|...Sundays story honestly detailed the startling breakdown in communication among Times editors about Blairs extensiveand well-chronicledhistory of problems with accuracy and sloppiness. The paper was unflinching in its description of how the Times failed to track Blairs expense reports and missed glaring warning signs along the waylike the time a national editor saw Blair in the newsroom hours after he had supposedly filed a story from West Virginia. Times metro editor Jonathan Landman was quoted as being particularly vocal about Blair; in April 2002 Landman, the Times story reports, sent a two-sentence e-mail message to newsroom administrators: We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.
But theres plenty that the Times report, which ran under the rubric correcting the record, didnt fully explore, namely how a troubled young reporter whose short career was rife with problems was able to advance so quickly. Internally, reporters had wondered for years whether Blair was given so many chancesand whether he was hired in the first placebecause he was a promising, if unpolished, black reporter on a staff that continues to be, like most newsrooms in the country, mostly white. The Times also didnt address an uncomfortable but unavoidable topic that has been broached with some of the papers top editors during the past week: by favoring Blair, did the Times end up reinforcing some of the worst suspicions about the pitfalls of affirmative action? And will there be fewer opportunities for young minority reporters in the future? We have, generally, a horribly undiverse staff, says one Times staffer. And so we hold up and promote the few black staffers we have. Thats a point other news outlets have made since Blair resigned. Executive editor Howell Raines, who declined repeated requests for an inter-view with NEWSWEEK, told NPR, when pressed about whether Blair was pushed along because of his race, No, I do not see it as illustrating that point. I see it as illustrating a tragedy for Jayson Blair. (Blair, whose voice mail at the Times was still active as of Saturday evening, did not respond to a message left there or on his cell phone; several sources at the Times say he is currently in a hospital setting dealing with personal problems.)
Blairs close mentoring relationship with Times managing editor Gerald Boyd, who is also black, was not explored in depth in the paper. Blair wrote Boyds biographical sketch in the Timess internal newsletter when Boyd was named managing editor. Blair was known to brag about his close personal relationships with both Boyd and Raines, and the young writer frequently took cigarette breaks with Boyd.
Questions about Rainess management stylehis penchant for giving preferential treatment to favored stars, his celebrated fondness for flooding the zone on big stories, severely stretching resourceswerent addressed at all. Indeed, more than one Times staffer pointed out that the papers national staff would not have been in need of the services of an untested young reporter with a spotty track record had a number of veterans not been pushed out by Raines last year.
Of course, plagiarism, and even outright fraud, can occur at any news organization, and certainly the lions share of the blame for this scandal should fall on Blair. As commentators have noted, the normal journalistic checks and balances are put in place with the assumption that everyonereporters, editors and readersshares an interest in getting to the truth. The per-son who did this is Jayson Blair, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said in Sundays story. Lets not begin to demonize our executives. As the Times seeks to come to grips with how this could have happened, there is bound to be a lot more soul-searching in the months ahead.
Given the chance, Macarena Hernandez might have done great things at the New York Times. With a gift for detail and musical prose, she was offered a job after working as a summer intern in 1998 and planned to take it right up until the day that August when her father, a construction worker, was killed by an 18-wheeler. Her mother needed her, and so Hernandez went home to Texas. With no journalism jobs in sight, she began teaching English to mostly poor Mexican-American kids at her old high school. She urged them to follow their dreams.
One of her fellow interns that summer, Jayson Blair, was also talented and ambitious, and quite a bit luckier. Despite some reprimands for sloppy reporting like missing the fact that a murder victim was not shot but strangled he rose fast at the Times, made friends, wooed mentors and eventually got sent to Washington to join the team covering the hunt for the Beltway sniper. There he brought glory to the paper with front-page scoops that left rivals shaking their heads in wonder and disbelief.
This spring, when he began writing about the families of soldiers who died fighting in Iraq, Blair and Hernandez crossed paths again. Now 28, she had found a job at the San Antonio Express-News; on April 18 the paper published her story about Juanita Anguiano, the mother of a missing soldier from Los Fresnos, Texas. Blair's article about Anguiano landed on the front page of the Times eight days later. Both were moving, vivid portraits of a mother's love and loss. But only one was original. "He stole her story," says Express-News editor Robert Rivard, who wrote to Howell Raines, executive editor of the New York Times, asking him to look into the matter.
Which is how it came to pass that Raines returned early from his honeymoon, Blair resigned, and the country's most prestigious newspaper found itself answering ever sharper questions about just who Jayson Blair was, how much of the material in his 700 or so Times stories over the past five years was made up and what the paper of record was going to do to correct that record. As soon as national editor Jim Roberts began calling sources in some of Blair's pieces, says Raines, "in every case ... there was an apparent falsification."
