Jayson Blair: The man who fooled America
It was a byword for journalistic integrity, a beacon of truth and one of America's proudest institutions. Then, in 2003, The New York Times was brought to its knees. A 27-year-old reporter, one of the newsroom's brightest stars, was exposed as a plagiarist who fabricated stories and concocted quotes. The fall-out was epic: the editor quit, staff mutinied and the paper's reputation was left in tatters. But what became of the young pretender? Jayson Blair tells all to Ed Caesar
Thursday 04 May 2006
On a desk in the half-lit bowels of a suburban house, in a cul-de-sac of a smart neighbourhood, in the dreary, respectable town of Centreville, Virginia, sits an eighth-grade yearbook. A blue, well-maintained volume filled with the informal scrawls and formal portraits of classmates, it lies open on the page where Jayson Blair's cherubic face stares out. Underneath the photograph, the name "Jason Blair" appears in small type. But, on the front cover, "Jayson Blair" is embossed. The "y" was added, he tells me, some time during his fourteenth year. "There were a lot of 'Jasons'," he explains. "I just wanted to be different."
There is a "y" planted deep inside his name and a "why" attached to its every mention. But the episode for which he will forever be questioned - what he knows will form "the first line of my obituary" - took shape in the spring of 2003.
At 27, Jayson Blair had the world at his feet. He was young, black and ambitious, and he was a staff reporter with one of the world's greatest newspapers, The New York Times. Huge stories fell into his lap - the sniper shootings in Washington DC,;how the families of American soldiers missing in Iraq were coping with their loss. Journalism was the only thing Blair ever wanted to do, and he had been given the opportunity to live his dream. But he blew it.
On 11 May 2003, The New York Times ran a 14,000-word front-page story dedicated to their young charge. The article, entitled "Deceptions in a Reporter's Work", found fault - either of plagiarism or fabrication - in 36 stories Blair had written for the newspaper.
It started on 26 April, when Macarena Hernandez, a reporter on a local paper, the San Antonio Express-News, noticed disturbing similarities between a front-page piece Blair had written for The New York Times and an article she had written eight days earlier. Both claimed to be face-to-face interviews with Juanita Anguiano, a mother from the Texas town of Los Fresnos, whose son was the only soldier still reported missing in Iraq.
Hernandez initiated a series of tumultuous revelations. Blair had never been to Los Fresnos, Texas. It quickly followed that neither had he visited the parents of Private Jessica Lynch, the 19-year-old soldier whose capture in Iraq captivated America and who Blair claimed to have interviewed. In fact, for months, he had hardly left his Brooklyn flat, instead lying about his whereabouts and the people he had spoken to. He resigned on 1 May.
In the account of its reporter's unravelling, The New York Times called Blair's fiction spree "a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper". For a title not prone to hyperbole, it was a statement with the gravitas of an epitaph.
But if the scandal itself was explosive, the fallout was nuclear. The New York Times has always held itself up as "the paper of record". So how had a 27-year-old loose cannon like Blair been allowed to fool the newspaper and the nation? Had he been given more rope because he was black? How had Howell Raines, the paper's executive editor and the most powerful journalist in America, lost control of the newsroom? And if the pre-eminent source of hard news in the US could not be trusted, what did that say for the American media as a whole?
All of these questions and more were aired as armies of critics weighed in to trash the Times. Raines lost his job as a direct result of the scandal. Gerald Boyd, Raines' deputy, was also jettisoned. And Rick Bragg, a star feature writer, soon followed, when his reporting practices were discovered to be suspect. The unrelated but equally damaging Judith Miller affair - during which The New York Times rushed to the defence of a flawed reporter and her flawed story - also trailed in Blair's wake. In so many ways, the newspaper, and the American media in general, has never recovered. But has Jayson Blair?
The physics of the man are arresting. I am struck, when we meet on a lifeless Monday morning at a strip-mall Starbucks, by just how small he is. Juxtaposing his childlike frame is a messy, cotton-wool beard and, more often than not, a cloud of cigarette smoke. He bounces around like an excitable pre-schooler, but exchanges goof-ball pleasantries like a seasoned networker. He drinks his latte next to a stack of today's New York Times.
