Off the Record

On the evening of April 28, Jim Roberts, the national editor for The New York Times , called his reporter,

On the evening of April 28, Jim Roberts, the national editor for The New York Times , called his reporter, Jayson Blair. Questions, he said he told Mr. Blair, had arisen about an April 26 story Mr. Blair had written about Juanita Anguiano, the mother of a 24-year-old Army mechanic who’d gone off to Iraq and was then the last American soldier declared missing in action. A reporter for the San Antonio Express-News , Macarena Hernandez-a former Times intern-had called the paper that day in distress, alerting The Times to similarities between Mr. Blair’s story and hers, also about Ms. Anguiano, that ran on April 18.

Mr. Blair was in Fairfax, Va., Mr. Roberts said, but now he wanted to meet with him in New York.

“I had been told he was covering a hearing [on the Washington, D.C., sniper case] in Fairfax, Va.,” Mr. Roberts said. “Now, I’m not certain of anything.”

Jayson Blair was a 27-year-old reporter who, according to newsroom sources, was well-liked in the newsroom of The Times . He first joined as an intern in 1998, was hired as an intermediate reporter in 1999, and became a full reporter in 2001. As it turned out, Mr. Blair hadn’t traveled to Texas to interview Ms. Anguiano about her son. He lifted whole swaths, including descriptions and quotations, from the work of Ms. Hernandez, whom he knew and once worked with. Confronted with this evidence, Mr. Blair resigned his post on Thursday, May 1.

In a letter Mr. Blair wrote to Times executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd, Mr. Blair apologized for his “lapse in journalistic integrity.”

“This is a time in my life that I have been struggling with recurring personal issues, which have caused me great pain,” Mr. Blair wrote. “I am now seeking appropriate counseling. Journalism and The New York Times have been very good to me and I regret what I have done.

“I am deeply sorry,” Mr. Blair concluded.

When reached by Off the Record, Mr. Blair declined to comment. But speaking to Off the Record on May 5, Mr. Raines accepted Mr. Blair’s mea culpa.

“The last thing we want to do is demonize Jayson Blair,” Mr. Raines said. “He wrote a public letter apologizing for a journalistic lapse in integrity. He apologized for it. I can accept that. But my concern is for our readers and our integrity.”

For Mr. Raines and The Times , the episode began on Tuesday, April 22. Since the start of the war in Iraq, Mr. Roberts said, The Times had maintained a database, tracking the dead and missing, producing yearbook-esque eulogies about those who had died. Mr. Roberts said he’d heard from a researcher working on the database that there were only two soldiers left who’d been deemed M.I.A.’s. When another set of remains was identified, that left one-Edward Anguiano. Mr. Roberts thought it would be a good idea to profile the family of the last missing soldier, and Mr. Blair got the assignment. (Mr. Anguiano’s remains were later found.)

Mr. Blair posted an e-mail saying he was “off to San Antonio,” Mr. Roberts said, and turned in his copy on the afternoon of Thursday, April 24. Mr. Roberts said he liked what he saw, but that the Times desk sent Mr. Blair back for more phone reporting. The story ran in The Times two days later, in its April 26 edition. The following Monday, Mr. Roberts said he was called into a meeting with Mr. Boyd.

In the meeting, Mr. Boyd-joined by Sheila Rule, a senior manager in charge of reporter recruiting, and Bill Schmidt, The Times ‘ associate managing editor-told Mr. Roberts there was a problem. After looking over both pieces, Mr. Roberts agreed and called Mr. Blair. He asked him if he’d ever seen the San Antonio story. Mr. Blair said no. According to Mr. Roberts, he told Mr. Blair to return to New York with his notes so they could meet first thing on Tuesday morning.

In the meeting that followed on April 29, Mr. Roberts said that Mr. Blair maintained his innocence, saying he’d traveled to Texas and had met with Ms. Anguiano. Mr. Blair also said he’d mixed up his notes with copies of other stories that he’d downloaded onto his laptop, Mr. Roberts said.

Following the public disclosure in the Washington City Paper and The Washington Post of a note sent to both Mr. Boyd and Mr. Raines by Express-News editor Robert Rivard, Mr. Boyd met with Mr. Blair the following day, Wednesday, April 30, for five minutes. Mr. Boyd said he urged Mr. Blair to tell them everything that happened. Mr. Roberts said he told Mr. Boyd and others: “I just don’t have any confidence he was ever there.”

Midway through Wednesday, April 30, Mr. Blair, along with representation from the Newspaper Guild, met with Mr. Schmidt and members of The Times ‘ legal staff. In a session that lasted into the early evening, Mr. Schmidt said that Mr. Blair again gave his account of what had occurred. The Times , Mr. Schmidt said, asked that Mr. Blair provide receipts and documents of his travel. The meeting would be continued the following day.

The next morning, however, according to Mr. Boyd and Mr. Schmidt, Mr. Blair refused to appear. The Guild told Mr. Schmidt that Mr. Blair wouldn’t furnish proof of his reporting, and that he’d chosen to resign. The Times made the announcement the following day in an editor’s note and in a story about the incident by Times reporter Jacques Steinberg. Mr. Steinberg is now one of the reporters investigating Mr. Blair’s past work.