In the belief that "the proper response to bad journalism is to do good journalism," Raines assigned three editors and five reporters to re-report Blair's suspicious stories and comb through his computer files and expense accounts. The result was a 7,200-word story on last Sunday morning's front page that autopsied what it called a "low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper." According to the Times's investigation, Blair "fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He stole material from other newspapers and wire services." He described the houses of grieving parents he never visited, the nightmares of wounded soldiers who deny discussing them, the tears of people who seldom cry. "It's a huge black eye," said publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., whose family has controlled the paper since 1896.
The revelations gave the Times a hard shove into the company of the nation's other great but occasionally humbled papers: the Boston Globe, whose columnists Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith resigned in 1998 after charges of serial plagiarism; the Wall Street Journal, whose financial columnist R. Foster Winans was convicted on 59 counts of conspiracy and fraud in 1985 for using his articles to make money in the stock market; and the Washington Post, which had to return the 1981 Pulitzer Prize won by reporter Janet Cooke for the haunting story of Jimmy, the 8-year-old heroin addict who turned out to be nothing more than a ghost from her typewriter.
Like every other news organization, the Times has had its share of embarrassments, but it also has a custom of obsessively addressing them in a corrections section on page 2 that is so meticulous about the smallest mistakes that it suggests the paper would never make any big ones. Any reporter with a 5% or 6% correction rate, says Raines, comes under scrutiny; the Times found 36 errors in the 73 articles Blair wrote between October and the end of April. Some of the editors who suspected his methods were reluctant to condemn him. Others neglected to share their concerns, or their warnings just got lost.
Despite accuracy issues from his earliest days, Blair was promoted in 2001 to full staff reporter, only to have his correction rate leap over the eight months following 9/11. (He claimed that a cousin died in the attacks; tracked down last week by the Times, the family denied that Blair was related.) According to metro editor Jonathan Landman's year-end summation, Blair made three times as many mistakes as the next-highest offender. "It alarmed everyone," says Raines, "and it should have."
The following April, the Times article reveals, Landman e-mailed other editors, saying "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now." Officially warned that he could be fired, Blair took a brief leave of absence; when he returned, he was watched more closely, and his correction rate improved dramatically enough to win him deployment on the sniper case. "Jayson had problems that were monitored aggressively," Raines says, "and in our view we tried to manage what problems we had. You don't stigmatize someone and tell them they can't do journalism or get a chance to show they can do stories of consequence."
From the May. 19, 2003 issue of TIME
Blair knew Washington from his days at the University of Maryland and a stint working there for the Boston Globe, so he joined the seven other Times reporters on the story. "Lots of people were told to break news, but he wasn't one of them," says one Times source. "He was supposed to baby-sit the police headquarters and go to the press conferences, not break news." But that changed after Blair caught fire: newsrooms in New York City and Washington fizzed each time he tossed a new scoop on the table the grape stem found at a murder scene with suspect Lee Boyd Malvo's DNA on it, his supposed videotaped confession. Some of Blair's colleagues argue that the competitive passion that has driven some of the paper's recent triumphs, particularly its coverage of 9/11, may also have left the impression on an impressionable reporter that getting beat is worse than getting it wrong. "The story gets handed to anybody who gets hot," says one. "There's no talk about 'Make sure it's fair, make sure it's right.'" But the idea that competitive pressures somehow created Blair's deceptions is a charge Raines flatly rejects: "To suggest that this pathology seems to be a response to the stress of journalism is unfair to the 375 reporters and editors who work under the exact same circumstances and don't lie."
Whether or not this is a scandal born of ambition, it is also being cast as a story about race. Publications like the Times work hard to find and keep the best black reporters. That sometimes involves hiring minority reporters whose experience was "significantly below what we'd normally require because we wanted a lot of minority reporters," says one Times senior manager, who notes that a special training program helps bring young reporters up to speed. As Blair's record came to light, some colleagues concluded that he got second chances that others might not have. But others deny that race ensured Blair's rise or delayed his fall. He is variously described as charming and cunning, ambitious and lazy. "He was a picture of affability; he had a big hello for everyone. He was a hell of a fun, nice guy," says one colleague. "Most people rooted for him, most people were thrilled by his success, and now people are heartbroken."
Journalism may worship truth, but it is built on trust, and honest editors will admit, as Raines has, that a determined and creative liar is hard to catch. The Times will remember this catastrophe for a long time but will, in all likelihood, not suffer much for it. Blair's suffering, however, may have just begun. Upon resigning, he told the Associated Press, "I have been struggling with recurring personal issues, which have caused me great pain. I am now seeking appropriate counseling."