It's not front-page news when most people get caught in a lie. It was when Jayson Blair did. That's because his lies appeared in the pages of one of the world's most respected newspapers, The New York Times. By his own admission, reporter Jayson Blair lied or plagiarized the work of others in dozens of stories he wrote for the Times. Why would a person who originally chose to dedicate his life to seeking the truth turn to lying, as a way of life? In his first network television interview, NBC's Katie Couric asks Jayson Blair to tell us the truth about living a lie.
It was the spring of 2003, and a bright young reporter from The New York Times was filing stories from all over the United States on the human costs of the war in Iraq.
Katie Couric: “You filed from West Virginia in the home of Jessica Lynch's parents.”
Jayson Blair: “Correct.”
Couric: “From Texas, in the home of a missing soldier.”
Couric: “From Ohio, a soldier's funeral.”
Couric: “But you never traveled to any of these locations.”
Blair: “Correct. I recreate the events without actually traveling there, correct. It clearly violated the ethics and the roles of the profession. It went beyond cutting corners.”
Couric: “Why did you do this? Why did you make this stuff up?”
Blair: “’ Why’ is the, you know, $60 million question.”
But why is not the only question. Who is this young man who tarnished the reputation of the nation's greatest newspaper? How did he get away with it for so long? What if any role did race play? And where does Jayson Blair go from here?"
He stole other reporters' work, concocted quotes, invented details, and according to the New York Times own investigation, created an "embarrassment of plagiarism and fiction.”
Couric: “From here on out, the name Jayson Blair will represent one of the ugliest and most embarrassing chapters in history of the New York Times.”
Blair: “Correct. It's not what I ever intended. It's not what I wanted.”
And it's not the first time a major news organization has been humiliated.
In 1981, The Washington Post had to return a Pulitzer Prize after reporter Janet Cooke invented a story about an eight-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy.
Ben Bradlee was then the paper's executive editor:
Ben Bradlee: “When we learned it was a phony, it was crushing. It was a devastating blow."
In 1992, Dateline NBC failed to disclose how it had rigged a crash test involving a GM pickup truck. And in the late 90s, The New Republic's Stephen Glass made up stories out of whole cloth.
Today, Glass is sticking to fiction, and there's even a movie about him. So it's no surprise that admitted liar Jayson Blair landed not on his keister, but with a six-figure book deal.
Couric: “Some people might claim, hey, this guy is completely amoral. He has no integrity. Has no character. He has no sense of the difference between right and wrong. He does not deserve to profit from what he did. And the deceitful lies he told.”
Blair: “Well the first thing I'd say is that I'm not sure exactly what I'm supposed to do to show my remorse other than to say that I'm remorseful. And the second thing is that in America collectively, we believe in giving people chances. If they come clean.”
His attempt to come clean is a book which opens with the line "I lied and I lied --and then I lied some more.”
Couric: “Why should anyone believe what you've written in this book?”
Blair: “You know I am done lying. Obscuring the truth is no longer something I have any interest in doing. I want it all to come out. The good, the bad, the ugly.”
A lot of it is ugly. The only good may be the intentions of those who gave Jayson Blair, now 27, every chance for success.
He was born near Washington, D.C., the son of Thomas, who is Inspector General of the Smithsonian, and Fran, a retired schoolteacher.
Deeply religious, the Blairs stressed the importance of education for their two sons. Jayson Blair became interested in journalism while still a teenager, and became news editor at his high school paper.
Couric: “I couldn't help but smile ruefully when you said that as a high school student in Centreville, Virginia, you wanted to be a reporter because it involved the pursuit of the truth.”
Blair: “That's one of the sad parts. That I lost my mooring so much.”
Dumping the ministry
He first attended Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, a fundamentalist school in Virginia, where he actually thought about becoming a minister. But he decided journalism was his calling, and transferred to the University of Maryland.
