaws you ignore. You lack focus; you are ambitious without the required determination and discipline to accomplish your goals; you are incapable of dealing with high pressured stress; you seek out “coping mechanisms” which encourage addictive, annihilating behaviors in the name of “dealing.” Perhaps this could describe any one of us during a period in our lives when we were in transition and were unable to self-correct. In CQ/CX* (which completed its run at the Atlantic Theater Company) it describes the personality of Jay Bennett, an intern who lands the prestigious job at The New York Times, then proceeds to blow up his life and career because of sloppy carelessness fueled by an indulgent penchant for alcohol, cocaine and self-destruction.
From the point we meet the character Jay Bennett as an intern, to the play’s conclusion after he has impaled himself and his two editors on the sword of fraud and plagiarism (cardinal sins of reportage) we painfully absorb the truth that an individual’s decline often carries with it many pivotal declensions that can either lead toward opportunity, or initiate doom. In Bennett’s case it is the latter: we watch silent and stunned as the miserable twine of the knave’s life unravels, becomes a scrawny tendril then breaks with the weight of error, plummeting the self-vicitimizer into the abyss of no return. And we come away understanding how someone, who is potentially addicted to failure can lure others into a web of deceit, despite their own better judgment.
Gabe McKinley’s writing is vital. Having served as a journalist for the New York Times, he witnessed the plagiarism incident of Jayson Blair, the disgraced journalist the play loosely is based on. By the time McKinley left the paper, accomplished a year’s research and wrote the play, he had sifted the events and dramatic energy of the individuals, creating characters, some composites, and others loosely based upon the major players (Blair). Then he created the arc of events that led up to the plagiarism and its impact. The result is a newsroom landscape peppered with complexity, humor and pathos. Integral to McKinley’s backdrop is his concentration on the Times as a renown institution facing this doomsday scenario: crumbling old media empire hobbles light years behind the new media reformation. McKinley reveals the extent to which these circumstances may have impacted how Bennett/Blair tweaked and exploited the editors’ and owner’s desire-concern to be trending and competitive.
Though we know the inevitable, we are engaged as events and characterizations unfold. Partly due to the excellent direction by David Leveaux and the ensemble acting, which remained moderated between tension and argument, McKinley reveals that in this institution, as in all institutions that have preceded themselves, there are those wise Cassandras who see potential disaster. And they are ignored as the “forward thinking” view preempts. So though we ironically have been warned the train wreck will occur, we draw close, interested in understanding the how and the why. Though we might not have worked in similar circumstances, we do know such problem scenarios and there is always the question, “Where did the players/me/my family go wrong?” McKinley provides answers, but they are not paramount. One must dig beyond the superficial and obvious reasons why this young reporter with problems was able to manipulate experienced editors who, themselves, didn’t check the facts (relates to the title) but took an expedient route.
The play’s message is prophetic: its warnings for readers and writers alike, emphatic (if one has the ears to hear and the eyes to see). There is a danger of trusting institutions which ride on the coattails of their former reputations. Independent internet news, social networking and the changing virtual paradigm have shifted news reporting away from the ethos of group think characteristic of large, venerated, news organizations. In a number of instances bloggers, writers, free lance journalists and professional experts in their fields have trumped such organizations with in-depth online pieces that have gone viral, eliciting a new meaning to the words, “breaking news.” This medium of independent online reporting has taken a pick axe to traditional media. In the past information might never have been revealed because of loyalties, cronyism and paternalistic decisions. Decisions not to report information were justified by such capstone logic that not reporting was for “the good of the country,” when in fact not reporting was blatant cover-up and protection of systems and individuals. In the past news institutions were hand maidens of politicians, governments and corporations, and few suspected this was the case. Only those on the inside had the power to know. Only they were well networked to keep the known, unknown.
