The Times on Boil: Was Blair’s Crime Worth Hysteria?

This is only the beginning of it, not the end. You think you’ve heard a lot, but you ain’t heard nothin’. Yet.

The New York Times jumped on its scandal and scrubbed hard on Sunday, harder than readers could believe. But the scandal hasn’t gone away.

“This is the worst ten days I’ve ever seen at the paper,” said Times columnist Clyde Haberman, who went through his own nightmare as a young man in a more innocent time: for a single insertion of prank copy in 1966 within the text of the Times , Mr. Haberman was punished and excommunicated from the paper before fighting his way back to becoming a respectable elder statesman-”including death. Frankly it’s worse than death. It’s monstrous what’s been done to us.”

But what has been done to “us”? And by whom? That’s what the next few weeks and months will answer at the New York Times . Was it a single man’s consistent, compulsive crime, or was it an endemic illness in the Times ‘ system? Was the damage not as bad as imagined, or worse? Did The Times’ punishment fit the crime, or was Jayson Blair made an example of as the Times management wailed histrionic? Was it really the worst “black eye” in the 152-year history of the paper? Did race really matter in this case, as William Safire and many others have suggested, or was it just the taut, bizarre tension of the newsroom in the greatest, most somberly nutty newspaper in the world, a magnificent vessel that constantly spits up its own Queegs and Blighs as well as Halseys and Nimitzes? And what kind of punishment have they subjected Mr. Blair to? What does a young man do after being put in the stockade of public opinion at the age of 27 by the most powerful newspaper in the world? You may say: He should have thought of that.

But it can fairly be said that when it comes to The New York Times , nobody ever truly understands its power until they’ve run up against it.

Which is, of course, part of the problem.

In his own beginning as a man, the only thing Jayson Blair ever wanted to be-for whatever reasons-was a journalist.

People who knew him as a reporter, then editor, of The Diamondback , the newspaper at the University of Maryland, said he spent his early mornings, late nights and weekends in the newsroom. He had no hobbies to speak of, he played no sports. All his spare time was spent on the phones and working over copy.

“He was always working,” remembered his classmate Catherine Welch. “He was always making phone calls. You heard all these people talking about what they were going to do after they made it, and here he was, doing it.”

Doing what? First, he was an intern at The Boston Globe and a freelancer for The Washington Post , then an intern and finally a reporter for The New York Times . Mr. Blair wrote heartfelt stories on families who’d lost their children in battle, and broke national news.

Or what sounded like it.

It seems that until his own undoing and public disgrace, it was easy to say that we knew Mr. Blair. For those of us who have spent our formative years in newsrooms, Mr. Blair was a particular kind of acolyte-nurtured by mentors and advisers and editors from the time they’re 19 or 20, ready to rule. Mr. Blair was the product of a hyper-ambitious generation, reared in journalism schools and internships, where advancement can be perceived as coming at the cost of others. Until his May 1 resignation from The New York Times , Mr. Blair was golden.

On Sunday, May 11, The New York Times allocated 7,200 words-more than half the number of words it gave to Richard Nixon’s obituary-running across two full pages, to disemboweling the reporter it had lifted to stardom.

On those pages, we learned that during his tenure at The New York Times , he fabricated datelines, plagiarized reports from sources, invented conversations with subjects. We learned that an alarmed warning from metro editor Jonathan Landman went unheeded. We learned that when asked to work on the paper’s “Portraits of Grief” series following the attacks on Sept. 11, Mr. Blair said he couldn’t, because he was grieving for a relative in the Pentagon attack. Contacted by Times reporters, the man’s family said Mr. Blair was not related to him.

Because of his transgressions, Jayson Blair has entered the Janet Cooke–Stephen Glass territory of being less than an actual person, reviled by his hurt and somewhat terrified colleagues who head for the hills, worrying for the sanctity of their profession; he becomes a symbol of the peril reached when potential and journalistic ambition is prized more than experience; when youth is moved out of whack with experience; when cultural diversity carries the day; when the strange arrogance of a great journalistic institution becomes gnarled and unchallengeable.

