AJR  Features
From AJR,   June 2003

All About The Retrospect   

Jayson Blair charmed and dazzled the right people on his rapid rise from cocky college student to New York Times national reporter. But he left plenty of clues about the serious problems that lay beneath the surface.

By Jill Rosen
Jill Rosen is AJR's assistant managing editor     

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   » The Jayson Blair Affair

He'd come in early and stay late.

First in, last out--that's the kind of thing people remember about disgraced reporter Jayson Blair. On fire. Driven. Larger than life. So much talent, so much passion, so much energy. It was crazy, they say, the amount of energy this kid had. And natural inquisitiveness, too, the kind of thing you just can't teach. He got it. Oh, and the charm--boy did he ever have that. Full-blown charisma. "Wow," people would actually say, "Who is this guy?"

Not a bad question, in retrospect. And with Jayson Blair, it's all about the retrospect. Because on April 29, all of those perceptions started coming undone, as reports surfaced that the 27-year-old New York Times prodigy had taken a story from a Texas newspaper, rearranged it some, then handed it in to run on the Times' front page with his byline and a Los Fresnos dateline. A few days later, it was clear that this wasn't an anomaly--Blair had habitually filed stories from places he never visited, quoted people he never talked to, described details he never saw.

One by one, almost daily for weeks, stories of Blair's deceptions broke, exposing ethical lapse after lapse, apparent lie after lie. Surprised and disappointed members of the Jayson Blair fan club--and there were many--wondered what had happened to their brilliant reporter, that endless energy, that daunting drive. But others who had known an entirely different Jayson Blair were neither surprised, nor all that disappointed. The only thing disappointing to them was that Blair wasn't revealed sooner. Because even as early as his college days, where some had seen charm, others saw a smooth talker keenly aware of whom he needed to charm, an aggressive careerist more than willing to step on those in his way. Where others saw energy, they saw a reporter who didn't know his own limits--taking on too much, cutting dangerous corners.

At the New York Times, "he was in an environment he really wasn't ready for," says Corey Dade, a Boston Globe City Hall reporter who worked with Blair at his start, at the University of Maryland's student newspaper, the Diamondback. "He wasn't ready for that big show.... It's the biggest stage and the most intense stage lights there are in this business. And light that intense can do one of two things: It elevates, or it exposes."

Olive Reid remembers walking by Associate Dean Chris Callahan's office, looking in and "seeing this little guy with a shit-eating grin schmoozing Callahan--I right away thought, 'Be on guard,' " the assistant dean says, laughing. "But he was smart and knew there were people he knew he had to get to know."

Reid and Callahan were just two of the many faculty and staff members at Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism whom Blair won over--and quickly. Though Blair transferred to Maryland as a sophomore from Liberty University, a small Christian school in Lynchburg, Virginia, he didn't pause to test the waters--hesitation be damned, he dove right in. "As soon as he got here it was very clear, very quickly, he was going to be a player," Callahan says. "This kid had it. This kid had the calling."

Professor Carl Sessions Stepp didn't have Blair in class, but that was hardly a prerequisite for knowing him. Everyone knew him. Blair made that his business, stopping by to chat up the powers-that-be, always with the "right" things to say. "You felt like you knew him," Stepp says. "Some people have the magic touch when it comes to ingratiating themselves, making friends, making sources--Jayson was one of those guys. He always wanted to play--he came to play every day."

Blair earned more journalism school admirers with his hustle at the student newspaper. Akweli Parker, now a business writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, was managing editor of the Diamondback when Blair joined the staff. "He burst on the scene--everyone was in awe with his energy.... He was spewing out stories like you wouldn't believe."

The reporting life seemed to complement Blair's nature, says Reid, adding, "He can't be around information and not try to suck it in." A master of the art of the schmooze, Blair developed a reputation for knowing campus dirt before anyone else. He seemingly had a piece of all of the big stories, cutting classes without blinking to cover them. His well-used nickname: The Ubiquitous Jayson Blair.

