Jayson Blair: Offering His Views On Making Up News

Jayson Blair, seen in 2004.

hide captionJayson Blair, seen in 2004, hasn't said much since he published a memoir regarding his fabricated stories for The New York Times.

Jennifer Szymaszek/AP

The historic campus of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., has offered instruction in journalism for well over a century — but probably never quite like this.

On Friday, the twice-yearly Washington and Lee Journalism Ethics Institute will hear from its latest keynote speaker: Jayson Blair, the former New York Times reporter who triggered the greatest scandal in the newspaper's history.

"Getting Jayson Blair obviously was a departure," says Edward Wasserman, the Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee.

Indeed. The keynote address is typically reserved for people like Lowell Bergman or Toni Locy, journalists who withstood pressure from zealous prosecutors or corporate heavies.

This time, Wasserman says he found inspiration in a newspaper account of Blair's new career as a life coach for people who, like Blair, suffer from mental illness and substance abuse.

Blair hasn't talked much in public about his own wrongdoing — not since he did a media tour in early 2004 for his memoir, Burning Down My Masters' House. The book started with an admission of deceit but spent much energy pointing fingers at his colleagues for their own behavior.

Wasserman says the Times culture was dysfunctional, but that Blair cannot avoid his own responsibility.

"He has an interesting tightrope he needs to walk, between owning up to his own wrongdoing, and using his own example to illuminate larger problems that we might learn something from," Wasserman says.

Blair fabricated quotes, people and events and plagiarized the work of others. In the process, he demolished the building blocks of good journalism and eroded the trust many people had in the nation's leading newspaper. The Times was ultimately forced to retract dozens of stories and oust its top two editors.

The examples are numerous and painful. For instance, Blair conjured up interviews with fictional veterans of the Iraq war, and he invented a videotaped confession in the Washington, D.C., sniper case. There was no such video.

It all helps explain why six years ago, at the age of 27, Blair was for a time considered the single greatest threat to American journalism.

I asked several prominent journalists what they thought of inviting Blair to the media ethics conference, which will draw leading news professionals as well as students.

Several reacted positively. "Hey, banks hire safecrackers, and Internet firms hire hackers to help them with security, don't they?" Doyle McManus, the most recent past Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, replied in an e-mail. "If Mr. Blair's purpose is to tell editors, 'Here's how I got away with it; here's what to guard against,' then he could do a real service."

In an interview with NPR, Blair himself offers much the same justification. "We see it in journalism all the time," Blair says. "When we report stories, we don't just want to talk to people who did the right thing. We want to talk to people who did the wrong thing."

During our conversation, Blair seems sincere, compelling and even contrite. But how much stock can you put in what's said by someone best known for lying?

Count Kelly McBride among the skeptics. She teaches media ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. McBride says Blair is a case study in epic dishonesty, not good intentions gone awry. Each fraudulent story served his ambition, she says.

"None of the stories that he was trying to accomplish when he committed his crimes of journalism were the type of stories that change the way we understand who we are, or expose any sort of great wrongdoing or any flaws in our society that need to be addressed," McBride says.

A spokeswoman for the Times did not reply to an e-mail seeking comment for this story. Jonathan Landman, a senior Times editor who internally challenged Blair's reporting, replied mischievously when asked for his thoughts: "I have no thoughts whatsoever on any subject. I've renounced thinking."

Blair tells his story this way:

As a high school student in suburban Virginia, Blair says, he was impressed by the power of a newspaper article to help a young woman get needed medical care.

"I began, you know, wanting to comfort the afflicted and search for the truth," Blair says.

He attended the University of Maryland's journalism school, became editor-in-chief of the student newspaper and won coveted internships at The Boston Globe. But Blair says he soon became convinced that the only way to have a true impact was to reach The New York Times. He left Maryland early to take an extended reporting intern position in 1999 that soon led to a full-time position.

"Once I was at the best newspaper, I needed to have the best beat," Blair says now. "Once I had a better beat, I needed to have an even better one. And somewhere in that climbing, I lost sight of, sort of, my moral and ethical underpinnings."

In our interview, Blair rejected accounts that he first invented quotations and sources back in college. My own reporting on the topic included on-the-record recollections of his Maryland peers pointing to several such incidents.

Instead, Blair says his first lapse was right after the September 2001 attacks. He says he made up a name for someone who wouldn't identify himself.

"I remember crossing that line and telling myself, 'Man, I am not going to do that again. Tomorrow, I'm going back on the side of angels and I'm going to, you know, do things the way they are supposed to be done.'"

Blair says he is responsible for his decisions. But he also says his behavior was influenced by depression and by bipolar disorder. And he says drug use and alcohol didn't help.

"At every moment of potential weakness, or where I felt I couldn't do something ... it was so much easier to jump back over the ethical line," he says.

Blair says he's now clean and sober. He says he's receiving successful treatment for his mental illnesses. Blair started free support groups for others with similar struggles. He now works at a psychiatric outpatient clinic in Virginia. Its director, Michael Oberschneider, told me Blair has been utterly reliable and a true boon for many clients there.

Blair and Wasserman both say Blair has made clear he does not want to profit from the Washington and Lee event. They say they are trying to figure out how to direct the speaking fee of several thousand dollars to be given to the National Institutes of Mental Health.

Still, given his record, I had to ask Blair why faculty members, journalists and students assembled for a conference on media ethics should believe what he has to say.

Blair gave a half laugh and said they should listen, ask questions and form their own opinions.

"It's up to them," he said.

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