"I still pick [the Times] up," he says. "It used to be that just touching the paper would evoke painful memories: things that were happening, and people who had been hurt by the scandal, and who had lost their jobs. But it doesn't do that anymore. I consider myself proud to have been a part of it."
Whether his former colleagues at the Times are proud to remember him is a moot point. A month after the scandal, the paper's Metro desk erected a sign saying "Jayson Free Zone". Since that day, they have largely steered clear of discussing him. But Blair has not erected a reciprocal "Times Free Zone" banner. Indeed, in Burning Down My Master's House, Blair's poorly received, frequently mendacious memoir, he left much of the blame for the scandal at the Times' door. Does he still harbour a grudge against his old employer?
"I don't want to point the finger," he says. "I've come to see how much of it was my fault. I suppose what I've realised is that trying to highlight what culpability other people have is just silly. When I think about Howell [Raines] and Gerald [Boyd] now, I don't think, 'Look how they did something wrong,' I just think the whole thing is so completely sad."
Blair, though, is not ready to bow out completely. He still believes that he was given a rougher ride than a fellow fabulist, Stephen Glass, a young reporter who, in 1998, constructed story after story for the political magazine, The New Republic, out of pure cloth.
At the time of his scandal, Blair was quoted in The New York Observer as saying: "I fooled some of the most brilliant people in journalism. He [Glass] is so brilliant, and yet somehow I'm an affirmative-action hire. They're all so smart, but I was sitting right under their noses fooling them."
He still sticks to his guns. "Were our stories treated differently? Sure. He got this whizz-kid ride, and I was just dumb and black. The problem with pursuing that argument is that the inevitable conclusion you end up with is: 'Hey, I'm an evil genius too!' And that's not the point you're trying to make."
The evil genius has lived in his parents' house these past 18 months. He decided to come home for many reasons, not least because: "I knew I would get in trouble in New York." Now, he spends most of his time in an office in the basement, largely untroubled by his father, Thomas, who works at Washington's Smithsonian Museum, and his mother, Fran, a retired schoolteacher.
As Blair skips downstairs, we pass rows of certificates. One reads: "It gives us great pleasure to recognize Jason Blair for The Times Community Newspaper Award - June 7, 1994." Two others from the University of Maryland dated March 1996 also catch the eye. One awards Blair "3rd Place in In-Depth Reporting", the other "3rd Place in Spot Reporting".
Blair realises he has no future in journalism but he is still in its thrall. During the day, he will ask me what other stories I am covering; what kind of recording equipment I use; how I got my break at The Independent. "It's always been about newspapers," he confirms, assuming a chat show pose on his sofa. "It's all I've known, it's all I've been interested in. After the scandal, I said to myself, 'Well, now I get the chance to explore other things.' But I've come to the conclusion, as time passed, that journalism was my love."
Blair has thought about any number of career options - "going corporate... starting my own business... becoming a psychologist" - but all are a problematic. His reputation is, he admits, prohibitive. And so, he has arrived where I now find him, in a "holding pattern", where he sells new and used books on Amazon to raise cash. He'll sell anything except fiction. "The market's flooded with fiction," he says, without irony.
Blair's miniature book business now occupies most of his time, and his daily routine consists of short car hops between chores along Centreville's grim four-lane roads. In our morning together, we drive to the pharmacist to get antidepressants. ("Good for both of us," says Blair, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the time of the scandal.) We stop at the post office to send some books; we visit a church. One cannot help but notice how little drama there is in Blair's life now.
There is, though, a little more duty. Blair has established a support group for those in his area who suffer from bipolar disorder. He claims that the manic depressive illness had a major bearing in his conduct, both before and after the scandal. Now, 15 or so souls meet every fortnight to discuss their disease at The Centreville United Methodist Church.
