The Occasional Muse
My humble opinion on current events
May 14, 2003
The Times, Jayson Blair,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.