Skip to comments.Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception
Posted on 05/10/2003 10:29:40 AM PDT by sarcasm
This article was reported and written by Dan Barry, David Barstow, Jonathan D. Glater, Adam Liptak and Jacques Steinberg. Research support was provided by Alain Delaquérière and Carolyn Wilder.
A staff reporter for The New York Times committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months, an investigation by Times journalists has found. The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.
The reporter, Jayson Blair, 27, misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland, Texas and other states, when often he was far away, in New York. He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He stole material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.
And he used these techniques to write falsely about emotionally charged moments in recent history, from the deadly sniper attacks in suburban Washington to the anguish of families grieving for loved ones killed in Iraq.
In an inquiry focused on correcting the record and explaining how such fraud could have been sustained within the ranks of The New York Times, the Times journalists have so far uncovered new problems in at least 36 of the 73 articles Mr. Blair wrote since he started getting national reporting assignments late last October. In the final months the audacity of the deceptions grew by the week, suggesting the work of a troubled young man veering toward professional self-destruction.
Mr. Blair, who has resigned from the paper, was a reporter at The Times for nearly four years, and he was prolific. Spot checks of the more than 600 articles he wrote before October have found other apparent fabrications, and that inquiry continues. The Times is asking readers to report any additional falsehoods in Mr. Blair's work; the e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every newspaper, like every bank and every police department, trusts its employees to uphold central principles, and the inquiry found that Mr. Blair repeatedly violated the cardinal tenet of journalism, which is simply truth. His tools of deceit were a cellphone and a laptop computer which allowed him to blur his true whereabouts as well as round-the-clock access to databases of news articles from which he stole.
The Times inquiry also establishes that various editors and reporters expressed misgivings about Mr. Blair's reporting skills, maturity and behavior during his five-year journey from raw intern to reporter on national news events. Their warnings centered mostly on his struggle to make fewer errors in his articles.
His mistakes became so routine, his behavior so unprofessional, that by April 2002, Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor, dashed off a two-sentence e-mail message to newsroom administrators that read: ``We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.''
After taking a leave for personal problems and being sternly warned, both orally and in writing, that his job was in peril, Mr. Blair improved his performance. By last October, the newspaper's top two editors believing that Mr. Blair had turned his life and work around had guided him to the understaffed national desk, where he was assigned to help cover the Washington sniper case.
By the end of that month, public officials and colleagues were beginning to challenge his reporting. By November, the investigation has found, he was fabricating quotations and scenes, undetected. By March, he was lying in his articles and to his editors about being at a court hearing in Virginia, in a police chief's home in Maryland and in front of a soldier's home in West Virginia. By the end of April another newspaper was raising questions about plagiarism. And by the first of May, his career at The Times was over.
A few days later, Mr. Blair issued a statement that referred to ``personal problems'' and expressed contrition. But during several telephone conversations last week, he declined repeated requests to help the newspaper correct the record or comment on any aspect of his work. He did not respond to messages left on his cellphone, with his family and with his union representative on Friday afternoon.
The reporting for this article included more than 150 interviews with subjects of Mr. Blair's articles and people who worked with him; interviews with Times officials familiar with travel, telephone and other business records; an examination of other records including e-mail messages provided by colleagues trying to correct the record or shed light on Mr. Blair's activities; and a review of reports from competing news organizations.
The investigation suggests several reasons Mr. Blair's deceits went undetected for so long: a failure of communication among senior editors; few complaints from the subjects of his articles; his savviness and his ingenious ways of covering his tracks. Most of all, no one saw his carelessness as a sign that he was capable of systematic fraud.
Mr. Blair was just one of about 375 reporters at The Times; his tenure was brief. But the damage he has done to the newspaper and its employees will not completely fade with next week's editions, or next month's, or next year's.
``It's a huge black eye,'' said Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., chairman of The New York Times Company and publisher of the newspaper, whose family has owned a controlling interest in The Times for 107 years. ``It's an abrogation of the trust between the newspaper and its readers.''
For all the pain resonating through the Times newsroom, the hurt may be more acute in places like Bethesda, Md., where one of Mr. Blair's fabricated articles described American soldiers injured in combat. The puzzlement is deeper, too, in places like Marmet, W.Va., where a woman named Glenda Nelson learned that Mr. Blair had quoted her in a news article, even though she had never spoken to anyone from The Times.
