01 Jun 2003 What Jayson Blair Did to Black America, by Kimberley Wilson
In case you’ve managed to avoid the story, he’s the 27-year-old New York Times reporter who resigned on May 1 after getting caught plagiarizing.
In five years, Jayson Blair wrote over 600 stories for the paper, and it now appears that much of it was either incorrect, brazen lies or plagiarism.
Because he’s young and black, Jayson Blair’s story has been eagerly seized upon by opponents of affirmative action, those who believe young reporters shouldn’t be working at major papers straight out of college and those who simply hate the Times.
So much has been said and will be said that the most obvious fact has gotten lost in the shuffle: Jayson Blair was in way over his head.
In that situation, most people sink, swim or grab onto something. Jayson Blair grabbed onto fantasy and other people’s work. Up until recently, no one at the Times with enough influence seemed to care.
Blair was a student at the University of Maryland (he didn’t graduate, folks at the Times only assumed he had) when he landed an apprentice reporter job at the Times. Things apparently started going wrong almost immediately. Although talented and charming, Blair had trouble with accuracy. His mistakes mostly involved small-time stuff. He’d misspell names and get numbers wrong. But Blair’s error rate landed him in the corrections column 50 times in over three years.
The long (7,000 words!) and bitter Times mea culpa of May 11 chronicled other Blair difficulties. He overspent his expense account, used company cars more than usual and racked up a mass of parking tickets which were billed to the paper. In short, it appears he wasn’t reading any books on how to succeed at work.
Nonetheless, Blair was promoted to staff reporter in 2001 over the objections of metropolitan editor Jonathan Landman. Things got worse. Blair made five major errors in a story on a benefit concert for September 11 victims. He received a stern rebuke from his bosses. Instead of being sent where he’d be less visible and gain experience, however, Blair ended up working on the biggest story of 2002: the Washington D.C. area sniper. He was one of several Times reporters assigned to the case, but he outshone the rest with marvelous scoops. The only trouble was that officials insisted his stories weren’t true.
As Jayson Blair’s career unraveled, it appears he plagiarized whole sections of a San Antonio Express-News story that, ironically, was written by a former Times intern. This was too much for even his strongest supporters. Blair’s dream job was over.
There’s a disturbing aspect to this story that many may not want to discuss. The paper admits it hired Blair as part of a diversity program. His bosses presumably meant well, but my guess is that – on some level – Blair knew he was being treated like a charity case and resented it. If I were a Times employee, I’d resent it too.
Did the editors think so little of black journalistic talent that they were willing to put up with someone who clearly wasn’t ready just because of his skin color? That’s a stark insult to black staffers at the Times and to all the brilliant minority journalism students who dream of making it to the New York Times.
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. Coming so soon after CNN’s admission that it deliberately kept quiet about atrocities in Iraq, it casts doubt on American journalism in total.
The public deserves to expect that reported news is true. Thoughtful people have commented that the news industry is drifting towards the land of entertainment. In this sensationalistic environment, it’s no wonder the Jayson Blair situation happened. I only wonder how many more reporters out there are just like him.