By Albert Samaha
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Anyone who has worked in a newsroom has met someone like Jayson Blair, the 27-year-old former New York Times reporter whose stunning display of fabrication and plagiarism is the media scandal du jour. "He was the schmoozer of all schmoozers," says one insider. "He kissed the right ass," says another. "He loved to act like he knew everybody." Until Blair resigned on May 1, admitting plagiarism and citing "personal issues," Times executive editor Howell Raines and his deputy Gerald Boyd seemed to think he could do no wrong.
On May 11, the Times published an extensive account of Blair's career on 43rd Street and a catalog of problems that have been discovered with his reporting. These range from minor factual errors, to claims of having interviewed people in person whom he only interviewed by phone, to quotes and details lifted often verbatim from other newspapers, to quotes and details invented wholesale. According to the Times, "The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper."
Ironically, the new pariah was once a Times darling. Blair's buddies ranged from support staff (he recently dated a clerk on the photo desk) to reporters like David Carr and Charlie LeDuff. In 2001, Blair nominated then deputy managing editor Boyd for a Journalist of the Year Award conferred by the National Association for Black Journalists. Boyd got the prize, and also a subsequent promotion to managing editor, whereupon Blair wrote his bio for the Times in-house newsletter. Even Raines enjoyed stopping by Blair's desk to talk basketball.
Not everyone was dazzled by Blair's personality. After watching the young African American rise from the Metro desk to coveted national assignments, another reporter wondered, "What am I doing wrong? What do I have to do to get that kind of opportunity?" After Blair resigned, many Times staffers suspected that management had given the reporter preferential treatment because of his racewhich Boyd denies.
One Times veteran suggests Blair received excess favor not so much because he was black, but because he was green. According to this source, Blair is typical of the latest crop of reporters anointed by the Raines administration. "They're young, they're energetic, they say the right things, they kiss assbut they don't have the skills to do the jobs they're handed," says the source. "This kind of favoritism is repulsive to people who have been there awhile."
Other insiders say the Blair case is symptomatic of a deeper issue: The Times newsroom does not operate as a meritocracy. Instead, sources say, Raines and Boyd pick their favorites for whatever reasons and become so invested in showcasing these reporters that they turn a blind eye to their flaws, which are said to range variously from inexperience and laziness to intellectual dishonesty and a high volume of factual errors.
Errors were a recurring theme for Blair. From 1998 to 2000, during his early years as a Times intern, apprentice, and intermediate reporter, he was repeatedly admonished for the number of corrections he generated, the Times reported. After the Times hired Blair as a full-time reporter in January 2001, Metro editor Jonathan Landman wrote him two critical evaluations, emphasizing the importance of accuracy. Also in January 2002, Landman warned Boyd and a news administrator about "big trouble" involving Blair. In April 2002, Landman e-mailed newsroom administrators the following message: "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now."
Raines and Boyd consistently overlooked Landman's warnings. In the Times' account, they suggest Blair was promoted on the merits of his work, not based on race, age, or the schmooze factor. Boyd, who headed the committee that endorsed making Blair a full-time reporter in 2001, told the Times, "He was a young, promising reporter who had done a job that warranted promotion."
Boyd's faith in Blair seemed to deepen after the reporter took several weeks off last spring to get counseling for his personal problems. When Blair returned, he was first assigned to the Metro desk, then to sports. Then in October 2002, Raines and Boyd put Blair on the D.C. sniper story because Raines felt, as he told the Times, "This guy's hungry." But they did not inform national editor Jim Roberts of Blair's past record or of Landman's concerns, because they felt his performance had improved. Even when Blair's sniper stories generated complaints, Raines and Boyd saw no need to scrutinize his sources or tell Roberts of his earlier transgressions. The final push came this spring when Raines suggested giving Blair a permanent job on the national staff. Blair "had been working hard and getting into the paper on significant stories," Raines told the Times.
How quickly things change. In April, Blair published a story for which he claimed to have traveled to Texas to interview the mother of a missing soldier. An editor came forward to accuse him of lifting quotes from the San Antonio Express-News. When Timeseditors quizzed him, Blair stuck to his story, then resigned. He apologized to the Times for his "lapse in journalistic integrity," and told the Associated Press, "I have been struggling with recurring personal issues." Newsweek reported on Sunday that Blair is now in a hospital. He has not responded to repeated media requests for comment.
After the news of Blair's resignation broke, investigative stories began appearing in other papers. Last week, as the Times prepared to publish its own investigation, the staff was informed that Raines and Boyd would not see the story before it went to print. Even so, Times staffers wondered if any blame would be assigned to the institution and its executives. Staffers eagerly opened a memo from Raines, only to read that the former picture editor had a new assignment. On March 8, Boyd assured a small group of staff that "no heads would roll." Says one insider, "It's disappointing to see Gerald refusing to take responsibility. I think Gerald was blinded by this guy."
In the Times' account, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. explained there will be no search for scapegoats. "The person who did this is Jayson Blair," he said. "Let's not begin to demonize our executiveseither the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher."
A spokesperson said the Times would have no further comment. Yet the May 11 report blames the newspaper only in the most general way, in what it dubs a communications breakdown among reporters and editors. According to the company line, institutions built on trust and integrity cannot be expected to ferret out a pathological liar.
Publicly, Raines and Boyd have been absolved. But internally, says one source, some feel that this "tragedy is the absolute failure of management." The Times reported that management will now conduct an internal study of "the newsroom's processes for training, assignment and accountability." But will self-examination produce diagnosis and treatmentor another episode of willful blindness?