By Sridhar Pappu
[Ed. note: This article was originally published on May 26, 2003.]
“That was my favorite,” Jayson Blair said. It was the morning of Monday, May 19, and the disgraced former New York Times reporter was curled in a butterfly chair in his sparsely furnished Brooklyn apartment. He was eating a bagel and talking about one of his many fabricated stories—his March 27 account, datelined Palestine, W.Va., of Pvt. Jessica Lynch’s family’s reaction to their daughter’s liberation in Iraq.
Mr. Blair hadn’t gone to Palestine, W.Va. He’d filed from Brooklyn, N.Y. As he’d done before, he cobbled facts and details from other places and made some parts up. He wrote how Private Lynch’s father had “choked up as he stood on the porch here overlooking the tobacco fields and cattle pastures.”
That was a lie. In The Times’ lengthy May 11 account of Mr. Blair’s long trail of deception, it reported that “the porch overlooks no such thing.”
Mr. Blair found this funny.
“The description was just so far off from reality,” he said. “The way they described it in The Times story—someone read a portion of it for me. I just couldn’t stop laughing.”
He laughed again. It was now two weeks since Mr. Blair had been exposed and resigned fromThe Times. In that period he’d become a journalistic pariah, entered and exited a rehabilitation clinic, and wound up on the cover of Newsweek, smoking a cigarette. His actions stained The New York Times, turned his former newsroom upside down and called into question the future of his ex-boss, executive editor Howell Raines. The Times’ publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., had called his deception “a low point” in the paper’s 152-year history.”
But other than a couple of brief statements here and there, Mr. Blair hadn’t talked publicly about what happened. Everyone still wanted to know: Why had he done it? Why had a promising 27-year-old reporter with a career in high gear at the most respected news organization in the world thrown it all away in a pathological binge of dishonesty?
Theories, of course, abounded. He was too young. He’d been pushed too far. He was a drunk; he was a drug addict; he was depressed.
These theories were all partially true, he said.
“I was young at The New York Times,” said Mr. Blair. “I under a lot of pressure. I was black atThe New York Times, which is something that hurts you as much as it helps you. I certainly have health problems, which probably led to me having to kill Jayson Blair, the journalist. I was either going to kill myself or I was going to kill the journalist persona.”
He stayed with that concept. “So Jayson Blair the human being could live,” he said, “Jayson Blair the journalist had to die.”
He looked … O.K., for a beat-up man of 27. He was unshaven, with a ragged beard, and he wore a V-neck sweater, a white T-shirt and rumpled khakis. His sleep-deprived college-senior look seemed to fit the environment, a dusty living room with bookshelves that offered remembrances of his past life: The Best Newspaper Writing anthologies from 2000 and 2002; books by Times reporters Rick Bragg and Fox Butterfield; My Soul Is Rested, the oral history of the civil-rights movement written by Howell Raines. On the windowsill stood a Dr. Seuss book called Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? with his NYPD press pass wrapped around it.
(“That’s a nice detail,” he later said, noting the Dr. Seuss title.)
A few feet away sat Zuza Glowacka—the tall, blond, 23-year-old Polish-born former clerk atThe New York Times who’d emerged as a kind of mysterious attaché to Mr. Blair.
“We’re really, really, really good friends,” Ms. Glowacka said, when asked to characterize her relationship with Mr. Blair.
She made Mr. Blair happy, that was clear. They were close and they finished each other’s sentences, talked about traveling together and seemed to relish their renegade status, kind of like a 43rd Street version of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.
They’d wanted to leave The Times, Mr. Blair said. They talked about it even before everything blew up. “She wanted to go write,” he said. “I wanted to do other things.”
But it was hard to imagine Mr. Blair wanting to do anything else. He was one of those rare people who seemed preordained to be a journalist—a reporter suffused with a kinetic combination of charm, drive and ambition that compelled his co-workers, even in the wake of his scandal, to describe him as “talented.”
He’d come out of the University of Maryland—he never graduated, however—and a Boston Globe internship; then arrived, in 1998, at 23, at The New York Times. He was an intern first, then an intermediate reporter, and then, in 2001, a full reporter with all the privileges.