Mr. Blair was a polarizing reporter, but it’s clear that he loved his profession: People who knew him at Maryland said his real home was in the journalism building. Carl Sessions Stepp, a Maryland journalism professor who’s married to Washington Post writer Laura Sessions Stepp, said Mr. Blair was one of those students who “who was always around …. He was interested in stories. He’d come by to talk about my wife’s stories. He’d always read her stories and he had ideas about them.”

Mr. Blair was prone to backbiting and office politicking. Following his election as editor of The Diamondback in 1996, Mr. Stepp said, the paper’s staff nearly mutinied.

“My tendency was to write it off as office politics,” Mr. Stepp said. “But as time went on it was clear he’d become a polarizing force in the newsroom. People whom I respected questioned his management style and his trustworthiness.”

That extended outside the paper, said Jeremy Settle, who ran the campus news broadcast while Mr. Blair headed The Diamondback . In 1997, The Diamondback speculated that a student died of a cocaine overdose, though a coroner later revealed the death was due to a rare heart condition.

“He was hell-bent on saying the kid died of a cocaine overdose,” Mr. Settle said of Mr. Blair. “Even though all the evidence proved otherwise.”

And yet Mr. Blair rose, making enemies and the right friends. At The Boston Globe , sources who worked with Mr. Blair said the interns complained about Mr. Blair’s suspect reporting to superiors but were ignored. Martin Baron, editor of The Globe said the paper was looking into any complaints lodged against him as part of the paper’s investigation.

He first joined The New York Times as an intern in 1998, before being hired as an intermediate reporter in 1999, and a full reporter in 2001. There he became a fixture first, inside the newsroom, and later, sources say, at the Robert Emmetts bar on 44th and Eighth Avenue. As reported in the Daily News , Mr. Blair began dating Polish émigré Zuza Glowacka, a friend of Polish-born Krystyna Stachowiak, the wife of Times executive editor Howell Raines.

Tony Marcano, an editor on the metro desk who describes himself as a “casual” friend of Mr. Blair’s, said Mr. Blair would often arrive at parties, having rounded up eight or nine young staffers as his posse. The one time he visited Mr. Blair’s apartment, Mr. Marcano deemed the space a “disaster.” “He was always making vague references to personal problems,” Mr. Marcano said.

Mr. Blair, when contacted, declined an interview request by Off the Record. And a Times spokesperson said both Mr. Raines and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. were unavailable for comment. But The Times , furiously exorcising Mr. Blair, is now in the business of moving from investigating one of its own to putting its own house in order.

On Wednesday, May 14, executive editor Howell Raines-whose top-heavy management many at the paper blame for the situation-will meet with the entirety of the newsroom staff to discuss the situation. According to one Times source, the company’s board of directors has “become aware” of the growing discontent in the newsroom, spurred and pricked by the Blair disaster from roilings to overt complaints.

While the May 11 story buried Mr. Blair, both as a person and reporter at The Times , the piece reaffirmed metro editor Jonathan Landman’s position as a loud guard along the fence in what’s been a somewhat suppressed Raines regime. A maverick who hasn’t been afraid to publicly criticize Mr. Raines, he spoke extensively, and not always favorably, to Ken Auletta for his lengthy June 2002 profile of Mr. Raines in The New Yorker . In the May 11 piece, Mr. Landman got the first word, a prophet on the fence who repeatedly warned others of Mr. Blair’s disregard for the facts, stated pungently in his now well-known April 2002 e-mail to newsroom administrators: “We have to stop Jayson from writing for The Times . Right now.”

“In a story that probably doesn’t have any heroes,” Mr. Haberman said. “Jon would certainly count as one. Had his word been heeded, a lot of this could have been prevented. He was a man ahead of his time.” Fellow columnist Joyce Purnick said of Mr. Landman, “he’s straightforward, direct and candid, we need as many people here like him as we can.”

As for Mr. Landman, he said he “didn’t see much room for heroes in all of this” and added: “It’s all too sad and horrible for words.”