The play shows the extent to which traditional media still clings to the “old way of doing things,” a dinosaur incapable of seeing its inevitable extinction. Couple this with the dumbing down of broadcast news to sound bytes as entertainment, overall, old institutional investigative reporting has become less and less substantive. The mastheads of ethical news tradition have been supplanted with the meaningless but urgent need to “get the story out,” to keep current and competitive with like organizations. And this is the ready made environment for someone like a Jay Bennett/Blair who can enter in and tell lie upon lie and weave deceit upon deceit while experienced editors, if they picked it up, didn’t put their foot down. In such circumstances how can INSTITUTIONAL INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM IN A FREE AND OPEN SOCIETY function, survive and grow stronger?
After rethinking McKinley’s work, it was evident to me that the playwight poses another underlying question for us in this virtual age of Youtube and social media and virtual exposure of lies. Do editors working for institutional new organizations prize reporters’ expertise and willingness to ask the difficult questions and give them the time to commit to the true investigations? Do editors encourage reporters after interviews to really “CQ/CX:” look for contradictions, half-truths and omissions and double check other sources against the first source? A lie is a lie and its exposure as a lie is substantive investigative reporting. To what extent are old media editors and owners encouraging their reporters to expose lies by those in power? Online sites are replete with information which contradicts and trumps institutional media news organizations that do expose lies by those in power. Shouldn’t traditional media do the same?
The plays suggests that The New York Times is an institution which may not be digging deeper, going farther, investigating, investigating, investigating. Lies have passed through (and still do, i.e. Dolores Kearns Goodwin, et. al) and because of this inconsistency, is it any wonder that a Blair/Bennett and others may audaciously crank out the falsehoods and get away it HOW MANY TIMES if no one calls them on it??? Certainly, some of the trusting New York Times readership do not know and rarely suspect this could occur. For some, the prestigious masthead is enough and because this paper said it, it must be so. The Times, according to the play, has encouraged such readership pretensions and coasted on its venerability. But this is not good enough. It needs an overhaul and thorough CQ/CX!
For when one considers the seriousness of lies and their acceptance, what is the fallout of such deterioration of fact checking for investigative journalism on the world stage? Where was investigative journalism on the WMD (weaspons of mass destruction) that were supposed to be one of the causes for going to war in Iraq? Political figures have sold themselves as experts and that has been enough validity for traditional reportage, when in fact, the individuals were sharing opinions not facts, spinning spin and there was no fact checking from “investigative” reporters/editors who didn’t ask the difficult questions. Reporters supported by editors took quotes and wrote stories without really dealing with the substance BEHIND the quotes to note the gaps, the contradictions, the half-truths, the omissions. And indeed, the play brings us to this last overriding question: to what extent were these large news organizations, representative old media, ever true exponents of a free press that was reliable, trustworthy and accurate AND NOT THE HAND MAIDEN OF POLITICAL AND CORPORATE INTEREST? Indeed how long has there been an unreliability with regard to CQ/CX; perhaps the Bennett/Blair incident is just the inevitable implosion of systemic corruption which has been happening for decades, a kind of “Decline and fall of the Roman Empire” cum old media?
This is the undercurrent of McKinley’s work and some may miss it if they are looking at the obvious. But then they are in good company. They are just like Jay Bennett’s editors who ended up having to resign because they didn’t dig deeper; they accepted what was expedient and they trusted the rightness of their own judgment in a wallow of group think instead of doing their own CQ/CX.
Though the play’s run is finished in New York, we certainly haven’t seen the last of its performance elsewhere. The subject is a timely one and as more episodes of fact checking problems arise, the play will surely carry legs in other areas of the country. Indeed, they may even be looking into its eventually going uptown New York closer to Broadway in the future.
* John Farley interviewed Gabe McKinley in his article about the play for The Metro Focus Culture section online for Channel 13 and asked what the abbreviation means. This is what McKinley’s response was.
McKinley: They’re both shorthand used during fact-checking at the Times. Editors would use CQ — an abbreviation for the Latin term Cadit Quaestio, meaning “question falls” — if a statement was correct. CX is shorthand for corrections, if something was false.