``The New York Times,'' she said. ``You would expect more out of that.''
The Spree: A Pattern Of Deception
The sniper attacks in suburban Washington dominated the nation's newspapers last October. ``This was a flood the zone story,'' Mr. Roberts, the national editor, recalled, invoking the phrase that has come to embody the paper's aggressive approach to covering major news events under Mr. Raines, its executive editor.
Mr. Raines and Mr. Boyd, the managing editor, quickly increased the size of the team to eight reporters, Mr. Blair among them. ``This guy's hungry,'' Mr. Raines said last week, recalling why he and Mr. Boyd picked Mr. Blair.
Both editors said that the seeming improvement in Mr. Blair's accuracy last summer demonstrated that he was ready to help cover a complicated, high-profile assignment. But they did not tell Mr. Roberts or his deputies about the concerns that had been raised about Mr. Blair's reporting.
``That discussion did not happen,'' Mr. Raines said, adding that he had seen no need for such a discussion because Mr. Blair's performance had improved, and because ``we do not stigmatize people for seeking help.''
Instead, Mr. Boyd recommended Mr. Blair as a reporter who knew his way around Washington suburbs. ``He wasn't sent down to be the first lead writer or the second or third or fourth or fifth writer,'' Mr. Boyd said. ``He was managed and was not thrust into something over his head.''
But Mr. Blair received far less supervision than he had on Mr. Landman's staff, many editors agreed. He was sent into a confusing world of feuding law enforcement agencies, a job that would have tested the skills of the most seasoned reporter. Still, Mr. Blair seemed to throw himself into the fray of reporters fiercely jockeying for leaks and scoops.
``There was a general sense he wanted to impress us,'' recalled Nick Fox, the editor who supervised much of Mr. Blair's sniper coverage.
Impress he did. Just six days after his arrival in Maryland, Mr. Blair landed a front-page exclusive with startling details about the arrest of John Muhammad, one of the two sniper suspects. The article, based entirely on the accounts of five unnamed law enforcement sources, reported that the United States attorney for Maryland, under pressure from the White House, had forced investigators to end their interrogation of Mr. Muhammad perhaps just as he was ready to confess.
It was an important article, and plainly accurate in its central point: that local and federal authorities were feuding over custody of the sniper suspects. But in retrospect, interviews show, the article contained a serious flaw, as well as a factual error.
Two senior law enforcement officials who otherwise bitterly disagree on much of what happened that day are in agreement on this much: Mr. Muhammad was not, as Mr. Blair reported, ``explaining the roots of his anger'' when the interrogation was interrupted. Rather, they said, the discussion touched on minor matters, like arranging for a shower and meal.
The article drew immediate fire. Both the United States attorney, Thomas M. DiBiagio, and a senior Federal Bureau of Investigation official issued statements denying certain details. Similar concerns were raised with senior editors by several veteran reporters in The Times's Washington bureau who cover law enforcement.
Mr. Roberts and Mr. Fox said in interviews last week that the statements would have raised far more serious concerns in their minds had they been aware of Mr. Blair's history of inaccuracy. Both editors also said they had never asked Mr. Blair to identify his sources in the article.
``I can't imagine accepting unnamed sources from him as the basis of a story had we known what was going on,'' Mr. Fox said. ``If somebody had said, `Watch out for this guy,' I would have questioned everything that he did. I can't even imagine being comfortable with going with the story at all, if I had known that the metro editors flat out didn't trust him.''
Mr. Raines and Mr. Boyd, who knew more of Mr. Blair's history, also did not ask him to identify his sources. The two editors said that, given what they knew then, there was no need. There was no inkling, Mr. Raines said, that the newspaper was dealing with ``a pathological pattern of misrepresentation, fabricating and deceiving.''
Mr. Raines said he saw no reason at that point to alert Mr. Roberts to Mr. Blair's earlier troubles. Rather, in keeping with his practice of complimenting what he considered exemplary work, Mr. Raines sent Mr. Blair a note of praise for his ``great shoe-leather reporting.''
Mr. Blair was further rewarded when he was given responsibility for leading the coverage of the sniper case. It was a plum assignment, advancing him toward potentially joining the national staff.