Through his rise, he made mistakes—a lot of them. Most, he said, were the result of the usual forces: bad information from the police, deadline pressure. And yet Mr. Blair felt that he deserved to keep on climbing. He grew frustrated with the metro grind, and admitted he became a problem in the newsroom. He claimed he was assigned to “idiot” editors and, as a result, “began to act out.” He started being frequently absent and unavailable, he said, in a “misguided attempt to punish them.”
But there was something else. Mr. Blair was abusing alcohol and doing drugs—cocaine, to be specific. Those started becoming a much bigger impediment than his anger about his editors. The drugs impacted his work. He referred to one of the bigger corrections made to his work—a 277-word note that appeared following his account of a post–Sept. 11 rock concert.
“I was drunk on assignment,” Mr. Blair said.
Colleagues noticed him falling apart. Mr. Blair did not hide his torment well. In January 2002, he checked himself into the Realization Center, a clinic in Manhattan, where he spent six hours a day for two weeks.
“Drugs and alcohol were definitely a part of my self-medication,” he said. He characterized himself as a “former total cokehead.”
But he said he didn’t know what drove him to it.
“Is the problem the substance you pick up, or do you pick up the substance because of the environment you’re in?” Mr. Blair asked. “Was I too young? For a newspaper reporter’s job at a great newspaper, maybe not. Was I too young for a snake pit like that? Maybe.”
And he said there were other factors.
“Anyone who tells you that my race didn’t play a role in my career at The New York Times is lying to you,” Mr. Blair said. “Both racial preferences and racism played a role. And I would argue that they didn’t balance each other out. Racism had much more of an impact.”
Mr. Blair had many opinions about racism at The New York Times. For one thing, he said, “there are senior managers at The New York Times who want African-American reporters to succeed, and there are hundreds of white junior managers who resent that and don’t.”
And he also said: “There are a lot of people who are not racist. But there are a lot who are. I have anecdotes upon anecdotes upon anecdotes that I’m not going to share. A book full of anecdotes.”
But as far as the theory that Mr. Blair got away with what he did due to the fact that he was an affirmative-action hire, Mr. Blair disagreed with that. He disagreed that he was an example of someone who’d been brought aboard without earning it, coddled more than he should have been, and that this—his pack of lies—was the product.
That assertion made Mr. Blair angry. Being black at The Times “hurts you as much as it helps you,” he said. It infuriated him that he was being compared to Stephen Glass, the white, ex–New Republic fraud who has just published a novel, The Fabulist, about his own nonfiction fictions. Because in his tortured, roller-coaster mind, you could call him a liar, but you could not call him unworthy.
“I don’t understand why I am the bumbling affirmative-action hire when Stephen Glass is this brilliant whiz kid, when from my perspective—and I know I shouldn’t be saying this—I fooled some of the most brilliant people in journalism,” he said. “He [Glass] is so brilliant, and yet somehow I’m an affirmative-action hire. They’re all so smart, but I was sitting right under their nose fooling them.”
Mr. Blair continued: “If they’re all so brilliant and I’m such an affirmative-action hire, how come they didn’t catch me?”
They did catch him, finally. Assigned to visit the mother of a missing U.S. servicewoman in Texas, he had not gone to Texas at all. Instead, for his April 26 Times account, he lifted details from an April 18 San Antonio Express-News story by Macarena Hernandez—a former Timesintern Mr. Blair once knew.
While “writing” the piece, Mr. Blair said he experienced “numb, blank” thoughts like “I don’t want to be getting on a plane for The New York Times” and “How long would it take them to catch me?”
But the serious deception had begun much earlier, when Mr. Blair was tapped as one of the eight reporters sent to Washington, D.C., to cover the Maryland sniper shootings. There, he broke news prodigiously, and controversially, most notably in an Oct. 30 story in which he wrote that U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio had interrupted the interrogation of the sniper suspect John Muhammad at the behest of the White House. Then in another piece on Dec. 22, in which he wrote that DNA evidence had ruled out Mr. Muhammad as the primary shooter. The validity of both pieces came under scrutiny and repudiation immediately afterward. Currently, the U.S. Attorney’s office has launched a fraud inquiry against Mr. Blair.
Mr. Blair said he stuck to the truth of his initial sniper coverage, the interrogation story in particular.
“It’s true that five people told me it,” Mr. Blair said. “I got that scoop, some other scoops. Just good stuff. But at some point, the allure of proving myself to The New York Times wore off. And I was back to where I was before: angry.”