As his reputation grew, Blair, who would often chat with Reid in the journalism building offices into the night, once asked to borrow her phone to check his messages. He switched the phone to speaker and dialed into his voicemail. The first message was a campus official giving him a head's up on something. The next call, same thing, a university bigwig with news about a student who had died in the dorms. And last up, the campus police, also with the dead student tip. "They called him!" Reid marvels. "I told him, 'My God, you're amazing. You've cultivated campus sources to the point that they call you!' He just looked at me and grinned."

However, as impressive as Blair's hustle seemed, his mistakes and sloppy reporting troubled his Diamondback colleagues. Though appreciative of Blair's undeniable gusto for bylines--he'd want to file two, even three stories a day--some in the newsroom worried that he was charging ahead somewhat blindly with stories and taking on too much, in general. "It dawned on us gradually that he was going a little too fast for his own good," Parker says, adding that Blair exceeded the number of corrections Diamondback reporters were allowed. "Apparently, even then, his quality control was not up to the standards we had set.

"There was some hand-wringing going on among myself and the editor in chief about how to handle that," Parker continues. "We didn't want to fire him. Instead we told him it was important to check your work and to slow down if he had to.... It's nice to have all those stories but even more important to have credibility, even at a college paper."

Because Blair had only spent a semester reporting full time for the Diamondback, many at the paper were surprised when he applied to be editor--particularly after he had announced at the end of that semester that he was leaving because "he had learned everything he needed to know" there. Nearly the entire newspaper staff vigorously supported another student for the job, though the outside board, which picked the editor, chose Blair. "A number of editors thought our concerns about Jayson had been ignored," says Jennifer McMenamin, a former Diamondback editor, now a reporter at the Baltimore Sun. "We threatened to go on strike if the [board] didn't talk to us." The board held firm on Blair, who had strong support from the journalism school.

Besides being turned off by Blair's attitude, the Diamondback staff wasn't impressed with Blair's work. "People had gotten the impression that he glossed over things a bit," McMenamin says. "He made bold assertions in his writing that were not necessarily backed up."

Former Diamondback staffers say that after he became editor, Blair's reporting problems increased, as did his unpredictability--he was chronically unreachable, even when he promised to be available, leaving other staffers to cover for him. Sometimes he wouldn't even show up in the office. B.J. Sanford, a former Diamondback editor who just graduated from New York University School of Law, says editors accused Blair of making up quotes and making up facts. "And there was inexplicable lying," Sanford says. "He'd miss deadline and come in with fantastical stories" about where he had been.

One night is legend at the Diamondback. According to one staffer, Blair had a story on the budget but hadn't yet filed it. Though it was getting late, he told his colleagues he had to go home to get the computer disc he had the story on. They waited; he never came back. They called and called, but Blair didn't answer. The next day, no one heard from Blair until late in the afternoon when he walked into the newsroom, saying he had almost died the night before. Somehow, he told them, the gas stove remained on in his kitchen, filling the campus apartment with gas while he slept--had it not been for his roommate waking him, he'd be dead. A ragged rasp in his voice complemented the drama. Already skeptical of Blair, one of the staffers called the campus housing department. They said that there were no gas connections on campus.

Some students, worried about Blair's journalistic integrity, particularly considering his near rock-star status in the journalism school, say they tried to warn faculty and staff about his issues. They say their warnings were written off as campus jealousies. "They seemed to disbelieve us when we reported his shortcomings," Sanford says. "Some of us were very frustrated that people at the journalism school would not listen to us. It seems like they still haven't fully understood the extent to which they were taken in."

Callahan, the associate dean, says he did hear complaints from students at the time involving such things as Blair's management style and personality, but nothing about ethical problems. "If anybody had said anything to me about an ethical breach, would I have leapt into action? Yes," he says. "We have the most severe penalties for ethical violations in the United States--and I wrote them."