Having already written for small local papers, he was on the fast track. He got two prestigious internships at the Boston Globe, and wrote a few stories at The Washington Post.
In his junior year, he became editor of the independently-run campus paper, the "Diamondback."
Faculty members say they saw a great reporter with great sources, and even greater potential. But many former Diamondback colleagues now say they saw big warning signs.
Adam Lilling worked on the Diamondback with Blair.
Adam Lilling: "With Jayson the thing was you had to assume that he was lying until you could prove he was telling the truth."
Couric: “Some colleagues, while you were at the Diamondback, said that you had a habit of playing a little fast and loose with the truth. One example, you missed a deadline. And you told, your co-workers that you had missed it because you were almost killed by a gas leak on your stove?“
Blair: “I think almost killed [is] a bit of a stretch. But it -- what I had told them, which was a lie, was that you know there had been a gas leak in my apartment, which was within a dorm room. And in reality that did not happen. That was a bald-faced lie simply to get out of an assignment.”
In fact, the dormitory didn't even have a gas connection. But neither his lies nor some mistakes in reporting seemed to affect his upward trajectory.
Given good reviews by faculty at the University of Maryland, college student Jayson Blair, 22, landed an internship at the New York Times in the spring of 1998.
Blair: “I was in awe of the institution. I was in awe of its history. I was in awe of everything that was around me.”
Any young journalist would be. In the world of newspapers, The New York Times is at the top of the heap. In its 153-year history, The New York Times broke the news the Titanic had sunk, published the controversial Pentagon Papers, and has won far more Pulitzer Prizes than any other paper:
Alex Jones: "The people at the New York Times believe without question that it is the greatest newspaper in the world. As a member of that fraternity, I also consider that to be true."
Former Times reporter Alex Jones, who co-authored a history of the family that controls the paper, says the Times tradition is based on integrity.
And if a Jayson Blair turns out to be willing to abuse that trust, then the whole system collapses.
Jones: "And that's why Jayson Blair was such a terrible viper at that breast."
But when Jayson Blair's byline first appeared on June 9, 1998, he was a promising young reporter. Writing about a house fire in Queens.
Blair: “I remember picking it up and smiling from ear to ear. I was just filled with a lot of excitement. I was filled with an idea that yeah, finally I am in the newspaper business, and I will have a chance to make a difference.”
And what a difference he would make.
Dreams and frustrations
By the summer of 1998, Jayson Blair, 22, and still a college student was fulfilling a dream. Working at The New York Times as a paid intern, he was discovering the city, and uncovering the news.
Blair: “And I'm proud of those stories. The stories that have impacted law or impacted people's lives in a better way. Or illuminated something that's wrong are the ones that stick with me as the most important.”
Ambitious, outgoing, and hard working, one supervisor called him "exceptional.” But some colleagues weren't so sure. He was known as a champion schmoozer, and a few saw through him. That summer, Blair worked alongside another promising young intern, Macarena Hernandez.
Macarena Hernandez: “Jayson Blair is the kind of guy who knows what to say. Is always like really nice and very, ‘Hey, what's up?’ But it was very transparent to me.”
But neither Blair nor Hernandez could know then how their careers would later collide.
The following year, Hernandez was back in Texas taking care of her mother after her father was killed in a car accident. But Jayson Blair was back at The New York Times, in a special program that was designed primarily for talented young minority journalists. This time, though, the budding reporter who always seemed to have something to say kept quiet about certain facts with certain people.
Couric: “People at the Times thought you had graduated. And you did not dissuade them of that notion, did you?”
Blair: “There was one person that I deliberately did not dissuade of that notion. Not that she asked me. But I knew that she had assumed that I had graduated. And she was the director of the internship program. But all my managers, all my colleagues knew. I used to walk around saying that I'm just another black man without a college degree.”
Wisecracks like that were apparently part of Blair's m.o. at the Times.
Couric: “You've been described as an oily charmer, a slob, a busybody, and a bad boy.
