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.
Off the Record
On the evening of April 28, Jim Roberts, the national editor for The New York Times, called his reporter, Jayson Blair. Questions, he said he told Mr. Blair, had arisen about an April 26 story Mr. Blair had written about Juanita Anguiano, the mother of a 24-year-old Army mechanic whod gone off to Iraq and was then the last American soldier declared missing in action. A reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, Macarena Hernandeza former Times internhad called the paper that day in distress, alerting The Times to similarities between Mr. Blairs story and hers, also about Ms. Anguiano, that ran on April 18.
Mr. Blair was in Fairfax, Va., Mr. Roberts said, but now he wanted to meet with him in New York.
"I had been told he was covering a hearing [on the Washington, D.C., sniper case] in Fairfax, Va.," Mr. Roberts said. "Now, Im not certain of anything."
Jayson Blair was a 27-year-old reporter who, according to newsroom sources, was well-liked in the newsroom of The Times. He first joined as an intern in 1998, was hired as an intermediate reporter in 1999, and became a full reporter in 2001. As it turned out, Mr. Blair hadnt traveled to Texas to interview Ms. Anguiano about her son. He lifted whole swaths, including descriptions and quotations, from the work of Ms. Hernandez, whom he knew and once worked with. Confronted with this evidence, Mr. Blair resigned his post on Thursday, May 1.
In a letter Mr. Blair wrote to Times executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd, Mr. Blair apologized for his "lapse in journalistic integrity."
"This is a time in my life that I have been struggling with recurring personal issues, which have caused me great pain," Mr. Blair wrote. "I am now seeking appropriate counseling. Journalism and The New York Times have been very good to me and I regret what I have done.
"I am deeply sorry," Mr. Blair concluded.
When reached by Off the Record, Mr. Blair declined to comment. But speaking to Off the Record on May 5, Mr. Raines accepted Mr. Blairs mea culpa.
"The last thing we want to do is demonize Jayson Blair," Mr. Raines said. "He wrote a public letter apologizing for a journalistic lapse in integrity. He apologized for it. I can accept that. But my concern is for our readers and our integrity."
For Mr. Raines and The Times, the episode began on Tuesday, April 22. Since the start of the war in Iraq, Mr. Roberts said, The Times had maintained a database, tracking the dead and missing, producing yearbook-esque eulogies about those who had died. Mr. Roberts said hed heard from a researcher working on the database that there were only two soldiers left whod been deemed M.I.A.s. When another set of remains was identified, that left oneEdward Anguiano. Mr. Roberts thought it would be a good idea to profile the family of the last missing soldier, and Mr. Blair got the assignment. (Mr. Anguianos remains were later found.)
Mr. Blair posted an e-mail saying he was "off to San Antonio," Mr. Roberts said, and turned in his copy on the afternoon of Thursday, April 24. Mr. Roberts said he liked what he saw, but that the Times desk sent Mr. Blair back for more phone reporting. The story ran in The Times two days later, in its April 26 edition. The following Monday, Mr. Roberts said he was called into a meeting with Mr. Boyd.
In the meeting, Mr. Boydjoined by Sheila Rule, a senior manager in charge of reporter recruiting, and Bill Schmidt, The Times associate managing editortold Mr. Roberts there was a problem. After looking over both pieces, Mr. Roberts agreed and called Mr. Blair. He asked him if hed ever seen the San Antonio story. Mr. Blair said no. According to Mr. Roberts, he told Mr. Blair to return to New York with his notes so they could meet first thing on Tuesday morning.
In the meeting that followed on April 29, Mr. Roberts said that Mr. Blair maintained his innocence, saying hed traveled to Texas and had met with Ms. Anguiano. Mr. Blair also said hed mixed up his notes with copies of other stories that hed downloaded onto his laptop, Mr. Roberts said.
Following the public disclosure in the Washington City Paper and The Washington Post of a note sent to both Mr. Boyd and Mr. Raines by Express-News editor Robert Rivard, Mr. Boyd met with Mr. Blair the following day, Wednesday, April 30, for five minutes. Mr. Boyd said he urged Mr. Blair to tell them everything that happened. Mr. Roberts said he told Mr. Boyd and others: "I just dont have any confidence he was ever there."
Midway through Wednesday, April 30, Mr. Blair, along with representation from the Newspaper Guild, met with Mr. Schmidt and members of The Times legal staff. In a session that lasted into the early evening, Mr. Schmidt said that Mr. Blair again gave his account of what had occurred. The Times, Mr. Schmidt said, asked that Mr. Blair provide receipts and documents of his travel. The meeting would be continued the following day.
