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Louis Untermeyer

The Occasional Muse
My humble opinion on current events

May 14,  2003

The Times, Jayson Blair, and Diversity   

Former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair did some very, very bad things. He resigned, no doubt at The Times' strong suggestion, after being caught plagiarizing an article from a San Antonio newspaper. But his wrongdoings stretched back for years before that, with the full knowledge of senior editors, who responded by promoting him.

What exactly did Blair do? I'll let The Times describe it. Here are the first three paragraphs of the fascinating account published May 11:

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 lifted 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.

Blair is, to use a William Safire phrase describing Hillary Clinton, a congenital liar. And The Times knew about it long before he was forced to resign. For example, in April 2002, metropolitan editor Jonathan Landman wrote an email, warning administrations that "we have to stop Jayson from writing for The Times. Right now." Blair worked for The Times more than a year afterward.

How could this happen? Again, I'll let The Times answer that.

The investigation suggests several reason 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 systemic fraud.

This explanation, to put it mildly, is weak. His "deceits" did not go undetected. Blair was assigned to the police bureau in June 1999, where he wrote numerous articles and worked long hours. But a Times editor, Jerry Gray, "repeatedly warned him that he was too sloppy - in his reporting and in his appearance."

The Times promoted this sloppy reporter from intern to intermediate reporter in November 1999, where he was "energetic and willing to work long hours. He was also a study in carelessness." 

In the fall of 2000, then executive editor Joseph Lelyveld sent the message that too many mistakes were finding their way into the Times. At the same time,

Mr. Blair continued to make mistakes, requiring more corrections, more explanations, more lectures about the importance of accuracy. Many newsroom colleagues say he also did brazen things, including delighting in showing around copies of confidential Times documents, running up company expenses from a bar around the corner, and taking company cars for extended periods, racking up parking tickets.

In January 2001, the Times promoted this sloppy liar and thief to full-time reporter. Landman was against the promotion but did not protest, because "the publisher and the executive editor, he said, had made clear the company's commitment to diversity." 

Blair is black.

Blair's performance worsened after his promotion. In fact, "a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, he wrote an article laden with errors." But The Times story then points out that "when considered over all, Mr. Blair's corrections rate at The Times was within acceptable limits." Blair sent an email to Mr. Landman in which he issued a grudging apology.

But in January 2002, Landman "sent Mr. Blair a sharply worded evaluation... noting that his correction rate was "extraordinarily high by the standards of the paper." Mr. Landman then forwarded copies of the evaluation to [then deputy managing editor] Mr. Boyd and William F. Schmidt, associate managing editor for news administration." Landman included a note that read, "There's big trouble I want you both to be aware of."

After a letter of reprimand and leave of absence, Blair's work supposedly improved, and this sloppy liar, thief, and "big trouble" was transferred to the national desk, a very plum assignment. However, neither Boyd nor managing editor Howell Raines told the national desk editors about Blair's troubled record, because, according to Raines "we do not stigmatize people for seeking help."

Stigmatize. That's an interesting word choice, don't you think? You'd think a sloppy liar and thief would deserve some stigmatization.

But I digress. Blair was assigned the biggest story since 9/11, the sniper story, and promptly wrote more fiction, some of which which drew complaints from a United States attorney and the FBI. But because Blair's immediate editor, Jim Roberts, was not aware of Blair's history, they handled the matter much differently than they would have otherwise, like demand that Blair reveal his sources. Raines and Boyd did know of Blair's lying and they did not press the thief for his sources, either. They said there was no need. In fact, Raines still did not warn Roberts of Blair's past, and instead praised Blair for his "great shoe-leather reporting."

Roberts was not warned of Blair's interest in short fiction until January 2003, though by that point other editors on the national desk considered Blair a sloppy writer. Blair continued to file false expense reports and claimed to be covering events in the mid-Atlantic region while staying in New York.

This sterling record prompted Raines to consider Blair for another promotion, a coveted 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," Raines said. Though Roberts resisted the move, Blair got the job.

And continued to write fiction and file false expense reports. In fact, from late October 2002 to late April 2003, "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 tickets." Boyd conceded that "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."

No kidding.

It's interesting what finally forced The Times to deal with Blair. Another newspaper, The San Antonio Express-News, accused Blair of plagiarizing one of their stories. It wasn't until Blair and The Times were caught by another paper that they finally did what they should have done years ago - fire Blair. One can reasonably assume that if it were not for the San Antonio paper, Blair would still be working for The Times.

So how could this happen at the most prestigious and influential paper in the world? According to the article, it was all a failure to communicate:

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 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 it 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 demonize our executives - either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher."

I love that last quote. Yes, it's true, Blair was the sloppy liar and thief and "big trouble," but editors like Raines and Boyd did their part by allowing Blair to commit his journalistic crimes. They excused him, promoted him, and concealed his true behavior from other editors. Their actions are inexcusable, for whatever reason, and they should go, though that doesn't look likely.

So why did the communications break down? Unfortunately, the only reason that makes any sense is race. The article even admits as much, although I doubt it intended to. "Mr. Blair's Times supervisors and Maryland professors emphasize that he earned an internship at The Times because of glowing recommendations and a remarkable work history, not because he is black. The Times offered him a slot in an internship program that was then being used in large part to help the paper diversify its newsroom."

I think that clinches it. Blair was hired because of his skin color. He was treated with kid gloves and given second chance after second chance, in part, because he is black. I say "in part" because another explanation is plausible. Raines and Boyd put their full support behind this kid, so they had every reason to make sure he succeeded. I think they supported him because of his skin color. Because of their commitment to that great Leftist god "diversity." Raines himself has admitted that diversity is more important than excellence - and cited Jayson Blair to prove his point.

The true tragedy is that this sorry episode could potentially damage the reputation of the thousands of excellent, hard-working, honest minority reporters all over the country. Were they hired because they were truly the best, or because of skin tone? This perception already plagues minorities on college campuses - now The Times has done its part by bringing it into the newsroom.

By placing excellence, honesty, and hard work behind the accident of birth, The Times has only itself to blame.

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