Jayson Blair Biography
Joined Staff of the New York Times, Covered D.C.-Area Sniper Shootings
Jayson Blair became embroiled in one of the most devastating scandals in American journalism when his employer, the esteemed New York Times, revealed that he had plagiarized several news stories from other sources, or filed stories from the field while actually holed up in his New York City apartment. Blair became one of the most reviled figures of 2003 for his transgressions, but later wrote a memoir of the downward spiral that led him to create his masterful web of deceit.
Born in 1976, Blair grew up in northern Virginia, the son of a federal employee and a schoolteacher. A news-hound from an early age, he wrote for his school paper at Centreville High School in Clifton, and also worked for a community newspaper while still in his teens. He went on to the journalism program at the University of Maryland's College Park campus, where his talents propelled him to the editorship of its student newspaper, the Diamondback. During his undergraduate days, he landed prestigious journalism internships at both the Boston Globe and the Washington Post.
Joined Staff of the New York Times
The New York Times was the holy grail for all print-journalism aspirants, and Blair won a summer internship there in 1998. He was offered an extended stint when his term was up, but told his bosses that he needed to head back to Maryland to finish some courses in time for his December graduation date. In June of 1999 Blair returned to New York City to take an entry-level writing job with the Times. It seemed the human resources department there never bothered to verify his credentials, for it was later revealed that Blair had never actually graduated from the University of Maryland.
Assigned to the police beat during his first months at the Times, Blair was soon promoted to an intermediate reporter position in November of 1999 and became a business writer for the paper's Metropolitan section after that. His correction rate—the number of errors in his reporting discovered after publication—was higher than average for a cub journalist, and he was warned on several occasions to be more careful in his report-age. Nevertheless, he was a gifted writer with a quick grasp of the human-interest angle in any story. In January of 2001 he was made a full-time staff reporter.
Blair detailed these first years at the Times in his 2004 memoir, Burning Down My Masters' House: My Life at The New York Times. He wrote of the heavy drinking and drug abuse he engaged in after the workday was over, and the pressure he felt in the highly competitive atmosphere. His error rate continued to prove worrisome, even after a January 2002 stint in a rehabilitation clinic. Three months later, he was the subject of an e-mail that his Metro desk editor, Jonathan Landman, sent to the Times's managing editor, Gerald Boyd. Landman voiced concerns about Blair's professional integrity and state that "we have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times," Landman declared, according to the 7,000-word mea culpa that the paper published when Blair's deception came to light.
Covered D.C.-Area Sniper Shootings
Blair was moved to the sports desk, a less risky area for a reporter who seemed to need some managerial supervision, but then the Washington, D.C.-area sniper story broke in the fall of 2002. Because the suburban region was where he grew up and he knew it well, he was sent there along with a slew of other National desk reporting staffers to cover the story. Blair filed numerous front-page articles about the mysterious killings and the apprehension of suspects John Muhammad and Lee Malvo. But some of his claims earned the ire of local and national law-enforcement authorities, and his veracity was questioned. Blair defended his stories in meetings with his editors, but began to succumb to increasing internal pressure.
Despite his workplace problems, Blair was allowed to remain on the National desk after the sniper story quieted down, and after March of 2003 began filing stories about the war in Iraq from the perspective of military families awaiting word of missing or injured loved ones. In one of his reports he recounted a visit to a military hospital; another appeared to have centered around a visit to the home of 18-year-old Private Jessica Lynch, who had been captured by Iraqi forces and then dramatically rescued. However, he had been in neither place.
Blair remained in Brooklyn, but he continued to tell his editors that he was on the road chasing stories. Often-times, his bosses and colleagues had a hard time reaching him via his cell phone number, and no one at the paper thought to examine his expense-account reports, in which journalists are reimbursed for costs like car-rental fees and meals while reporting from the field. It was an April 18 edition of the San Antonio Express-News that finally exposed Blair's immense string of deceptions at the Times. An Express-News reporter, Macarena Hernández, had written a story about a missing U.S. soldier from Texas and the anguish his mother was experiencing. Eight days later a similar story appeared in the New York Times, with Blair's byline. The Express-News editor, like most journalists, read the Times daily, and she was surprised by the parallels between the stories. The Times editors were contacted, and Blair was called in for heated meetings that stretched over two days. Though he claimed to have visited the soldier's home in Los Fresnos, he could not produce any other proof save for his handwritten notes.