None of his deceptions, he said, was planned. Nor, he said, was he conscious of what was going on while it was happening. He said that before January 2003, which he deemed his “last run at The Times,” he fudged things “maybe less than five times.” A lifted Washington Postquote came to mind here. Maybe some Associated Press stuff. A story on the Ku Klux Klan written during his internship at the Globe.
“I will argue that no one will find in my career anything like between January and March and January and April of this year,” Mr. Blair said. “It’s simply not there.”
The Times disagrees. According to its own May 11 investigation, by November 2002, Mr. Blair was “fabricating quotations and scenes, undetected.” But in 2003, he would file stories from places he never was—from Bethesda, Md., and Cleveland, Ohio, from West Virginia and Texas.
It was pathological. Had Mr. Blair wanted to get caught?
“God knows, after the [Texas] story ran and before the first call came in, I knew,” he said. “It became much clearer to me. At that point I didn’t even know I was going to get caught, because I really did not want to be there. I really didn’t.”
From the day the scandal over his reporting broke, Mr. Blair’s career has been intertwined with those of two men at The Times: executive editor Howell Raines, and his managing editor, Gerald Boyd. Various news accounts have suggested that Mr. Raines and Mr. Boyd used their power to protect Mr. Blair, ignoring the advice of subordinate editors who cautioned them against promoting the young reporter. Race has been injected into this allegation, too. Mr. Boyd is an African-American, and Mr. Raines addressed his own role at a May 14 meeting of the Times staff, saying that “you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama with those convictions, gave him one chance too many …. When I look into my heart for the truth of the matter, the answer is yes.”
“Howell and Gerald have certainly had their problems,” Mr. Blair said. “But using me against them is kind of unfair. Because what I’m a symbol of is what’s wrong with The New York Times—and what’s been wrong with The New York Times for a long time.”
Mr. Blair called characterizations of himself as a Howell Raines favorite “kind of funny.” Though his status rose when Mr. Raines became executive editor in September 2001, Mr. Blair said he felt more at ease during the tenure of his predecessor, Joseph Lelyveld.
“I identify much more with the old guard than I do the new guard,” he said. Still, he had empathy for his ex-boss.
“Generally, I felt like Howell did what he had to do,” Mr. Blair said. “I feel bad for the situation he’s in. But I think a lot of it is by his own hand. He is a good man. He is well-intentioned.
“Maybe it’ll make him a little mature,” he said. He broke out into laughter, stomping his foot on the ground. “That’s coming from me!”
Mr. Blair said that as his errors and newsroom problems piled up, he received no special treatment from Mr. Raines, and especially not from Mr. Boyd. He said that Mr. Boyd—whom he nominated as journalist of the year for the National Association of Black Journalists in 2001—was actually his “antagonist.” He said Mr. Boyd tried to block his summer 2002 move to the sports department after everyone else had signed off on it. Then, he said, Mr. Boyd questioned his promotion to the national desk.
“I don’t particularly like Gerald,” Mr. Blair said. “To suggest he was my mentor is not a fair characterization; it’s an assumption based on race that’s silly. And I don’t like him! How did Gerald become my mentor?”
Mr. Blair was asked if Mr. Boyd had ever protected him, as people at The Times had suggested.
“Bullshit!” Mr. Blair said, raising his voice. “Protected my ass. I spent days in the smoking room. Days of my life in the smoking room, complaining about how I wasn’t protected. Protected by whom? Was it Gerald, who was constantly trying to block me at every turn? Was it Howell, who didn’t know me? Was it Lelyveld, who didn’t care? Was it Bill Keller [the former managing editor], who didn’t give a shit? Which one was it? Was it Soma [Soma Golden Behr, an assistant managing editor], who only cares about pretty Jewish girls at The New York Times? Which one was protecting me? Mike Oreskes? Who? Al Siegal, who doesn’t speak to people?”
A spokeswoman for The Times, Catherine Mathis, said the paper would have no comment on Mr. Blair’s remarks. “We’re not going to do any interviews regarding the Jayson Blair interview,” she said.
Mr. Blair did give measured praise to metropolitan editor Jonathan Landman, the person who repeatedly questioned Mr. Blair’s reporting and accuracy and his moves within the paper.