Blair: “Aren't those mutually exclusive?”
Couric: “But in your book you say, ‘I am short. I am black. I refuse to wear suits. I laugh loudly, obnoxiously loud. And I do not mind skipping. Yes, literally skipping around the newsroom… I tend to break all the minor rules, like the ones about returning the company car after assignments … And filling expenses in a timely manner. And my passion for people, as well as my disdain, can be gleaned from a quick glance at my sleeve.’ No offense, but you sound kind of like an obnoxious jerk to work with.”
Blair: “I would agree with that assessment wholeheartedly. I am--
Couric: “That you were obnoxious jerk?”
Blair: “A pain to work with, yes.”
Couric: “What’s with skipping around the newsroom? That, I mean, all these things you make it sound like you're unconventional. But frankly, they sound unprofessional.”
Blair: “You know, it's part mix maturity, it's part mix personality. But you know, that's a completely fair characterization of it.”
Present and former New York Times executives involved in this case declined the opportunity to be interviewed. But back then, management's overall take on Blair was positive.
In October of 1999, then 23, Blair was promoted to intermediate reporter, one more step up. Within a year, though, a disturbing pattern began to emerge.
Couric: “In 2000, the paper had to correct seven of your articles, in just two months.”
Couric: “Were you embarrassed when they had to write corrections for your pieces?”
Blair: “Yes. Yes. Yes. People in the news media after I got caught said how could you have not caught this guy? He had 50 corrections in four years. That's a lot of corrections. Well what they failed to look at is how many stories there were and out of 700 plus stories, 50 corrections is not a high amount.”
But in November, 2000, a year after he got his intermediate reporting job, a manager's evaluation did in fact raise the issue of inaccuracies in his stories. Around this period, there were also times his bosses couldn't find him, and he wasn't showing up for work. Nonetheless, Blair stayed on the fast track.
At age 24, he was given his biggest promotion yet, this time, to regular staff reporter.
Couric: “Why was he promoted if at times he didn't show up? That seems so strange?”
Louis Boccardi: “There was a sense that he was going to make it. That, yeah, there was some trouble, but he has the potential.”
The former head of the Associated Press, Louis Boccardi, was on the committee formed by the Times that later investigated the Blair scandal. He says Blair's promotion in 2000 was a serious mistake with profound consequences.
Boccardi: “We identified that as a choke point. A spot at which if you had paused and taken everything that was then building into account, you might at least say, well, let's wait a little bit. And instead they didn't.”
So in the next several months, Jayson Blair, a tireless worker with bad habits and ambition to spare, was churning out stories. Crime. Business. Features. He did them all.
Couric: “In fact by our database count, you did more than 725 stories in your stint at the Times.”
Blair: “Right. Something like that.”
Couric: “Did you feel overworked? Under incredible pressure?”
Blair: “I felt overworked in the sense that you know, there were many nights there until 3 a.m., 5 a.m., 7 a.m. When I only made it to Gap across the street to make it look like I had new clothes on. And there are people who warned me along the way. And said, hey, you're doing great. You're talented. But you really need to slow down. You're going to burn out. Something bad's going to happen.”
He claims something bad was already happening. He often drank the night away at a bar near the Times offices. And he claims he then began heavy use of illegal drugs:
Couric: “You mentioned some very low points as a cocaine addict, including performing and receiving sexual favors for drugs. And crawling on the floor searching for specks of cocaine. It got really, really bad for you in terms of the drug use.”
Blair: “It took over my life. I made horrible choices with drugs and alcohol that cost me, you know, my choices, landed me in a horrible place.”
Playing with fire
On September 11, 2001, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon shocked the world. At The New York Times, it was the single biggest news event the staff ever faced. Its reporters would win a record number of Pulitzer Prizes for their coverage.
But Jayson Blair, at 25 years old, was about to become completely unhinged, and about to unleash a litany of lies and deceptions in a newspaper that had given him the career he said he always wanted.