Incited Maelstrom of Controversy
Blair resigned from the Times on May 1, and ten days later the paper published a massive front-page story that detailed his plagiarism in some three dozen stories. A pariah, he landed on the cover of Newsweek and stayed inside his apartment while the journalistic debate raged. Many were stunned that nation's most prestigious newspaper could have harbored a charlatan reporter for so long, and others called it a setback for the concept of affirmative action. Though Blair may have obtained the job because he was African American in a time when American newspapers were ardently committed to diversifying their workforce, foes of preferential hiring practices claimed that he was protected and even promoted despite his poor job performance.
What became known as "L'Affaire Blair" incited a rebellion of sorts among the paper's extensive editorial staff. Many Times journalists were already unhappy with executive editor Howell Raines, on board since 2001, and had many criticisms about the newspaper's coverage and operations under his watch. On May 14, staffers assembled in a movie theater in Times Square, the Manhattan landmark whose very name was a nod to the venerable newspaper, and Raines and Boyd were excoriated by their staff. "You have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama with those convictions, gave [Blair] one chance too many," Raines told his employees that day, according to a New York Observer article by Sridhar Pappu. "When I look into my heart for the truth of the matter, the answer is yes." Weeks later, both Raines and Gerald Boyd resigned, and the Times installed a public editor to monitor its coverage and accuracy.
Blair finally surfaced in late May, giving an interview to Pappu for the New York Observer. He answered several challenging queries with a feistiness that bordered on the defensive. "There are senior managers at The New York Times who want African-American reporters to succeed," Blair said about the affirmative-action debate, "and there are hundreds of white junior managers who resent that and don't." He also commented on a recently published novel at the time, The Fabulist, written by another disgraced reporter named Stephen Glass. Glass's book was a thinly veiled account of his tenure at the New Republic before he was fired for plagiarizing sources and fabricating quotes. Glass was white, and Blair fumed in the New York Observer interview, "I don't understand why I am the bumbling affirmative-action hire when Stephen Glass is this brilliant whiz kid, when from my perspective—and I know I shouldn't be saying this—I fooled some of the most brilliant people in journalism," he said. "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 nose fooling them."
Blair landed a $150,000 contract to write his own book, and the nonfiction Burning Down My Masters' House appeared in March of 2004. A Black Issues Book Review critique from Wayne Dawkins warned readers to be cautious, however. "Consider every detail with skeptical eyes," Dawkins counseled. "He has lied in elaborate ways that most people will not comprehend, so how can we know that he has not conned us now?" Other reviews were far more scathing in their assessments, and on his press tour Blair faced the wrath of many professional journalists irate that he had managed to tarnish the profession so devastatingly. Interviewed by Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz on CNN, Blair conceded his tale was a tough one for most to forgive. He blamed substance abuse, the pressure to succeed, and the bipolar disorder with which he was later diagnosed after his Times tenure dissolved in ignominy, but noted that these were, in the end, insufficient factors. "Even though I do explain what's going on with me and, you know, what was going on with me during the time in my book, an important thing to remember is that ultimately I was never so impaired that I didn't understand the difference between right and wrong, and I made bad decisions. And I have to take—and I am taking—full responsibility for those decisions."
Burning Down My Masters' House: My Life at The New York Times, New Millennium Press, 2004.
America's Intelligence Wire, March 2, 2004.
Black Issues Book Review, May-June 2004, p. 52.
Nation, June 30, 2003, p. 10.
Newsweek, May 19, 2003, p. 40.
New York Observer, May 25, 2003, p. 1.
New York Times, May 11, 2003, p. A1.
Nieman Reports, Fall 2003, p. 25.
Time, May 19, 2003, p. 56.
"Lessons from the Times Blair Affair," Business Week Online, www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/may2003/nf20030514_4334_db009.htm (January 16, 2005).