Monday, May 12, 2003
Jayson Blair's many errors: This past weekend, The New York Times presented us with the first of what promises to be several accounts of the journalistic fraud perpetrated by former boy wonder Jayson Blair.
The Times' account is, for the most part, a candid, brutal and honest assessment of where they went wrong when it came to Blair's work and career.
However, when it comes to how Blair got the job in the first place, the Times' political agenda forbids an honest assessment.
Mr. Blair's Times supervisors and Maryland professors emphasize that he earned an internship at The Times because of glowing recommendations and a remarkable work history, not because he is black. The Times offered him a slot in an internship program that was then being used in large part to help the paper diversify its newsroom.
I'm sorry, but this construction confuses me. He earned the internship in a program that was helping "the paper diversify its newsroom," but not because he was black? I'm curious as to how many white interns were in that same program. If anyone knows, please tell me.
This is another interesting thing about newsroom "diversity" -- it's only skin-deep. The article notes that Blair is the son of a federal official and a schoolteacher. Sounds solidly middle-class to me.
During his 10-week internship at The Times, in the summer of 1998, Mr. Blair wrote 19 news articles, helped other reporters and never seemed to leave the newsroom. "He did well," recalled Sheila Rule, a senior editor who oversees the internship program. "He did very well."
But Joyce Purnick, who was the metropolitan editor at the time, recalled thinking that he was better at newsroom socializing than at reporting, and told him during a candid lunch that after graduation he should work for a smaller newspaper. "I was telling him, 'Go learn the business,' " she said.
At summer's end, The Times offered Mr. Blair an extended internship, but he had more college course work to do before his scheduled graduation in December 1998. When he returned to the Times newsroom in June 1999, Ms. Rule said, everyone assumed he had graduated. He had not; college officials say he has more than a year of course work to complete.
Kudos to Joyce Purnick -- too bad there are too few of her at the Times.
The Times noted that, on several occasions, Blair was warned that his reporting was slipshod and his error rate so high that his job was in danger. However, those threats, in hindsight, were largely meaningless.
His mistakes became so routine, his behavior so unprofessional, that by April 2002, Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor, dashed off a two-sentence e-mail message to newsroom administrators that read: "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now."
Unfortunately, Landman's advice wasn't followed.
On Sunday morning's "Fox News Sunday" show, panelist Juan Williams acknowledged that Blair's fraud would provide fodder for opponents of diversity programs -- and argued that Blair's race had nothing to do with it.
Brit Hume countered, asking Williams if Blair was qualified to be doing the reporting that the Times had assigned him to. Williams demurred, claiming that he didn't have enough information.
I think Williams is being disingenuous, the Times article provides plenty of evidence that Blair was not qualified.
However, Williams did make two points that I do believe may have some merit. Williams said that some whites with certain pedigrees or connections were also getting jobs at prominent papers, without the kind of "minor league" experience that is required of the rest of us. The journalistic profession suffers when that happens. Second, Williams said that Blair's more and more audacious frauds were "psychotic." I'd have to agree. After reading the Times' article, I too thought he must've been nuts.