RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
You wouldn't expect Jayson Blair at a conference on media ethics. He is, of course, the former report whose fictitious stories triggered a huge scandal at the New York Times. Yet as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, Jayson Blair is making an appearance and giving the keynote address, today, at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: The keynote address is usually reserved for journalistic heroes, people who've stood up to pressure from corporate heavies or overzealous prosecutors.
Mr. EDWARD WASSERMAN (Knight Professor of journalism ethics, Washington and Lee University): And getting Jayson Blair obviously was a departure.
FOLKENFLIK: Edward Wasserman is the Knight Professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee. He says Blair may have some distance from the scandal that forced the New York Times to retract dozens of stories and to oust its top two editors.
Mr. WASSERMAN: I don't know what he's going to say, but 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.
FOLKENFLIK: Okay Jayson Blair, time to own up to what you did.
Mr. JAYSON BLAIR (Former New York Times reporter): Taking the work of others and not giving them attribution for it; you know, forgery, fakery, you know; making things up, details and characters and individuals and things.
FOLKENFLIK: For example, Blair conjured up interviews with fictional veterans of the Iraq war. He fabricated a videotaped confession in the Washington D.C. sniper case. There was no such video. It all helps to explain why Jayson Blair, at the age of 27, was considered the single greatest threat to American journalism. So what is there about his story that could be of use to aspiring reporters?
Mr. BLAIR: I began, you know, wanting to, you know, comfort the afflicted and search for the truth.
FOLKENFLIK: Blair says as he was starting his career, he soon became convinced the only way to have the most impact was to get to the New York Times.
Mr. BLAIR: Once I was at the best newspaper, I needed to have the best beat. 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.
FOLKENFLIK: Blair says his first lapse was right after September 11, 2001. He says he made up a name for someone who wouldn't identify himself.
Mr. BLAIR: 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.
FOLKENFLIK: Blair seemed sincere, compelling, and even contrite. But how much stock can you put in what's said by someone best known for lying?
Ms. KELLY MCBRIDE (Media Ethics Professor, Poynter Institute): He is notorious for being the single person to instigate one of the greatest frauds in journalism history.
FOLKENFLIK: The entire idea of Blair giving a speech at a conference on ethics just about makes Kelly McBride laugh out loud. She teaches media ethics at the Poynter Institute. McBride says Blair is a case study in dishonesty, not good intentions gone awry.
Ms. MCBRIDE: 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.
FOLKENFLIK: Blair says he takes responsibility for his actions, but he also says his behavior was influenced by depression and by bipolar disorder. And he says the drug use and the alcohol abuse didn't help.
Mr. BLAIR: And then in 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.
FOLKENFLIK: 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 aid to clients there.
But I just had to ask Blair, as he's giving this speech at the ethics conference this afternoon, why should students or faculty members expect to believe you?
Mr. BLAIR: It's up to them.
FOLKENFLIK: So there's an assignment for those budding journalists in the audience - figure out whether a dishonest reporter gets another chance to serve up the truth.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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