On Dec. 22, the reporter had another front-page story about the case. Again, Blair relied on unidentified law enforcement sources. He wrote that “all the evidence” seemed to show Muhammad’s teenage accomplice, Lee Malvo, was the shooter.
This time, authorities were so outraged, they called a news conference to denounce Blair’s story. “I don't think that anybody in the investigation is responsible for the leak,” Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney Robert Horan announced, “because so much of it was dead wrong.”
Once again, nobody at the newspaper had forced Blair to reveal his sources. Once again, we’ll never know if any sources actually existed, or if Blair simply fabricated them, as he fabricated so much of what he wrote.
As a journalist, I realize unidentified sources can be critical. Often someone isn’t willing to speak on the record, but has valuable information. Big stories like Watergate might have gone untold if unidentified sources were banned.
But at the same time, editors must check up on their reporters. An editor should be able to call a source and verify information, while still keeping the name of the source confidential.
Barbara Crossette, a former United Nations bureau chief for the Times, gets to the heart of this problem: “Copy editors and middling desk editors (sometimes even departmental editors) have been demeaned and relegated to the sidelines. Boring, annoying questions about sources and facts are brushed off with disdain by writers and top editors,” she wrote on the Poynter Institute’s Web site on May 14.
The biggest problem with Jayson Blair was not that he was an under qualified affirmative action hire. It’s that his editors didn’t verify his work before it went into the newspaper.
That’s a problem the Times, and all journalistic outlets, can and must fix if they want to earn back our trust. We’ll soon see if they’re willing to really go back to old-fashioned “shoe leather-reporting.”