Couric: “You say your behavior was poor. Some people would say it was disgraceful.”
Blair: “During that time period, you know, the way I characterize it as poor, you know, other people have their own interpretations of it.”
Couric: “Well, this sounds pretty disgraceful to me. You were assigned to help write those very moving portraits of grief… Which really did thumbnail sketches of people who had died in the World Trade Center. You were asked to work on this… Right?”
Couric: “You got out of it by saying you had a cousin who was killed at the Pentagon.”
Couric: “A complete lie.”
Blair: “A complete lie. But once again—“
Couric: “But why in the world would you do that? Here people are suffering, thousands of people. And yet you make up a story that your cousin died to get out an assignment. It seems so unconscionable.”
Blair: “I wanted anything to get away from the Trade Center story. I emotionally just could not handle it.”
So Blair's managers, thinking he'd lost a relative, assigned him other stories they thought he could handle. But what his editors didn't know was that Jayson Blair, who had spent years lying and fudging the truth was about to put lies into the pages of the nation's most respected newspaper.
He remembers the article that contained his first fabrication:
Blair: “It was a last name. I had interviewed a guy who had been trading on the markets after the September 11 attacks. And he refused to give me his last name. You know, I sort of felt that the story wouldn't make it in without a last name. And I just came up with one. And I inserted it. And it was a mistake. It was wrong.”
But his journalistic crime spree was just getting started. A few weeks later, he wrote about a benefit rock concert for the victims of September 11. That article required major corrections, printed over two days:
Couric: “You said Bono had performed when in fact he had canceled.”
Couric: “You misquoted Bill Clinton.”
Couric: “Did you even go to that concert?”
Blair: ”I watched it on television.”
Couric: “Did the Times say you need to cover this concert?”
Blair: “Yeah, oh yeah.”
Couric: “Was it accepted that you could-- that that would mean that you could watch it on TV?”
Blair: “No. No--you know, not—“
Couric: “I mean it's in New York, right?”
Blair: “Right. No, no, it was not accepted.”
Couric: “Were some of these stories written when you were high on drugs or alcohol or both?”
Blair: “Some. Some.”
Couric: “Was that one, that concert?”
Blair: “Yes, drunk.”
No one watching?
But for the time being, he was getting away with it.
Couric: “You stand by all your reporting and the D.C. sniper case?”
Blair: “Did I deliberately make anything up? No. Did I pull quotes from the Associated Press? Yes. Is it all solid, ethical journalism? No. I think it's very hard to say that I stand by all of it. Under normal circumstances, a daily newspaper is a hectic, high pressured environment, with reporters having just hours to write their stories, and editors even less time to check them. And every edition of the Times has hundreds of articles. And this was no ordinary time. There was the aftermath of September 11 to contend with, and just a few weeks later the Times was front and center in the anthrax attacks.
Even so, Blair's behavior was attracting attention. Blair soon received a bad evaluation. Right after that, he claims, he sought treatment at a New York drug and alcohol rehab center. Yet, when he returned to work so did his mistakes, enough to prompt one of Blair's editors, Jonathan Landman, to write a now-famous memo.
"We have to stop Jayson from writing for The New York Times. Right now."
Couric: “In retrospect, he was right, wasn't he?”
Blair: “You know, that's not a judgment for me to make.”
Couric: Why not? Why can't you examine your own behavior?”
Blair: “I can examine my own behavior. But I can't decide whether, you know, his call at that particular point was the right call.”
By now, even the second in command at the entire paper, Gerald Boyd, had been told about Blair's problems. And Boyd confronted him. That led to Blair being kept on a tight leash, with stricter deadlines and careful reviews of everything he wrote. Even under those circumstances, though, he managed to get reassigned from department to department.
By the fall of 2002, then 26, Jayson Blair was put on one of the biggest stories of the year, the D.C. sniper shootings. The editor in charge of the sniper coverage had never been informed of Blair's track record.