The next morning, however, according to Mr. Boyd and Mr. Schmidt, Mr. Blair refused to appear. The Guild told Mr. Schmidt that Mr. Blair wouldnt furnish proof of his reporting, and that hed chosen to resign. The Times made the announcement the following day in an editors note and in a story about the incident by Times reporter Jacques Steinberg. Mr. Steinberg is now one of the reporters investigating Mr. Blairs past work.
Since his abrupt departure, Mr. Blair has been criticized by those outside and inside The Times who say the paper should have seen problems coming. Insiders say that Mr. Blair, while extremely amiable, often displayed erratic behavior. (In a report published in the Washington City Paper, Mr. Raines said that Mr. Blair had previously enrolled in a company program that provides counseling for employees with personal problems). Critics were quick to note that The Times had published the dozens of corrections regarding Mr. Blairs work since he began writing as an intern in 1998.
Speaking to Off the Record, Mr. Raines addressed Mr. Blairs errors. He acknowledged that following his jump to metro reporter from his apprenticeship in 1999 and 2000, Mr. Blair struggled to get things right. Indeed, from Sept. 11 to early 2002, he said Mr. Blair wrote 70 stories, with eleven corrections. But Mr. Raines said Mr. Blair improved (two corrections in 100 stories) after receiving a stern warning in April 2002 from metro editor Jonathan Landman and Nancy Sharkey, assistant to the managing editor.
Mr. Landman said he had seen talent in Mr. Blair, but had warned him several times about the mistakes. After the reprimand, there were only two mistakes in over a hundred stories.
"We told him to go real slow," Mr. Landman said. "I said, I dont care if you just do a brief a weekthe point is to get things accurate and in context."
Mr. Landman added that "the guy was a promising young reporter. You wanted to make it work."
Following a stint in metro, during which Mr. Boyd said the paper kept close watch on his work, The Times moved Mr. Blair in summer 2002 to an assignment in sports, where, Mr. Boyd said, "it was thought that based on his performance, he deserved a shot to see what he could do."
However, during the Washington, D.C., sniper crisis, Mr. Raines dispatched eight reportersincluding Mr. Blairto cover the story. Mr. Raines said he thought Mr. Blair was a good choice, since hed grown up in the area and went to school at the University of Maryland. As the clamor of the sniper arrests ended and the court cases began, Mr. Roberts said, "We felt it was wise to keep him on the story."
But The Times is now investigating Mr. Blairs reporting in at least two sniper-case stories from October 2002 to January 2003. On Oct. 30, Mr. Blair reported that U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio had interrupted the interrogation of the sniper suspect John Muhammad at the behest of the White House, a report that was later disputed by Mr. DiBiagio. In a piece on Dec. 22, he wrote that DNA evidence ruled out Mr. Muhammad as the primary shooter. Regarding the latter assertion, Fairfax County Commonwealths Attorney Robert Horan called a press conference to dispute The Times story. But Mr. Roberts told Off the Record that in his conversation with Mr. Horan, the prosecutor never made clear what his problems with the story were. (In a December piece about how Kent State University counted football attendance, Mr. Blair quoted an athletic-department official who later said he never spoke to Mr. Blair.)
As The Times begins the process of re-reporting Mr. Blairs stories, the paper has also taken shots for letting a young reporter rise too far, too fast. The conversation has also considered Mr. Blairs race (he is African-American). On May 4 on his CNN program Reliable Sources, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz asked: "Look, this was a promising young black reporter. I wonder if a middle-aged hack would have gotten away with 50 mistakes and still be at that job."
Asked if he wanted to respond to Mr. Kurtzs assertion, Mr. Raines said: "No." But then he added that The Times had a commitment to "equal treatment of all our employees."
"If someone wants to have some unbecoming speculation on their television show, thats their prerogative," Mr. Raines said. "We have a diverse staff, and we manage them in a very evenhanded way."
Asked about Mr. Blairs youth, Mr. Raines said the paper had "lots" of correspondents in their 20s, and called upon his own and his predecessors history at the paper.
"Some people come here in their 20s," Mr. Raines said. "Some in their 30s. I came to The Times at the age of 34. [Former executive editor] Joe Lelyveld came at the age of 25. We dont discriminate against people because of their youth or their being old."
Sources within The Times have viewed the episode with a combination of anger and disappointmentanger over one of their own betraying a public trust, disappointment over someone who decided to implode their career.
"It makes you very, very sad," Mr. Landman said.
Yeah, but they can't pay him...
Obviously a democrat. Next he'll be running for office.
No one--he didn't file any.
To liberals, if character doesn't matter, give Slick fifteen minutes with your daughter in an empty room.
Yeah, but they can't pay him...
They don't have to pay him, he doesn't have any expenses.