But on Dec. 22, another article about the sniper case by Mr. Blair appeared on the front page. Citing unnamed law enforcement officials once again, his article explained why ``all the evidence'' pointed to Mr. Muhammad's teenage accomplice, Lee Malvo, as the triggerman. And once again his reporting drew strong criticism, this time from a prosecutor who called a news conference to denounce it.
``I don't think that anybody in the investigation is responsible for the leak, because so much of it was dead wrong,'' the prosecutor, Robert Horan Jr., the commonwealth attorney in Fairfax County, Va., said at the news conference.
Mr. Boyd was clearly concerned about Mr. Horan's accusations, colleagues recalled. He repeatedly pressed Mr. Roberts to reach Mr. Horan and have him specify his problems with Mr. Blair's article.
``I went to Jim and said, `Let's check this out thoroughly because Jayson has had problems,''' Mr. Boyd said. Mr. Roberts said that he did not recall being told of the problems.
Again, no editor at The Times pressed Mr. Blair to identify by name his sources on the story. But Mr. Roberts said he had had a more general discussion with Mr. Blair to determine whether his sources were in a position to know what he had reported.
After repeated efforts, Mr. Roberts reached Mr. Horan. ``It was kind of a Mexican standoff,'' Mr. Horan recalled. ``I was not going to tell him what was true and what was not true. I detected in him a real concern that they had published something incorrect.''
``I don't know today whether Blair just had a bad source,'' he continued. ``It was equally probable at the time that he was just sitting there writing fiction.''
Mr. Roberts, meanwhile, said that Mr. Horan complained only about leaks, and never raised the possibility that Mr. Blair was fabricating details.
In the end, Mr. Raines said last week, the paper handled the criticisms of both articles appropriately. ``I'm confident we went through the proper journalistic steps,'' he said.
It was not until January, Mr. Roberts recalled, that he was warned about Mr. Blair's record of inaccuracy and erratic behavior. He said Mr. Landman quietly told him that Mr. Blair was prone to error and needed to be watched. Mr. Roberts added that he did not pass the warning on to his deputies. ``It got socked in the back of my head,'' he said.
By then, however, the national editors had already formed their own assessments of Mr. Blair's work. They said they considered him a sloppy writer who was often difficult to track down and at times even elusive about his whereabouts.
Close scrutiny of his travel expenses would have revealed other signs that Mr. Blair was not where his editors thought he was, and, even more alarming, that he was perhaps concocting law enforcement sources. But at the time his expense records, when provided, were being quickly reviewed by an administrative assistant; editors did not examine them.
On an expense report filed in January, for example, he indicated that he had bought blankets at a Marshall's department store in Washington; the receipt showed that the purchase was made at a Marshall's in Brooklyn. He also reported a purchase at a Starbuck's in Washington; again, the receipt showed that it was in Brooklyn. On both days, he was supposedly writing articles from Washington.
Mr. Blair also reported that he dined with a law enforcement official at a Tutta Pasta restaurant in Washington on the day he wrote an article from there. As the receipt makes clear, this Tutta Pasta is in Brooklyn. Mr. Blair said that he dined with the same official at Penang, another New York City restaurant that Mr. Blair placed in Washington on his expense reports.
Reached this week, the official said that he had never dined with Mr. Blair, and in fact was in Florida with his wife on one of the dates.
According to cellphone records, computer logs and other records recently described by New York Times administrators, Mr. Blair had by this point developed a pattern of pretending to cover events in the Mid-Atlantic region when in fact he was spending most of his time in New York.
In e-mail messages to colleagues, for example, he conveyed the impression of a travel-weary national correspondent who spent far too much time in La Guardia Airport terminals. Conversely, colleagues marveled at his productivity, at his seemingly indefatigable constitution. ``Man, you really get around,'' one fellow reporter wrote Mr. Blair in an e-mail message.
Mr. Raines took note, too, especially after Mr. Blair's tale from Hunt Valley. By April, Mr. Raines recalled, senior editors were discussing whether Mr. Blair should be considered for a permanent slot on the national reporting staff.
``My feeling was, here was a guy who had been working hard and getting into the paper on significant stories,'' Mr. Raines said. The plan, he said, was for Mr. Roberts to give Mr. Blair a two- or three-month tryout in the Mid-Atlantic bureau to see if he could do the job.