Couric: “It sounds as if nobody talked to each other at the Times. It was very compartmentalized with not a lot of communications between departments. Is that fair?”
Boccardi: “That's fair. It's not as though nobody talked to anybody. But there wasn't enough to surface the fact that this was a young man who ought to be watched a lot more closely than he was when he was finally given these high profile assignments.”
And soon he started generating high-profile complaints. Federal and state officials said there were mistakes in Blair's sniper articles. And one prosecutor even called a news conference to complain:
12/23/02 -- Robert Horan, Commonwealth Attorney, Fairfax County: "I happen to know what the evidence is in the so called sniper cases and things that are reported in that New York Times article are simply not true."
Couric: “You stand by all your reporting and the D.C. sniper case?”
Blair: “Did I deliberately make anything up? No. Did I pull quotes from the Associated Press? Yes. Is it all solid, ethical journalism? No. I think it's very hard to say that I stand by all of it.”
A personal crisis
By this time, Blair claims, he was in crisis mode, confronting inner demons. According to the Times’ news account of the scandal, Blair "was often difficult to track down and at times even elusive about his whereabouts."
Couric: “Was he conning his bosses, basically?”
Boccardi: “I would use the term, sure. There were periods there where they didn't know where he was, where he was not available when editors wanted him to talk about some work that he had done.”
By the end of 2002, Blair claims he was holed up much of the time in his apartment in Brooklyn.
Blair: “In reality I was so engrossed with my personal crisis, trying to figure out what was wrong with me, trying to figure out why I couldn't get up out of the bed in the morning, why I was walking into walls, that work almost became an aside. Something to get out of the way.”
But when the war began in Iraq last March, Blair was still getting important assignments. As spring arrived, Blair's lying and fabricating were in full bloom. It's just that no one at the Times knew it yet. His editors, still needing help in the crush of breaking news, sent Blair to cover stories on the home front, from the parents of Jessica Lynch in West Virginia, to the funeral of a soldier in Ohio, to wounded servicemen at Bethesda Medical Center in Maryland.
He never went to cover those stories. But that didn't stop him from writing them.
Couric: “You were hitting rock bottom during this period. And you were just lying' up a storm, writing these stories, making them up out of whole cloth. But actually sort of really--
Blair: “Patching them together.”
Couric: “Patching stories together from a variety of sources. I mean you had a pretty elaborate scam going.”
Blair: “Despite what most people think, it didn't-- or what some people think, it didn't take much thought. I would start collecting whatever I could find.”
Couric: “From the wires?”
Blair: “Wires, other newspaper accounts, Internet, telephone calls to other reporters in some cases who were there. Anything that I could do to cobble it together without traveling.”
Couric: “You would go to a New York Times web site with photos—“
Blair: “There is a database that included all of the photographs that we had of a different place.”
Couric: “So you would finish the story and you'd call them or you'd just-- what?”
Blair: “Send it in through the computer.”
Couric: “They had no idea you were in your Brooklyn apartment.”
Blair: “No idea.”
Couric: “You also fabricated a conversation, I understand, that Staff Sergeant Eric Alva had in his hospital room?”
Blair: “I'm not sure. Actually, one second. I'm not even sure about that one.”
Couric: “It's in the book.”
We paused to show Blair the page in his book where he wrote that he had made up the conversation:
Blair: “Right. As the deceptions initially started, as corner cutting and then more serious journalistic lapses. And then they began to compound themselves. And I began to get worse and worse. And, you know, play more fast and loose with the truth.”
The truth catches up
But soon, he'd be busted by someone he knew, halfway across the country.
Last April, while war still raged in Iraq, Blair continued to wage his own private war on the truth. By now his stories had become a patchwork of concocted quotes, stolen facts, and invented details, all created at his apartment in Brooklyn while using his computer and a cell phone. But he was about to meet his downfall.