Mr. Blair called Mr. Landman an “honest, honorable, misguided man.”
“He wants to believe that we live in a meritocracy simply because he follows a meritocracy,” Mr. Blair said. “He is unwilling to believe that there are people who work under him who are racist. And because he can’t make that compensation or that judgment, his actions, for an honorable man, come widely off the mark. He was among the people who helped save my life—but I also recognize him for what he is, and he’s misguided. He’s convinced that because Jon Landman doesn’t think race is a factor in anything, that the editors who work for him do not use race.
“I don’t want to go into the specifics of alleging X, Y or Z, but it’s not just in my regard,” Mr. Blair continued. “It’s every black reporter, except for a handful that are protected.”
Informed of Mr. Blair’s comments, Mr. Landman said: “For him to call these people racist is extraordinary. These were the same people who tried to save his life when he was as destructive as anyone I’ve ever seen in the newsroom.”
Following days of meetings with Times executives the week of April 27, Mr. Blair resigned on May 1. Ms. Glowacka, who said she had been unaware of Mr. Blair’s misdeeds and had been lied to even as the higher-ups were interrogating him, said she received a call from Mr. Boyd telling her to “leave and be with him, look after him.”
“After that, I was his baby-sitter, his suicide watcher,” Ms. Glowacka said. “Whatever it was.” She said she later quit after it became apparent that, given the kind of attention she’d received and the false rumors surrounding her, (Ms. Glowacka, whose parents were friends of Mr. Raines’ wife, was recommended by Mr. Raines for her job, but said she and Mr. Blair did not exploit that relationship) she’d no longer be comfortable back at the paper.
That day, Mr. Blair said he returned to the Realization Center, where he was told that he needed to check himself into some sort of hospital. He chose Silver Hill in New Canaan, Conn., he said, where at last he’d admitted to others the extent of his misdeeds.
He stayed six days, Mr. Blair said, adding that his leaving wasn’t against medical advice. He hadn’t slipped back into drugs, he said, and received “meds” for the first time. The doctor, he said, told him he wasn’t having a psychological episode. They told him to stay on the medication and keep away from the press.
This is Mr. Blair’s new life: going to therapy three times a week. Refuting some claims, confirming others. (In a conversation, Thomas Blair, Jayson’s father, backed up his son’s claims at The Times that [Thomas Blair] had worked for NASA in the early 1980’s and had had a cousin on Illinois’ death row.)
Mr. Blair said he also planned to write a book. He knew such a prospect angered his former colleagues, who felt he would be cashing in on a betrayal. And he resented the paper’s internal investigation. “My reaction to the Times story? I definitely feel sad for my role in the problems they’re having now, and what it’s done to my former colleagues—but I felt they did it to themselves. The Times did it to itself by writing a story that tried to put the blame on one man’s shoulders without examining how the institution would allow that to happen. On its face, a story like that’s not credible, and everyone’s naturally jumped on it.
“As much as I feel guilt for my role in it, I don’t feel bad for The Times’ position. I need time to cool my anger, and they need time to cool their anger, too,” Mr. Blair said. “Most of them are also upset that I’m planning on writing, because they think I need to focus on myself. The only way I can do that is if they start paying my bills for me.”
But Mr. Blair said he’d already begun to write. He saw his story as “a cautionary tale for anyone in a job who’s self-destructing right now.” He called the writing process “very therapeutic.”
“For the first time, I’m writing down the series of lies, and it’s made me realize: I did do this,” Mr. Blair said.
Believe it or not, Mr. Blair added, his life was better.
“It’s hard in a lot of ways, but I think about where I would be now,” he said. He meant if he hadn’t gotten caught. He nodded to Ms. Glowacka. “She would be sitting behind some desk not writing, and I would be pretending to be traveling across the country, really getting depressed in my apartment.
“It’s got to be better,” Mr. Blair said, slouched in the butterfly chair. “It’s going to work out for me.”
He got up. On the nearby coffee table was a copy of A Million Little Pieces, the memoir by the self-rehabilitated drug addict, James Frey. Sticking from it was a business card, which he took out. It said: JAYSON BLAIR, Reporter. Then: The New York Times.
Jayson Blair looked at it. “This is my new bookmark,” he said.