Of course Blair had his shot at the best internships. At Maryland, the journalism staff hand-selects the top students for interviews with the most prestigious newspapers. Callahan says that's why the good papers recruit at Maryland--the kids are prescreened and the papers know they can confidently pick from the very best. "We don't want to be in a situation where we're placing students over their heads," Callahan says. Blair landed internships at the Boston Globe--one summer in the paper's Washington, D.C., bureau, a second the following year in Boston--the New York Times and also a part-time stringing gig with the Washington Post. He continued to work for the Globe on a freelance basis when he went back to school.

At the Globe, though Blair's work didn't turn heads, his desire did--that and how he alienated himself from fellow interns. And, though his editors didn't know it at the time, he might have falsified quotes in several stories.

While he was in Boston the summer of 1997, editors noticed Blair's youthful verve, his eagerness to write and willingness to spring to action on a moment's notice. "He was always up at the city desk, saying, 'Hey, you got anything for me today?' " says Teresa Hanafin, now editor in chief of boston.com and the Globe's metro editor during Blair's summer there. Hanafin was dumbfounded after hearing of Blair's deceit and reported record of nearly 50 corrections in four years at the New York Times. "I thought, 'My God, was there something about this kid that we missed?' " She went into the Globe archives, searching for Blair's stories--even though she was fairly sure he hadn't had any accuracy issues there. "If there had been this volume of corrections during his summer here as there had been at the New York Times, believe me, I wouldn't have forgotten that." A search of the newspaper's archives turned up one correction and one clarification for reporting on Blair's more than 80 Globe stories.

Yet investigations by both the Washington Post and the Boston Globe now reveal problems in a "handful" of stories that Blair did for the Globe, mainly in the period he freelanced for the paper after his internships. Apparently Blair faked a 1999 interview with D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, a story in which he also took portions of Washington Post articles without attribution. According to a story in the Globe, sources Blair quoted in additional stories say the reporter never spoke with them. The Globe also uncovered instances of Blair lifting material from other papers.

Hanafin says after the internship, she didn't consider hiring Blair. "Certainly there are interns who come along who you wish you could hire on the spot--Jayson fell into a category of those needing a little more seasoning." She says Blair needed "elementary grounding," the basics that most reporters acquire at smaller papers--mastering meeting coverage, covering events, facing the people you write about every day. "The Boston Globe is a destination paper. You come here at an advanced stage in your journalism career."

David M. Shribman, the Globe's D.C. bureau chief while Blair was there during the summer of 1996, had even harsher words about the young reporter. Now editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Shribman told Globe reporters that Blair "was the most controversial intern we'd ever had" and that "I was down on him." Shribman, who didn't return calls for this story, also said, "It was plain that I was disapproving of him...and I let other editors know."

Nevertheless, the Globe invited Blair back the summer after he worked for Shribman. And there in Boston, while he did a better job of winning over the brass, he failed miserably at bonding with fellow interns. A few of them complained to editors that Blair would stay late at night to figure out what stories they were working on, then get in first thing in the morning to start on them himself--by the time the editors got in, they assumed the stories were Blair's. One intern, Jennifer Merritt, who's now a BusinessWeek editor, recalls that initially, Blair seemed "incredibly ambitious in a good way" and "just really resourceful and a dogged reporter." But then he burned her.

During her first week on the job, Merritt was trying to call home to her bank in Chicago. As she searched for the phone number, she stumbled across a story--AT&T had outsourced directory assistance and the new handlers were fumbling. The editors loved the idea and pitched it for the front page. "I was so excited," she says. "It was my first week and it was a neat little story." She went home that evening feeling really pleased. The next morning, though, she got to work and heard from another intern and a staffer that Blair had stayed in the newsroom all night, trying to convince editors that it didn't belong on the front page. This though he himself was an intern and didn't even work on Merritt's section--she was in business, he was in metro. Though he argued with the desk, layout, various editors, she says, the story stayed out front. "He just didn't want someone else's story on the front page," Merritt says. "He had told people he wanted to be the first intern on the front."