Since his abrupt departure, Mr. Blair has been criticized by those outside and inside The Times who say the paper should have seen problems coming. Insiders say that Mr. Blair, while extremely amiable, often displayed erratic behavior. (In a report published in the Washington City Paper , Mr. Raines said that Mr. Blair had previously enrolled in a company program that provides counseling for employees with personal problems). Critics were quick to note that The Times had published the dozens of corrections regarding Mr. Blair’s work since he began writing as an intern in 1998.

Speaking to Off the Record, Mr. Raines addressed Mr. Blair’s errors. He acknowledged that following his jump to metro reporter from his apprenticeship in 1999 and 2000, Mr. Blair struggled to get things right. Indeed, from Sept. 11 to early 2002, he said Mr. Blair wrote 70 stories, with eleven corrections. But Mr. Raines said Mr. Blair improved (two corrections in 100 stories) after receiving a stern warning in April 2002 from metro editor Jonathan Landman and Nancy Sharkey, assistant to the managing editor.

Mr. Landman said he had seen talent in Mr. Blair, but had warned him several times about the mistakes. After the reprimand, there were only two mistakes in over a hundred stories.

“We told him to go real slow,” Mr. Landman said. “I said, ‘I don’t care if you just do a brief a week-the point is to get things accurate and in context.'”

Mr. Landman added that “the guy was a promising young reporter. You wanted to make it work.”

Following a stint in metro, during which Mr. Boyd said the paper kept close watch on his work, The Times moved Mr. Blair in summer 2002 to an assignment in sports, where, Mr. Boyd said, “it was thought that based on his performance, he deserved a shot to see what he could do.”

However, during the Washington, D.C., sniper crisis, Mr. Raines dispatched eight reporters-including Mr. Blair-to cover the story. Mr. Raines said he thought Mr. Blair was a good choice, since he’d grown up in the area and went to school at the University of Maryland. As the clamor of the sniper arrests ended and the court cases began, Mr. Roberts said, “We felt it was wise to keep him on the story.”

But The Times is now investigating Mr. Blair’s reporting in at least two sniper-case stories from October 2002 to January 2003. On Oct. 30, Mr. Blair reported that U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio had interrupted the interrogation of the sniper suspect John Muhammad at the behest of the White House, a report that was later disputed by Mr. DiBiagio. In a piece on Dec. 22, he wrote that DNA evidence ruled out Mr. Muhammad as the primary shooter. Regarding the latter assertion, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Horan called a press conference to dispute The Times ‘ story. But Mr. Roberts told Off the Record that in his conversation with Mr. Horan, the prosecutor never made clear what his problems with the story were. (In a December piece about how Kent State University counted football attendance, Mr. Blair quoted an athletic-department official who later said he never spoke to Mr. Blair.)

As The Times begins the process of re-reporting Mr. Blair’s stories, the paper has also taken shots for letting a young reporter rise too far, too fast. The conversation has also considered Mr. Blair’s race (he is African-American). On May 4 on his CNN program Reliable Sources , Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz asked: “Look, this was a promising young black reporter. I wonder if a middle-aged hack would have gotten away with 50 mistakes and still be at that job.”

Asked if he wanted to respond to Mr. Kurtz’s assertion, Mr. Raines said: “No.” But then he added that The Times had a commitment to “equal treatment of all our employees.”

“If someone wants to have some unbecoming speculation on their television show, that’s their prerogative,” Mr. Raines said. “We have a diverse staff, and we manage them in a very evenhanded way.”

Asked about Mr. Blair’s youth, Mr. Raines said the paper had “lots” of correspondents in their 20’s, and called upon his own and his predecessor’s history at the paper.

“Some people come here in their 20’s,” Mr. Raines said. “Some in their 30’s. I came to The Times at the age of 34. [Former executive editor] Joe Lelyveld came at the age of 25. We don’t discriminate against people because of their youth or their being old.”

Sources within The Times have viewed the episode with a combination of anger and disappointment-anger over one of their own betraying a public trust, disappointment over someone who decided to implode their career.

“It makes you very, very sad,” Mr. Landman said.

Esther Newberg, the powerful senior vice president of ICM, was enjoying a nice lunch at media eatery Michael’s on May 1 when she noticed Jim Wiatt, the L.A.–based president of the William Morris Agency, entering the restaurant.

Mr. Wiatt, who was accompanied by Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the National Hockey League, did the usual Michael’s move: Within eyeshot of bold-facers like Tina Brown and Dominick Dunne, he sidled up to glad-hand his onetime mentor.

What Mr. Wiatt received was an extended middle finger in his face.

“I was approached,” Ms. Newberg said. “He said, ‘Hello.'”

Ms. Newberg told The Observer it was a “friendly bird.”

But a spokesman for Mr. Wiatt said the William Morris agent was perplexed by Ms. Newberg’s one-fingered salute-especially considering he had a guest in tow.

While Ms. Newberg would not comment on her motivations for flipping Mr. Wiatt off, it’s safe to say that Mr. Wiatt’s departure from ICM three and a half years ago has remained a cause for some lingering bitterness. Mr. Wiatt, who once threw a 50th-birthday party for his former superior, jumped ship to become president at William Morris in 1999.

But just to show she had no beef against William Morris as an institution, Ms. Newberg insisted we report that she recently greeted another agent at that company, senior vice president Suzanne Gluck, with a kiss.

Ms. Gluck did not return phone calls.

-Joe Hagan Off the Record