Couric: “One of the worst examples of your deceit was a story you filed about a Texas family dealing with a missing soldier.”
Couric: “What you did was pretty disgusting by anybody's standards.”
Blair: “By my own standards.”
The front page story by Blair about the mother of then-missing Army Specialist Edward Anguiano -- later confirmed killed in action -- appeared on April 26.
Blair: “I tried to use all of the tricks of the trade that I had picked up over the last three months And none of them were really working. I had a hard time reaching the family. I couldn't get them on the phone. And instead of just saying I needed more time and actually getting off, you know, my rear and traveling, I ended up almost entirely plagiarizing the whole thing from other news accounts.”
He stole the story from San Antonio Express News reporter Macarena Hernandez. Yes, the same Macarena Hernandez who had interned with Blair at The New York Times five years earlier. Hernandez had covered the Anguiano family's sad vigil the week before.
Macarena Hernandez: "And I'm reading this story. And I'm just like, oh, my God. This is my story.”
Couric: “Your story, published April 18 said, ‘She points to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet still in its red velvet case and the Martha Stewart patio furniture. All gifts from her first-born and only son.’ Jayson Blair's piece which ran eight days later said, quote, "Juanita Angiano points proudly to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet in its red case and the Martha Stewart furniture out on the patio.’”
Hernandez: “The one big tip-off was when I went to Juanita Angiano's house she did have the Martha Stewart furniture but it was in a box. And so when I read this that the furniture is out in the patio I think to myself, this is a woman whose son is missing in action. I doubt she had the energy to haul that Martha Stewart box out into her patio and assemble the furniture.”
Couric: “He also concocted a quote from an uncle about Edward wanting to get married. What was that?”
Hernandez: “That was another tip-off. When I spoke to Juanita Angiano, I asked her, you know, did Edward have a girlfriend? And the mother said, n, he didn't have a girlfriend. And so when I saw that quote there I thought there's no-- this is totally made up. This is fabricated, you know? It wasn't only stealing. He made up parts of these peoples story thinking that they were never going to find out.”
Hernandez told her editor, that editor contacted the Times. And now finally Times editors were on to him and about to come down on him:
Blair: “They began holding meetings with me. Different editors began holding meetings with me.”
Couric: “They would say things to you like, look me in the eye and tell me you did what you say you did?"
Blair: “Exactly. I think when they were saying, look me in the eye and tell me, I think they began to suspect I was having a hard time looking them in the eyes.”
The Washington Post found out and published this story about Jayson Blair's plagiarizing the article from the San Antonio Express News. Knowing the scam was over, Blair claims he attempted suicide and then resigned. He says he spent a few days at a psychiatric care facility in Connecticut.
According to mental health experts, that's no excuse for his lying. But Blair says it was a contributing factor that made him lose control.
Blair: “You go through periods of depression, and then periods of high mania. Where that eventually increases into irritability and psychosis and delusions of grandeur. Grandiosity. A lot of things that sort of fit within my behavior for those last few months.”
In the days after his plagiarism was exposed, Jayson Blair went into seclusion. But the uproar over his actions was becoming a huge public spectacle. On May 11, 2003, the Times ran an extraordinary 14-thousand word article detailing Blair's deceptions. It concluded Blair had faked all or part of 36 stories -- almost half of his output over a six-month period. And weeks later, following scenes played out in public, the Times' two top editors, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, resigned after a newsroom revolt over management practices.
Blair: “I feel horrible about the fact that they both left. It's certainly not their fault that I committed acts of plagiarism and fraud.”
In the midst of the firestorm of recrimination after the scandal broke, the question asked was: How did Jayson Blair get away with it for so long? One of the first theories to surface was the most controversial: that affirmative action was at fault, and that Blair had been given a break, and his bosses had looked the other way, because Blair is African American.
Couric: “You were given so many opportunities. And it seems as if from accounts from other people, that because you're an African-American, you perhaps were pushed along and given more opportunities.”