When the New York Times checked references on promising intern candidate Jayson Blair, Executive Editor Howell Raines says editors talked to the Boston Globe. The Globe described for the Times a "high-energy" reporter who got into the paper, but who didn't play well with others, particularly other interns, who thought he was "selfish" and had "sharp elbows." So, says Raines, when the Times sat Blair down for an interview, editors asked him how he did at the Globe. "He said he did good work, but that if we'd ask people there, they'd say people didn't like him," Raines says. "We were impressed with the candor of that response."

Raines says that Times editors were pleasantly surprised, then, when, after Blair was offered a 1998 internship, he hit it off with the staff, interns to boot. "It appeared as if he was aware of his shortcomings and working on them," he says. "It left a positive impression and led to his being invited back.... In retrospect, knowing what we know now, it's reasonable to doubt a lot of elements of that."

With that retrospect, the Times rues the day it hired Jayson Blair. In a stunning, nearly 14,000-word exposť that ran Sunday, May 11, on A1 and continued onto four inside pages, the Times detailed the sweep of Blair's deception. A team of five reporters and three editors had spent a week unearthing problems in 36 of 73 national articles Blair wrote from October 2002 until he resigned May 1. They discovered more potential fabrication in spot checks of the more than 600 stories he wrote earlier. To clear the air as well as its record, the paper tried to explain how Blair's fraud went unnoticed even as he attracted in-house attention logging nearly 50 corrections in four years, and despite his metro editor, Jonathan Landman, sending newsroom administrators an e-mail last spring that, according to the Times story, read: "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now."

Management chalked it up to bad communication. Raines says neither he nor Gerald Boyd, the paper's managing editor, saw that memo. "If I could rewrite history," the editor says, "Landman would walk into my office and say that to me."

But of course that didn't happen, and Blair's four years at the country's most heralded daily were apparently fraught not only with fabrication and plagiarism, but erratic behavior and disturbing lies, elements that outline a picture of a troubled young man. "In his [apology] letter [to the Times] he alluded to personal problems," Landman says. "He certainly had them."

These "personal problems" are ambiguous. For instance, the Times gave Blair some leeway after September 11--a time when his error rate skyrocketed--because he told editors that he had lost a cousin in the attack on the Pentagon. The excuse got him sympathy during his mistake streak and an out for writing the "Portraits of Grief" victim vignettes. But Times reporters investigating Blair found that the dead cousin was as made-up as some of the details in Blair's copy. Why would Blair do such a thing? Says Landman: "I can't crawl inside a mind like that."

Blair, who did not return calls for this story, reportedly spent weeks in an employee counseling program at the Times. And after his resignation, word quietly spread that he had been hospitalized. "This is a time in my life that I have been struggling with recurring personal issues which have caused me great pain," Blair wrote to Times editors after he was found out. "I am now seeking appropriate counseling."

The Times' Sunday piece on Blair repeatedly mentioned not only the reporter's sloppy reporting, but also his disheveled appearance--to the point that editors warned him about it. Another Times editor, Charles Strum, told the paper's reporters of how he tried to get Blair to slow down, saying, "I told him that he needed to find a different way to nourish himself than drinking scotch, smoking cigarettes and buying Cheez Doodles from the vending machines."

The drinking was a habit well under way during Blair's Maryland days, and it was known to some there that he'd been in rehab. In the school's journalism community, his old friends wonder aloud if substance abuse could somehow be at the root of all this. As for Blair's disorganization--Reid, the assistant dean, remembers Blair being constantly flustered, almost comically so, leaving papers, books, things he needed all over the school, to the point that found items became known as "Jayson droppings." Reid speculates that Blair's Attention Deficit Disorder contributed to his messy lifestyle, if not his messy reporting--at least when it came to his fact errors. She says she believes Blair's ADD was "fairly severe."

