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The meaning of Jayson Blair

By Kimberley Jane Wilson
web posted May 19, 2003

Jayson BlairI've just spent about five hours reading articles by and about Jayson Blair. He is, in case you've managed to avoid the story, the 27-year old New York Times reporter who resigned on May 1 after getting caught at plagiarism. In five years he wrote over 600 stories for the paper and it now looks like a good deal of what he wrote was either incorrect, brazen lies, or plagiarism. Because he's young and because Jayson Blair is black, his story has been eagerly seized upon by people who are anti-Affirmative Action and those who feel that young reporters should never be given jobs at major papers straight out of college. The story is also being relished by people who simply hate the New York Times.

So much has been said and will be said about Jayson Blair that the most obvious fact has gotten lost in the shuffle: This kid was in way over his head.

In that situation most people sink, swim or grab onto something. Jayson Blair chose to grab onto fantasy and other people's work. Up until the end of this April no-one important at the Times seemed to notice.

Blair was a student at the University of Maryland (he did not graduate, folks at the Times only assumed that he had) when, after a summer internship, he landed the apprentice reporter job at the New York Times. Things apparently started going wrong almost immediately. Although he was a talented writer and charmed many of his colleagues Blair had trouble with accuracy. Mostly, his mistakes involved small time stuff. He'd would misspell names and get numbers wrong. Young and not so young journalists make these kinds of mistakes all the time but Blair's error rate landed him in the papers corrections column 50 times in 3 ½ years.

According to a long and bitter May 11 New York Times story Blair had other difficulties as well. He overspent his expense account, used company cars more than was usual and racked up a mass of parking tickets which were billed to the paper. In short, it appears that young man wasn't reading any books on how to succeed at work.

In 2001 Jayson Blair was promoted, over the objections of metropolitan editor, Jonathan Landman, to the position of staff reporter. Things got worse. He made five major errors in a story on an October 2001 benefit concert for September 11 victims. This was simply too much and he received a stern rebuke from his bosses. Incredibly, instead of being sent to a department where he'd be less visible and gain some time to learn his craft Blair ended up working on the biggest story of 2002: the Washington DC sniper case. He was one of several New York Times reporters assigned to the case but he outshone them all by coming up with marvelous scoops. The only trouble was, Washington officials who were involved in the sniper case insisted that Blair's stories were not true.

By the time the frayed fabric of Jayson Blair's career finally unraveled he appears to have plagiarized whole sections of a San Antonio Express-News story that ironically, was written by a Hispanic reporter who had once been a New York Times summer intern herself. This was too much for even his strongest supportes. Blair's dream job was over.

There's one more disturbing aspect this story and it's something that many of us may not want to discuss out loud. The paper admits that it hired Jayson Blair as part of a diversity program. His bosses presumably meant well but if I were an employee in the New York Times newsroom I'd be outraged right now.

Did the paper's editors think so little of black journalistic talent that they were willing to put up with someone who clearly wasn't ready to be there just because of his skin color? What an insult to the entire black staff of the Times and to all the brilliant minority journalism students who dream of making it to the paper.

Jayson Blair's story is not merely a sad tale about good intentions gone awry or the plight of one young man. It's a serious blot on the New York Times and coming so soon after CNN's admission that it deliberately kept quiet about atrocities in Iraq it casts doubt on American journalism.

The public has the right to expect that the news we read and watch is true. Thoughtful people have commented that the news industry has been drifting towards the land of entertainment for years now. In this sensationalistic environment it's no wonder that Jayson Blair happened. I only wonder how many more reporters out there are just like him.

(c) 2003 Kimberley Jane Wilson

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