Mr. Roberts said that he resisted the idea, and told Mr. Boyd he had misgivings about Mr. Blair. ``He works the way he lives - sloppily,'' he recalled telling Mr. Boyd, who said last week he had agreed that Mr. Blair was not the best candidate for the job.
But with his staff stretched thin to supply reporters for Iraqi war coverage and elsewhere, Mr. Roberts had little choice but to press Mr. Blair into duty on the home front.
After the Hunt Valley article in late March, Mr. Blair pulled details out of thin air in his coverage of one of the biggest stories to come from the war, the capture and rescue of Pfc. Jessica D. Lynch.
In an article on March 27 that carried a dateline from Palestine, W.Va., Mr. Blair wrote that Private Lynch's father, Gregory Lynch Sr., ``choked up as he stood on his porch here overlooking the tobacco fields and cattle pastures.'' The porch overlooks no such thing.
He also wrote that Private Lynch's family had a long history of military service; it does not, family members said. He wrote that their home was on a hilltop; it is in a valley. And he wrote that Ms. Lynch's brother was in the West Virginia National Guard; he is in the Army.
The article astonished the Lynch family, said Brandi Lynch, Jessica's sister. ``We were joking about the tobacco fields and the cattle.'' Asked why neither she nor anyone else in the family called to complain about the many errors, she said, ``We just figured it was going to be a one-time thing.''
It now appears that Mr. Blair may never have gone to West Virginia, from where he claimed to have filed five articles about the Lynch family. E-mail messages and cellphone records suggest that during much of that time he was in New York. Not a single member of the Lynch family remembers speaking to Mr. Blair.
Between the first coverage of the sniper attacks in late October and late April, Mr. Blair filed articles claiming to be from 20 cities in six states. Yet during those five months, he did not submit a single receipt for a hotel room, rental car or airplane ticket, officials at The Times said.
Mr. Blair did not have a company credit card - the reasons are unclear - and had been forced to rely on Mr. Roberts's credit card to pay bills from his first weeks on the sniper story. His own credit cards, he had told a Times administrator, were beyond their credit limit. The only expense he filed with regularity was for his cellphone, that indispensable tool of his dual existence.
``To have a national reporter who is working in a traveling capacity for the paper and not file expenses for those trips for a four-month period is certainly in hindsight something that should attract our attention,'' Mr. Boyd said. But the fact that it did not, he and others said, is an indication of just how thoroughly the newspaper relies on trust.
On April 29, toward the end of his remarkable run of deceit, Mr. Blair was summoned to the newsroom to answer accusations of plagiarism lodged by The San Antonio Express-News. The concerns centered on an article that he claimed to have written from Los Fresnos, Tex., about the anguish of a missing soldier's mother.
In a series of tense meetings over two days, Mr. Roberts repeatedly pressed Mr. Blair for evidence that he had indeed interviewed the mother. Sitting in Mr. Roberts's small office, the reporter produced pages of handwritten notes to allay his editor's increasing concern.
Mr. Roberts needed more - ``You've got to come clean with us,'' he said - and zeroed in on that house in Texas. He asked Mr. Blair to describe precisely what he had seen.
Mr. Blair did not hesitate. He told Mr. Roberts of the reddish roof on the white stucco house, of the red Jeep in the driveway, of the roses blooming in the yard. Mr. Roberts later inspected unpublished photographs of the mother's house, which matched Mr. Blair's descriptions in every detail.
It was not until Mr. Blair's deceptions were uncovered that Mr. Roberts learned how the reporter could have deceived him yet again: by gaining access to the newspaper's computerized photo archives.
What haunts Mr. Roberts now, he says, is one particular moment when editor and reporter were facing each other in a showdown over the core aim of their profession: truth.
``Look me in the eye and tell me you did what you say you did,'' Mr. Roberts demanded. Mr. Blair returned his gaze and said he had.
The Lessons: When Wrong, 'Get Right'
The New York Times continues as before. Every morning, stacks of The Times are piled at newsstands throughout the city; every morning, newspaper carriers toss plastic bags containing that day's issue onto the lawns of readers from Oregon to Maine. What remains unclear is how long those copies will carry the dust from the public collapse of a young journalist's career.
