An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2005

Compromised work

Howard Earl Gardner

Howard Gardner is John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. For the last decade, he has codirected the GoodWork Project with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon. Gardner has been a Fellow of the American Academy since 1995.

One would like to find an abundance of good workers across the professions: teachers who have mastered their subject matter, present it well, and behave in a civil manner toward students and peers; physicians who are knowledgeable about the latest techniques and medications and who cater to the ill no matter where they are encountered and whether they have resources; lawyers who can argue a case persuasively and who make their services available to those in need, irrespective of their ability to pay. Occasionally the impressive achievements of such individuals are publicly honored; and those concerned about the long-term welfare of the society hope that aspiring teachers, physicians, and lawyers will have ample exposure to such exemplars of good work.

Not surprisingly, the absence of good work commands the attention of scholars, journalists, dramatists, politicians, and ordinary folk. We are, perhaps naturally, perhaps understandably, fascinated to learn about the teacher who fails an exam or seduces a student; the physician who fakes her credentials or operates on the wrong patient; the lawyer who skirts the law or only defends the wealthy. As a friend quipped, Time Warner might sell more copies if it renamed its venerable business publication Misfortune . In the GoodWork Project in which my colleagues and I are involved, we are focusing on those individuals and institutions that aspire toward, and in the happiest case, exemplify, good work. There is much to be learned from careful study of a journalist like Edward R. Murrow, a physician like Albert Schweitzer, a publisher like Katharine Graham, a public servant like John Gardner (no relation). Yet it is important to recognize that many individuals fail to achieve good work, that some do not even strive to be good workers, and that in the absence of compelling role models, future workers stand little chance of becoming good workers themselves. Hence, it is justifiable at times to suspend our focus on good work to see what can be learned from frankly deviant cases.

In what follows, I focus on what we have come to speak of as ‘compromised work.’1 We conceptualize this variant as work that is not, strictly speaking, illegal, but whose quality compromises the ethical core of a profession. We do not concern ourselves with individuals who merit the descriptor ‘bad workers’–the journalist who steals, the physician who commits assault and battery, the lawyer who murders. Presumably these individuals would engage in such illegal acts irrespective of their professional status, and it is the job of law enforcement officials, and not of professional gatekeepers, to call these miscreants to account. Rather, our concern is with the journalist who makes up stories, the politician whose word has no warrant, the physician who fails to heed the latest medical innovations and thus provides substandard treatment. Each of these individuals may at one time have embraced core values–journalistic integrity, political veracity, medical acumen– but at some point turned his back on the profession. If we can better understand how once good workers begin to compromise their work, we may be able to enhance the ranks of good workers.

It is easiest to spot compromised work in professions that have existed for some time and whose principal values are widely shared. In such domains there should be consensual processes of training, recognized mentors, and established procedures in place for censuring or ostracizing those whose work violates norms of the domain, with disbarment or loss of license as the ultimate sanction. Of the three professions I will treat in this essay, law is closest to the prototype, journalism is furthest (many journalists lack formal training), and accounting is somewhere in between.

Since our project began (and no doubt long before), the pages of the newspapers have been filled with examples of compromised work; indeed, in preparing this essay I have sometimes been tempted to clip half the stories in the daily newspaper. Here I focus on three cases from recent years that caught both my attention and that of the broader public. The first case involves Jayson Blair, an ambitious reporter for The New York Times who was fired after it was discovered he had plagiarized and fabricated stories. The second case centers on Hill and Barlow, a venerable Boston law firm that closed abruptly when its profitable real estate department announced it was leaving the firm. The third case centers on the flagship accounting firm Arthur Andersen that went bankrupt after the Enron scandal of 2001.

In my initial study of compromised work, 2 I chose these cases because they apparently represented three levels of analysis: Jayson Blair as an instance of compromised work by a single, flawed individual; Hill and Barlow as an instance of compromised work within a single institution; and the Arthur Andersen–Enron debacle as an instance of compromised work throughout a profession. My study revealed, however, surprising continuities across these three apparently distinct levels of analysis. In each case, I found I was studying individuals as well as institutions, and, indeed, an entire industry. Also to my surprise, I discovered that institutions held in high regard might be especially vulnerable to the insidious virus of compromised work; I had expected that such institutions harbored righting mechanisms that for some reason had failed to detect the offending party. Finally, I expected that at least some instances of compromised work would be isolated and of relatively short duration. A far more complex and, to my mind, more troubling picture emerged–a picture that, moreover, reflects ominous trends in American society.