Blair takes me to the church, but his thoughts soon stray from the support group. "I've had a really piss-poor relationship with God since the scandal," he says. "I'm angry that it happened, and I'm angry that I have this illness. Now I'm back here, there's no one else but myself to put this anger on. I do look in the mirror, and I'm looking for someone to be pissed at...
"The scandal's over now, and I'm alone," he continues, quieter. "There's a great sense of loss in my life. Out of all the sources and colleagues and friends I had in New York I can count on the fingers of one hand the people I still have contact with. There's only one person at the Times. You have a life and... it's crushed in your hand." He pauses. "By my own hand I should say, again."
Blair's funk does not last long. He is soon joshing with the photographer and pulling poses for him ("Looking out the window? I know that shot," he says with a giggle), but his emotional outpouring has set the tone for the day. He will talk about "the scandal", or "God", or "being fucked over" as much as he will talk about his lying and deception in the events of 2003. He can condemn the fault, but not himself.
"Oh journalism, how I miss you so!" he cries. "Seriously, where else do you get to meet so many different people and get into so many screwed-up situations?"
Screwed up is an understatement. In Blair's unloved memoir (of which dozens of pristine copies lie around the house), some uncomfortable revelations emerge. Blair claims, for instance, that he was the victim of sexual abuse as a child. He claims, too, that at the height of his drug addiction, he performed and received sexual favours for cocaine. He reveals how, when the scandal first broke, he put a belt around his neck and thought of killing himself.
These crises are not strung together in any cogent, exculpatory way. But their mere presence is an indication of the escape route Blair has attempted to fashion. "I just threw it all out there," he says. "Most people came to their own conclusions, and that was normally, 'Hey, this kid's much more fucked up than we thought he was.'"
Blair, who says he is now more cautious with the information he divulges, felt, at the time, that his "pants had been pulled down and I had been paraded naked down Park Avenue". And, in the immediate aftermath of his book's publication, he was liberal with follow-up stories for journalists with enough chutzpah to ask.
His drugs-for-sex escapades, it emerged, were with men. His attitude toward sex was "really sordid". He was extremely inhibited when it came to the physical act of sex, though, and used drugs to "make himself comfortable". I ask Blair how he felt when he read those things about himself, in the cold light of day.
He shifts in his seat. "It does and it doesn't hurt." A pause. "At the time I had no boundaries. Now, people bring things up that are in the book and ask me to talk about them, and I decline." That sounds like a clear hands-off warning, but he has more to say.
"Everyone felt that what I did at the Times was inexcusable. They all had certain assumptions about my life, because I was black, or worked at The New York Times. So part of understanding my story became that you had to know all the details of who I am, and there was no way to explain that without, you know... the details. I couldn't do anything but put it all out there."
An admirable enough intention, one might think. The only trouble is, many question the truth of the details Blair so painfully put in his book.
Seth Mnookin, a media writer for Vanity Fair, is the most prominent of those sceptics. In Mnookin's account of the saga, Hard News, he wrote: "Blair was something of a chimera; unable to develop a personality of his own, he instead tried to become like people around him. In college [where Blair edited the student newspaper], while writing about sexual abuse, he suddenly claimed he himself was a victim." When this accusation is levelled at Blair, his response is telling. "It's based on no evidence," he mumbles. "I've seen it in print, and it's based off it's own supposition. It's not based on any quote or fact."
Evidence. Quote. Fact. Never the hallmarks of Blair's reporting, they are suddenly his sword and shield. Accusing someone of lying about an instance of family trauma, if untrue, is the grossest calumny. Why not deny the accusation outright? What he does not appear to have an interest in is the truth. The references to sex abuse will not appear in the paperback, which will shortly be released. "They involve people who are still around," says Blair.
Jayson Blair has always lied. On one memorable occasion during his college newspaper career, Blair was due to hand in a story before the spring break. But he disappeared. When he turned up later that week, he concocted a story about how he had almost died from gas poisoning when his roommate left the stove on. No one believed him. There were no gas stoves on campus.