According to New York's Daily News, when Blair moved out of a Brooklyn apartment earlier this year, he left behind "what was described as structural damage and extensive filth that cost several thousand dollars to undo."

Says Parker, who worked with Blair at the Diamondback: "This is a real tragedy for him, his family, the school, anyone who ever stuck their neck out for him. Whatever help he needs, I hope he gets it."

In 1998 Macarena HernŠndez, along with Jayson Blair and two other students, was a chosen one, invited to the New York Times for arguably the most prestigious summer internship in journalism. At the end of the summer, all four were offered the prize--jobs with the Times. Though the others grabbed the opportunity, HernŠndez, whose father was killed that summer in a car accident, chose instead to go home to Palmview, Texas, to be with her mother. As the years passed and Blair became a full-fledged Times staff writer, HernŠndez taught English at her old high school, then, eventually, joined the staff of the nearby San Antonio Express-News.

In the nearly five years since the internship, she and Blair hadn't spoken. They hadn't been close that New York summer, working different desks of the busy newsroom. She could see, though, that he was a hungry reporter, and how much he wanted to be at the Times was hard to miss. Back in Texas, she read the Times every day, noting his byline.

HernŠndez was checking e-mail late Friday night on April 25 and saw that her paper's night editor had sent her a condensed version of a New York Times story on Juanita Anguiano, a woman with an Army son missing in Iraq whom HernŠndez had just profiled. As she read about the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet in a red case, the Martha Stewart patio furniture, she thought, "Oh my God, it's mine."

Since it was Saturday at that point, she could read the whole story on the Times' Web site. The similarities floored her.

HernŠndez had visited with the anguished Anguiano for four hours, leaving the house past midnight. She worked hard to draw her out, laboriously plying quotes from a woman so distraught she could barely string a sentence together. As for the details, those came from walking the mother through the home, room by room, asking if she had any personal mementos from her son. At one point Anguiano walked into the bedroom and returned with the tennis bracelet in its little red box.

But as troubling as some of Blair's details seemed to HernŠndez, the one she couldn't get past was the patio furniture, or, as Blair had called it, "the Martha Stewart furniture out on the patio." When HernŠndez interviewed Anguiano, the furniture was still in boxes, still inside the house. She never said it was on the patio--Blair jumped to that conclusion, she thought, seriously doubting that Anguiano had moved it outside. "She's so sad, she's mourning the possible loss of her son, and she's going to put the patio furniture out on the patio?

"I went to her house on Monday," HernŠndez continues. "The furniture was not on the patio. I said to myself, 'Did he even come here?' "

That Monday she called her old employer. "Look," she said. "I'm calling to warn you--I don't know how big a deal this is going to become." She had no idea. By that time, media writer Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post was on the case.

On Tuesday, Kurtz's story was posted--the first of what would become worldwide play for Jayson Blair's downfall. People read of his con as far away as Malaysia, Australia and Germany, saw Blair's easy grin flash on cable, heard his editor trying to explain it all on the radio. But on Monday night, April 28, all had not yet unraveled. Blair, being questioned at the Times, called HernŠndez. He told her his editor needed a copy of her story to check a quote. He hadn't seen it, so could she send it? "I said, 'Jayson, judging from your story, I find it very hard to believe you don't have a copy of the story.' "

That was about the end of the conversation, and about the end of Jayson Blair's career.

"I spent that whole weekend making excuses for Jayson until that phone call," HernŠndez says quietly. "I had to think that he didn't see my byline--because it would break my heart if he were thinking that because I work for some paper in South Texas, he could take my work and I wouldn't find out."

And it sickens HernŠndez that Blair apparently had so little respect for Anguiano, so little compassion for her pain, that he didn't even bother giving her the dignity of an interview. "That," she says, "is unforgivable."

Strange and disappointing behavior for a young reporter who, people once thought, would work obsessively to track a story. The kind of guy, people once commented, who would come in early and stay late.