In 1999, Jayson Blair, a young African American with a flair for writing, became a regular reporter for The New York Times. Even before his stint at the Times, Blair had been regarded by peers and supervisors with a combination of admiration and suspicion. There was no question that Blair wrote well, had a nose for important stories, was a gifted schmoozer, and had impressed the governing powers at the college and community newspapers where he had worked. At the same time, observers wondered whether he in fact had exercised the due diligence that is expected of a reporter; and indeed, supervisors had detected a highly unusual number of errors in his stories. While he had occasionally been admonished for carelessness, there had been few consequences. In fact, at the Times, Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd gave increasingly important assignments to Blair.

When Blair was discovered to have plagiarized a story from the San Antonio Express-News, he was immediately forced to resign. Then on May 11, 2003, in an unprecedented bout of self-examination, The New York Times devoted over four full pages to documentation of numerous cases of invention, plagiarism, and fraudulent expense and travel reports. Nor did the brouhaha over the Blair affair die down. Six weeks later, editors Raines and Boyd were forced to resign their posts, and the new editorial regime at the Times explicitly dissociated itself from the policies and practices of its predecessors.

At first blush, Jayson Blair seemed to be an isolated case–a reporter who refused to play by the rules and who may well have been emotionally disturbed. And in fact, there is ample evidence that Blair was a troubled young man who should have been carefully scrutinized for years. He was so unpopular at his college newspaper that he was relieved of his editorial position. When he was an intern at The Boston Globe in 1996–1997 and a freelancer there in 1998–1999, the sloppiness of his coverage was discussed. Shortly after he began to work full-time at the Times, Metropolitan Editor Jonathan Landman sent around a note that said, “We have got to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.” Blair soon accumulated a record number of corrections and complaints about his coverage. His behavior aroused dislike and suspicion among many of his contemporaries. But despite ample warning signs, Raines and Boyd took him under their wings; he was praised and offered ever-more important assignments. And, to the shame of the Times, the decisive discovery of plagiarism was made not by its own staff but by a reporter for a regional paper.

To be sure, Blair had been a bad egg whose misbehaviors were more flagrant than those of his contemporaries. But at least since publisher Arthur Sulzberger had appointed Raines as managing editor in 2001, a strong set of explicit and implicit signals had been sent to the Times staff. Reporters were told they had to increase the “competitive metabolism” of the news coverage. Those who wrote flashy, trendy stories were rewarded with promotions, special privileges, and ample front-page coverage. In contrast, reporters who took a more thoughtful, less sensational approach who emphasized the journalistic precept of carefulness, found themselves increasingly marginalized. Nor was this new culture a secret: in a much-discussed portrait of Raines that appeared in The New Yorker in June of 2002, the changing milieu at the Times was detailed and critiqued.

Had Jayson Blair been a truly isolated case, it is highly likely that the Sulzberger-Raines-Boyd managerial team would have survived intact and perhaps continued its questionably hectic pace and excessively dramatic bent. Once the Blair case broke, however, other heroes and casualties soon emerged. The most flagrant consequence was the abrupt resignation of star reporter Rick Bragg, who was accused of using unacknowledged stringers and of embellishing his lengthy and highly evocative stories. While Raines and Boyd fought to keep their positions, it was probably inevitable that sooner or later they would be squeezed out. The replacement appointment of Bill Keller, an individual widely considered a contrast in temperament and journalistic values, served as a sign that the Times was rejecting the go-go atmosphere of the previous few years.

Under Raines and Boyd, the Times had been engaged in an example of what I will call ‘superficial alignment.’ The editors were looking for young reporters who exemplified the pace and coverage they sought; the fact that Blair was African American was a bonus and, by the editors’ own admission, caused them to cut him slack. For his part, Blair was keen at discerning what his editors desired; and, as befits an accomplished con man, he knew how to give the impression of good work and to cover his tracks. What both sides avoided in this pas de deux was a genuine alignment that honored the tried-and-true mission of journalism. Had Blair been subjected to a mentoring regime of tough love, he might have turned into a genuinely good reporter. And had he somehow slipped through an otherwise well-regulated training and supervision system, it is unlikely that the discovery of his misdeeds would have caused such turmoil in his company and, indeed, in the wider journalistic profession.

.  .  .


  • 1I thank Jeffrey Epstein for his support of these investigations.
  • 2I thank Ryan Modri, Paula Marshall, and Deborah Freier for their invaluable research efforts.
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