The Fall and Decline of Jayson Blair
On May 11, 2003, the New York Times printed an article describing the deception undertaken by one of its own reporters. The front-page story detailed how Jayson Blair, then 27, had fabricated comments, concocted scenes and lifted material from other newspapers and wire services while writing his own stories. In other words, Blair, who had resigned nine days earlier, was the source of a blemish so large, no makeup could cover it. In effect, the Times article was a 7,239 band-aid aiming to set the record straight. One might say that warning flags had appeared early in Blair s journalism career. Blair studied the discipline at the University of Maryland from January 1995 to May 1999. In 1996, his appointment as editor of the Diamondback (a campus newspaper not affiliated with the journalism school) angered fellow journalism students, partly due to his young age. Blair was only the second African American to edit the paper, yet judging from most accounts, his tenure was unpopular. Not only did a high staff turnover plague the paper under Blair s watch, but colleagues doubted the accuracy of quotes in a story he wrote about a football game. Another editor removed one quote entirely because he believed it had come from an Associated Press story. Meanwhile, Blair promoted friends to higher-paid positions within the Diamondback and incurred other expenses. For all his difficulties amongst his peers, Blair managed to cultivate good relationships with the professors and staff at the journalism school Partly based on these connections, he managed to land a summer internship at the Boston Globe. Blair s time at the Globe met with mixed results. After his second internship with the newspaper in 1997, his evaluation read that while he was smart and energetic, it also stated that he was prone to factual error and superficiality and even sloppiness in copy. One can only imagine the surprise his superiors at the Globe felt when the next summer found Blair interning at the Times (both newspapers are owned by the New York Times Company). A fellow intern happened to be Macarena Hernandez. Athough he returned to Maryland in the autumn, Blair left school in the spring, sans graduation, to take another internship with the Times. It s a little unclear if the Times knew, or cared, about his lack of a diploma. In early 2001, Blair became a bona fide reporter at the paper. Like many young reporters, Blair made a number of mistakes in his reporting and failed to properly use his expense account. Yet despite admonishments and warnings from his superiors, the mistakes continued, as did Blair s tab at the neighborhood bar.
A now infamous memo from Blair s editor at the Times, Jon Landman, is a cornerstone of most articles covering the scandal. In April 2002, Landman wrote, We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now. In an article he wrote for The Atlantic in the aftermath of the situation, Howell Raines, then executive editor of the Times, noted that this memo had failed to reach him or anyone else in the northernmost regions of the paper s masthead. I have no reason to question Jon s account, he wrote, but I do feel that had I been in the bureaucratic loop on the memo, the Jayson Blair story would have ended there. But it didn t. As it would later be revealed, Blair made generous use of his lap top, cell phone, online archives and the Times photo database to create his stories, all while sitting inside his Brooklyn apartment. In a sense, modern technology aided and abetted his deception. His stories focused on national news: Jessica Lynch, the Washington D.C. sniper attacks and Iraq. Blair began dreading the number 111-111-1111 appearing on his cell phone as that meant someone from the Times office was trying to reach him. He began to smell, hear and see things that did not actually exist. Perhaps this was due to his struggle with bipolar disorder or perhaps it was a mixture to stress and guilt. Whatever the reason, Blair could stop covering his tracks in April 2003. That was when the editor of the San Antonio Express-News discovered some unnerving similarities between one of Blair s stories and one written by Express-News reporter Macarena Hernandez (Blair s former fellow Globe intern). After Blair failed to produce receipts for his journey to San Antonio, his editors realized the horrible truth: Blair had never set foot in Texas. An internal review at the Times discovered that out of 73 articles written by Blair between October up to his May resignation, 36 were choked with questionable errors and/or utter fabrications. When Blair learned of the Times suspicions, he resigned. Yet the process of uncovering his treachery had been started. In the end, Howell and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd also resigned. So where does the burden of fault rest? Is it on Blair? On his journalism education and its apparent failure to teach proper ethics? Do we blame affirmative action? Or do we point our fingers at the Times itself? The Times pinned a generous amount of blame on the University of Maryland. It felt the school should have been more forthcoming about some of Blair s previous infractions.
