JAYSON BLAIR GREW UP IN FAIRFAX COUNTY, Virginia, in a much more upscale neighborhood than this Fairfax-based reviewer can afford. His father was a bigshot at the Smithsonian and his mother a local schoolteacher. The family was heavily involved in a local church. Jayson started a chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in high school, even though he was not himself a jock. In eighth grade, he changed the spelling of his name to Jayson to stand out, and that was the byline that would grace the Centreville Sentinel, the biweekly high school newspaper where Blair became the news editor.
Blair was a climber and a gossip, skilled at alienating his friends and colleagues but also adept at getting in good with the powers that be — in this case, the adults. It is often said by people that knew him back when that he had “charm” or “charisma,” and they usually note his seemingly “boundless energy” or his “electric smile” while missing his overall slipperiness. He very likely faked his first story for the high school paper, assigning the byline to another staffer and quoting himself extensively.
This wasn’t the only time allegations of journalistic malfeasance would crop up between high school and Blair’s icon-shattering run at the New York Times. After he bombed out of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, he went to the University of Maryland, where he wrote for and eventually became the editor of The Diamondback. He likely manufactured quotes and lifted them from other sources without attribution. He blew deadlines and made up implausible stories to cover for himself. He charged, without evidence, that a student who had died in his sleep had expired because of a cocaine overdose. He fired another editor when the staff questioned him and then decided to step down for “personal reasons.”
THIS WOULD BE A HARD track-record for most people to live down, but Blair had one other card to play. The pigment of his skin was very obviously dark. In a field that is still dominated by whites but obsessed with diversity, this gave him a much-needed leg up. As Seth Mnookin tells it in Hard News, when Blair began applying for journalism internships in 1996, “he was simply too good to check — a young, ambitious, talented black reporter eager to succeed in an industry that was desperate to diversify its ranks.” He landed internships at the Boston Globe and then the New York Times.
By the time he went to the Times in 1998, in an internship program that then barred whites from participation, “he already had a loaded reputation: Globe reporters had warned their friends at the Times to be careful around Blair.” Further, Times metro desk editor Joyce Purnick told Blair that his career would be better served by starting elsewhere and working his way up to the Gray Lady. Nevertheless, he was offered a job, along with the three other minority interns that year. He delayed acceptance by saying that he wanted to graduate first, but then came on in 1999 with coursework still outstanding.
At the Times, Blair had problems with accuracy, with plagiarism, and with relations with his colleagues. As in previous positions, when he ran into trouble, he wasn’t slow to allege racism. As before, he worked the internal politics of the Times to his immense benefit and, ultimately, the paper’s detriment. Though Mnookin treats Blair as essentially a bit player in a much larger story, the body blow that the young journalist landed on the paper’s reputation is still being felt.
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