Couric: “And maybe people forgave some of your indiscretions early on.”
Blair: “Right. Well then they made a mistake. Because if we really want to live in a meritocracy and we want to live in a world where people are based judged on their work, just judge them based on their work.”
The committee that investigated the scandal said editors at the paper didn't excuse Blair's mistakes because he was African-American. But the committee also found Blair's promotion back in 2000 didn't seem to be based on merit alone, and "had all the earmarks of a social promotion.”
Couric: “Editor Jonathan Landman told the committee investigating this, ‘I think race was the decisive factor in his promotion. I thought then and think now that it was the wrong decision, despite my belief in diversity and my respect for institutional commitment to it.’”
Blair: “Well, it's a curious comment, given the fact that John promoted me. He would not—“
Couric: “Maybe he felt pressure to promote you.”
Blair: “I mean that's something that I can't control. That happens between closed doors. It's not something that they open up to discussion for me. If he felt pressure to promote me, simply because of my race, than that's as wrong, as any pressure he would have not to hire me because of my race.”
However, the Times investigation also found that a perception Blair had friends in high places, among them managing editor Gerald Boyd, may have been perpetuated by Blair himself:
Boccardi: “Gerald just recoils at the notion that he was Jayson's mentor, that the mentoring stemmed from the fact that they're both African-Americans.”
Couric: “How big a role did race play in all of this?”
Boccardi: “Race was not the decisive factor in my view and in the view of the committee.”
Blair: “The reality is that I did things that were simply wrong. That hurt a lot of people at the Times. Hurt a lot of people outside of the Times.”
A fear among some
Among them, were other young minority journalists.
Errol Cockfield: “The fear came when I saw he was African-American and young.”
New York Newsday reporter Errol Cockfield, who's 30, says many young minority reporters felt they were under intense scrutiny after Blair's downfall. Some saw a double standard. Because while there was little discussion about the fact that fabricator Stephen Glass is white, there was plenty of talk about the color of Jayson Blair's skin.
Cockfield: "And that's very troubling, that we still have to make the case that you know race should not be overemphasized in instances like this.”
On one hand, Jayson Blair says race had little bearing on his promotions. On the other hand, he brings the subject of race to the forefront himself, in no uncertain terms.
Couric: "’Burning Down my Master's House.’ The name of your book has huge racial overtones.”
Blair: “Right. Beyond the obvious allusion to race is the concept that who is truly the master of their own house but themselves?”
Couric: “Why didn't you call it, ‘Burning Down my Own House.’ Because you sure make it sound like your master is The New York Times.”
Blair: “That's a good idea.
Couric: “And that somehow you were enslaved by the institution … That couldn't have been a mistake.”
Blair: “It has its allusion to slavery, but it also has its allusion to being the master of one's own destiny.”
The book, and especially its title, have already made him the target of a barrage of criticism. Dr. Karen Brown Dunlap is president of the Poynter Institute, which offers continuing education for journalists.
Karen Dunlap: “I think the title is probably an insult to slaves, who really had much better reasons to burn their masters’ houses down.”
And Dunlap, among others, thinks Jayson Blair is getting more attention than he deserves.”
Couric: “As someone who deals daily with journalistic ethics, do you think it's wrong for me to interview Jayson Blair?”
Dunlap: “I wish you had spent the time focusing on other journalists, who are doing their work well. They are so often ignored. I really regret the amount of attention he's getting when others aren't.”
Couric: “What do you think of the fact that I'm talking to Jayson Blair?”
Ben Bradlee: “That's just an automatic. You don't have any choice. You've got to do it.”
What The New York Times decided it had to do was to get to the bottom of the Blair fiasco and ensure it would never happen again.
In the months after the Jayson Blair story broke, a committee of distinguished journalists from inside and outside The New York Times investigated how the scandal could have happened at the paper. Louis Boccardi, former head of the Associated Press, was on the committee.