Blair's history is littered with deception. But the reasons behind it are rarely touched upon. Amid all the factors Blair cites as key to his personality - the drugs and the alcohol, the bipolar disorder, the sexual abuse - none seems to explain the lies.
"Lying's got nothing to do with bipolar," admits Blair. "It's just [my] personality. It's the desire to be liked. I suppose it's about giving people the answers they want to hear. Right?
"I've always been able to get away with it. But it always gave me pause. I never lied smoothly. The difference between me and other people, if they lied, would be that they would be racking their brains to see if they could get away with it. And I was always just racking my brain to work out why I'd just lied. In my head, I was never going to get caught. I could have told the truth so many times, and it would have been so much easier.
"I'd sometimes take on assignments, knowing there was no way I could do them," he continues. "The difference is that someone else would get three-quarters of the way done and say, 'There's no way I can pull this off.' I'd get three-quarters of the way done and paint in the rest." So what stopped Blair calling his editor to say he couldn't do it? "I wanted to do what I said. And lying had become so... automatic."
The irony of lying to keep one's word is not lost on Blair. Except, he admits, it was not quite his word he wanted to keep, so much as his promise. Blair says he desperately wanted to carry on being the young hotshot in his editors' eyes, but was unwilling to chance his actual reporting skills on doing the job properly.
"I have a deep desire to get to the bottom of this problem [of lying]. But when I try to explore it, I break down. It gets to some raw things about who you are and who you view yourself as."
Blair then goes on to list some of these "raw things", but they are garden variety neuroses - a clever sibling, parents with high expectations, a lack of self-confidence. And then it comes - the revelation Blair knows would break the flintiest heart. "Regardless of how I performed in school," he murmurs, "I was always the fat little ugly kid."
Blair's dishonesty is less brazen now. The fact, for instance, that he worked for four days as the editor on a novel called The Karasik Conspiracy in April 2005, which was funded, in dubious circumstances, by the American pharmaceuticals industry, has to be dragged from him.
Maybe it's because he was fired for fiddling his expense accounts. Or perhaps he is embarrassed that America's biggest pharmaceutical lobby financed the publication, because the subject matter of the novel - the dangers of Canadian pharmaceuticals - was close to their heart.
It takes this foray into Blair's post-scandal hinterland to reveal another nugget: he has been offered large sums of money by two pharmaceutical companies to promote their mental health drugs. Blair declined, even though he claims Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline have offered him $15,000-$20,000 for one mention of their products in the occasional speeches he has given since the scandal. And, for the record, both drug companies deny ever speaking to Blair.
So what to glean from a litany of half-truths? Maybe this: that Blair has no capacity to live a simple life. Even after his involvement in the biggest scandal ever to hit the US media, and despite a stated wish to turn his life around, he continues be curiously attracted, and attractive, to trouble.
This ability to seem one thing and be another is why most descriptions of Blair are two word terms, of which "liar Emeritus" and "serial fabulist" are only the most memorable. To pin down this jumble of contradictions to a single signifier is rather to miss the point of Jayson Blair. But there is a word, which the British don't use, that just about does it: storied. It means mythic, fabled - a product, and producer, of stories. The White House is storied. Manchester United is storied. Jayson Blair is storied.
As a journalist, stories were much more than his stock-in-trade, they were his life. Gossip, news, fact, fiction - he loved to tell and hear a good yarn. He says he never thought of being anything other than a journalist, and I believe him. I am struck, too, by how often he describes his life in terms of pre-existing narratives: a cocaine relapse, for instance, is like "an after-school special movie". Stories are not only part of his personality, they are his personality.
The trouble with neat stories is that they are never true. Narratives are something we impose on the world, rather than it on us. Life is infinitely more nuanced than a beginning, middle and end. Somewhere in his development, Blair lost sight of the connection between facts and words, and it debilitates him still.
It's time to go. But before I drive out of Blair's cul-de-sac, I see his mother reading a book. I ask her what it's about. "It's about how God has a direction for all of us," she replies, looking at her son. "Although we may not know it, everything happens for a reason." It is a strange path the Almighty has figured for Jayson Blair.
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