Mr. Blair is no longer welcome in the newsroom he so often seemed unable to leave. Many of his friends express anger at him for his betrayal, and at The Times for not heeding signs of his self-destructive nature. Others wonder what comes next for him; Thomas Kunkel, dean of the journalism program at the University of Maryland, gently suggested that the former student might return to earn that college degree.
But Mr. Blair harmed more than himself. Although the deceit of one Times reporter does not impugn the work of 375 others, experts and teachers of journalism say that The Times must repair the damage done to the public trust.
``To the best of my knowledge, there has never been anything like this at The New York Times,'' said Alex S. Jones, a former Times reporter and the co-author of ``The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times'' (Little Brown, 1999). He added: ``There has never been a systematic effort to lie and cheat as a reporter at The New York Times comparable to what Jayson Blair seems to have done.''
Mr. Jones suggested that the newspaper might conduct random checks of the veracity of news articles after publication. But Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, questioned how much a newspaper can guard against willful fraud by deceitful reporters.
``It's difficult to catch someone who is deliberately trying to deceive you,'' Mr. Rosenstiel said. ``There are risks if you create a system that is so suspicious of reporters in a newsroom that it can interfere with the relationship of creativity that you need in a newsroom - of the trust between reporters and editors.''
Still, in the midst of covering a succession of major news events, from serial killings and catastrophes to the outbreak of war, something clearly broke down in the Times newsroom. It appears to have been communication - the very purpose of the newspaper itself.
Some reporters and administrators did not tell editors about Mr. Blair's erratic behavior. Editors did not seek or heed the warnings of other editors about his reporting. Five years' worth of information about Mr. Blair was available in one building, yet no one put it together to determine whether he should be put under intense pressure and assigned to cover high-profile national events.
``Maybe this crystallizes a little that we can find better ways to build lines of communication across what is, to be fair, a massive newsroom,'' said Mr. Sulzberger, the publisher.
But Mr. Sulzberger emphasized that as The New York Times continues to examine how its employees and readers were betrayed, there will be no newsroom search for scapegoats. ``The person who did this is Jayson Blair,'' he said. ``Let's not begin to demonize our executives - either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher.''
Mr. Raines, who referred to the Blair episode as a ``terrible mistake,'' said that in addition to correcting the record so badly corrupted by Mr. Blair, he planned to assign a task force of newsroom employees to identify lessons for the newspaper. He repeatedly quoted a lesson he said he learned long ago from A.M. Rosenthal, a former executive editor.
``When you're wrong in this profession, there is only one thing to do,'' he said. ``And that is get right as fast as you can.''
For now, the atmosphere of a disliked relative's protracted wake pervades the newsroom. Employees accept the condolences of callers. They discuss what they might have done differently. They find comfort in gallows humor. And, of course, they talk endlessly about how Jayson could have done this.
Readers with information about other articles by Jayson Blair that may be false wholly or in part are asked to e-mail The Times: email@example.com.
This is a scathing indictment of standards and practices at the NYT. And they wonder why we hate them so for making up the news.
First CNN, now The Times. Who's next?
As long as your output is high, the managers are not going to question how you get your info.
"As Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz pointed out on his CNN show "Reliable Sources" Blair is (relatively) young, probably about 27 years old, and BLACK."
I will bet he isn't the only reporter who does that. I have repeatedly questioned the "unnamed sources" that the Times is so fond of using.
As I suspected, some unnamed sources are figments of the writer's imagination.
Right. Now send that guy to the editorial board.
..and this News...SOP for the TNY Times. :)
Raines was on PBS news last night SPINNING like he was Carville & Begala combined. Sunday they're susposed to EXPOSE all of the LIES they've accidentally printed and STOOD BEHIND over the 4 years of this AFFIRMATIVE ACTION reporter. Proof the PETER PRINCIPLE still applies. I'm looking for a lot of chatter on this subject next week. Should be fun.
Don't reporters either 1) have a corporate credit card to charge expenses on, or 2) get reimbursed for travel expenses? And in either case, don't they have to get travel authorizations signed for by their supervisor? I just find it hard to believe that it took so long for the Times to find out that he did not travel to the places he claimed to be reporting from. You would figure that their first clue would be the lack of expenses from these places.
Of course, affirmative action had NOTHING to do with it. 23-year-old white reporters without college degrees get to start their careers at the New York Times all the time. (/sarcasm)