Boccardi: “We called it a failure of command, of discipline and of communication. There were lots of individual places in the newspaper where people knew that there were problems surrounding this young reporter. The pieces never got connected.”
Despite the failures, the committee acknowledged any newspaper is vulnerable to a reporter determined to deceive his editors. Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post knows that all too well.
Bradlee: "A newspaper is built on trust after all. You know, sooner or later, you get a reporter [who] makes it if he gets trusted by his peers. We did the same thing with Janet Cooke.”
The Washington Post made a full accounting of the Cooke scandal, and changed newsroom policy.
Couric: “When you heard about The New York Times, did you feel as if, see, it happens to everybody?”
Bradlee: “Well, I mean, there's-- I won't admit to it, but of course I did.”
Violating the trust
Dunlap: “Journalism is a sacred trust, and it doesn't take much to violate the trust. And when you violate it, it has long range effects, very negative effects.”
But there may have been some positive effects from the Jayson Blair fiasco. For instance, the Times has ended a practice known as the toe touch. In some breaking news situations, reporters are sent to cover the story but may not even go to the actual scene. They are dispatched simply so their name and location can appear at the top of the story.
When Blair was there, Blair claims the problem was reporters might just be at an airport and turn around, giving readers the wrong impression.
Blair: “Most of the work would be done over the phone. It gave the reader the impression that the Times had reported the story from the scene, when no one from the Times was actually at the scene except for the correspondent who flew in and out."
Other policy changes The New York Times has undertaken include better tracking of errors, stricter guidelines for anonymous sources, and better internal communications. The Times has also added an independent public editor, or ombudsman, to address complaints from readers, and the subjects of stories as well as issues from reporters.
His name is Daniel Okrent. He made clear he was speaking for himself, and not The New York Times.
Dan Okrent: “The way that I'm doing the job is to look at the newspaper fresh, not be involved in the creation of the newspaper. And with the help of the readership, examine things and consider things that may not be the best practices in journalism. And then say so publicly.”
Couric: “How damaging do you think this whole episode has been to the New York Times?”
Boccardi: “I think the way they've recovered from it and the things, the steps they're taking to recover from it, will, in the long run, overtake the damage. I don't think the paper has been wounded in any permanent long term fundamental way.”
Maybe not wounded, but apparently stung. New York Times editors sent an e-mail to staffers last week saying Blair's book places "imaginary blame in all directions." "Some of you may find the smears hurtful", it says, "even if they are utterly lacking in credibility."
But Blair insists that everything in his book is true, and written by him.
Couric: “Having said that, it sounds as if in many ways you are a pathological liar. That it began in college when you talked about the gas leak. Making up not an excuse, but a lie.”
Couric: “Up and to the point where you made up details, quotes, conversations, that never happened.”
Blair: “You know, I've certainly told too many lies. And I'm done with it.”
Couric: “How do we know that? How do we know to believe a word you say?”
Blair: ”It's impossible. People are going to have to read the book and make their own judgment.”
Couric: “But you've duped people before. What's not to say you'll dupe them again? A lot of people believed that you are sincere and honest and had the best intentions. And yet you were a complete con artist.”
Blair: “There's nothing other than my word that I won't—“
Couric: “What does Jayson Blair's word really mean?”
Blair: “That's a tough question. You know, for the last few months, the last year, not that much.”
Couric: “Are you sorry for what you did?”
Blair: “Yeah. Completely sorry for what I did. The fact that something good or that something better may come out of it doesn't change the fact that those were painful things. And that I am contrite, and that I am sorry. And that I need to do work to repair some of the damage that I've done.”
Blair says he is continuing his treatment mental illness, and hopes for a career as an author. As for The New York Times...
Blair: “I'm hopeful that the additional safeguards that they put in after my resignation will make it even harder for something like this to be happen. I wouldn't want there ever to be another Jayson Blair.”