As one can imagine, the school refuted this blame. Yet it also took part in some questionable behavior. It hung Blair s picture in the school and he appeared on an alumni website (despite his not being a true alumnus) and in a promotional video used for recruiting. I feel writer David Folkenflik hit the nail on the head when he noted that, no institution can control what its former students do once they leave campus. In my opinion, all a journalism school can really do is instill a strong knowledge of, and respect, for, journalism ethics. The rest is up to the individual student. Of course, if a rash of ethics abuses crops up in a number of students, their alma mater will know it needs to revise its ethics curriculum. As for race, one can t entirely eliminate it as a factor. Most people familiar with Blair know he is African American. Blair s editor at the Times, Landman (author of the infamous memo), said he felt Blair s race had to do with his promotions within the paper. I think race was the decisive factor in his promotion. I thought then and I think now that it was the wrong decision, he said. Hendrik Hertzberg, in writing for the New Yorker, eloquently described the problem with tool. Affirmative action is strong medicine, and, as with any strong medicine, no great distance separates the therapeutic dose from the toxic one, he wrote. It goes without saying that affirmative action is a subject that brings up a smorgasbord of opinions and responses. When applied to a newsroom setting, it would make sense that a diverse staff would be better equipped to accurately report on a wide range of social issues. Yet in such cases as Blair, who was hired via a program to diversify the Times staff, the dose proved to be toxic. For opponents of affirmative action, Blair s transgressions, coupled with past newsroom scandals such as Janet Cooke, simply added more fuel to the fire. And what about Blair? What was his side of the story? Blair gave his account of the event in Burning Down My Masters House, for which he reportedly received a six-figure paycheck. Published in 2004, the 298-page tome starts off promising. For his first sentence, Blair wrote, I lied, I lied and I lied some more. While he goes on to detail his drug and alcohol abuse, along with his mental illness, he also spends a great amount of time discussing the atmosphere in the Times newsroom after Sept. 11. In doing this, he attempts to circumnavigate the blame. According to Blair, the first time he made something up was on Sept. 18, 2001. In a story about day trading, he claims that few sources would give him their names, though one offered Andrew as his first name. Back in the newsroom, Blair attached the last name Rosstein.
I knew that getting a byline in the paper had turned into an arduous task, even for me, after the September 11 attacks. And I knew I wanted one, he wrote. In the end, I feel it was a combination of Blair s ambition, the chaos in the newsroom (keep in mind that Raines had only been on the job as executive editor for six days before Sept. 11) and sheer blind chance allowed Blair to deceive his editors, and his readers, for so long. What can we take away from L Affaire Blair, as one reporter called it? Well, for starters, hopefully administrators will learn to not only request, but actually check, references of potential employees. Human resources will promote open communication between different departments and reporters will learn that while one might be able to construct a palace of cards from umpteen decks of cards, at the end of the day, it will remain a house of cards. As for the Times, it has made changes in its operating system. Reporters now cannot transfer without their superior writing a thorough evaluation, the newsroom ethics manual was rewritten and an independent organization conducts background checks on potential employees. A common response to the L Affaire Blair has been calls to establish bureaus of fact checkers for every news organization in existence. In principle, and on paper, this idea makes perfect sense. But in reality, I think this is very problematic. In today s current economic climate, publications are almost literally bleeding money. They can hardly come up with the funds to staff their reporting desks, let alone pay for new fact-checking desks and the people to man them. As for Blair, he now works as a life coach in northern Virginia, helping clients deal with substance abuse, poor coping skills, ADHD and other maladies. In 2009, he was invited to speak at Washington and Lee University s 48th Journalism Ethics Institute. While some questioned this choice, I feel that every incident, whether good or bad, holds valuable lessons for us all to learn. If people, including Blair, who commit serious errors in judgment, are willing to discuss what went wrong and how to prevent future occurrences, all the more the better. I also have a sneaking suspicion that attendance of journalists-in-training was much higher with Blair as the keynote speaker than it would have been if an academic had been flown in. In Shattered Glass, the 2003 movie which explored the fabrications made by the New Republic writer Stephen Glass, Glass stood in front of a classroom in his former high school giving a talk about journalism. On the chalkboard behind him was a telling quote: Experience is the toughest teacher, because she gives the test first and the lesson after.
Blair, Jayson. Burning Down My Masters House. Beverly Hills: New Millennium E Entertainment, 2004 Brown, Stephanie and David Clark. Melodramas of Beset Black Manhood? Meditations on A African-American Masculinity. Callaloo. Vol. 26, No. 3 : Summer 2003, 733. Editorial Correction. Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception. The New Y York Times. 11 May 2003. 1 Oct. 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/11/national / /11PAPE.html?ex=1078981200&en=d3b9f9f30f4742e0&ei=5070>. Folkenflik, David. The Making of Jayson Blair. The Baltimore Sun. 29 Feb. 2004. 20 Sept. 2 2010. <http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/movies/bal-as.blair23,0,46776 5 55,print.story>. Hertzberg, Hendrik. L Affaire Blair. The New Yorker. 26 May 2003. <http://www.newyorker. c com/2003/05/26/030526ta_talk_hertzberg>. Kurts, Howard. N.Y. Times Article Bears Similarities to Texas Paper's. The Washington Post .29 A April 2003. 1 Oct. 2010. < http://www.jaysonblair.com/articles/wp290403.html>. Lemann, Nicholas. Blair House. The New Yorker. 15 Mar. 2004. 1 Oct. 2010 <http://www.new y yorker.com/archive / 2004/03/15/040315crbo_books>. Reider, Rem. The Jayson Blair Affair. American Journalism Review. June 2003. 3 Oct. 2010 h <http://www.ajr.org/article.asp?id=3019>. Shafer, Jack. The Jayson Blair Project. Slate. 8 May 2003. 3 Oct. 2010. <http://www.slate.com / /id/2082741/>.