Hard News: The Scandals at the New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media
by Seth Mnookin
(Random House, 352 pages, $25.95)
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.
This was made possible, says Mnookin, by Alabamian Howell Raines's rise to executive editor of the New York Times. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. was obsessed with diversity, and Raines aimed to give it to him. The promise to elevate black assistant managing editor Gerald Boyd to the number two slot was part of Raines's long Absalom-like campaign to take over when Joseph Lelyveld retired. Though the relationship between Boyd and Blair is still not entirely clear, the second-in-command did go to bat for the young reporter on a few occasions, which proved useful to Blair when other reporters were calling for his head because of his high error rate.
BLAIR NOT ONLY SURVIVED his scrapes with section editors, he eventually was posted to cover the D.C. sniper mania of 2002. He "broke" several stories about the case and helped to shatter the Times's credibility in the process. Relying on multiple anonymous sources, Blair said that the police's working picture differed wildly from what they were telling the rest of the press -- including the howler that John Lee Malvo, not John Mohammad, was the principal triggerman. The coverage earned an attaboy from Raines and helped to shore Blair up against most criticism.
Upon discovering that Blair had not only plagiarized material from other sources, but given up travel to pound out pieces in his filthy New York apartment, inventing details to fill in the gaps, most papers would have sacked the reporter, run a correction or two, and brazened out the media firestorm. But this was the New York Times -- the so-called paper of record -- and this challenge to its infallibility could not stand.
In an action that moved the London Spectator's press critic to label it "the most arrogant newspaper in the world," the Times launched a massive investigation and published two whole pages detailing some of Blair's deceptions. About half of the stories that he wrote while working on the national beat were found to contain fraudulent or lifted material, and it's possible that the full extent of Blair's phoniness went much deeper. Given the time constraints, reporters touched only a portion of his 600-plus stories since he landed at the paper.
The Blair scandal set off a series of angry reactions that led to Howell Raines's resignation only 20 months after he had taken control of the Times. The story has been told before but never so well. Mnookin's diligent reconstruction allows readers to be a fly on the wall as we watch the young reporter and the old editor come undone.
Jeremy Lott is the foreign press critic for GetReligion.org. This article appeared in the December 2004/January 2005 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to The American Spectator, click here.