Off the record

Posted: May 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Plagiarism. Fabrication. Fraud. The sad saga of Jayson Blair will dog the New York Times -- and all journalists -- for years.

 The Times came clean about Blair, a 27-year-old reporter who resigned from the paper this month, in a May 11 front-page story. So far, an internal investigation shows Blair lied in all or parts of 36 of the 73 articles he filed while working for the national desk since last October.
More problems will probably turn up before the investigation is complete. But the evidence we’ve already seen proves Blair should never have been made a national reporter.

 Back in April 2002, Metropolitan Desk Editor Jonathan Landman sent an e-mail warning, “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.” Landman was Blair’s boss at the time, so one would expect other editors would take his opinion seriously.

 Instead, six months later, the newspaper’s executive editor Howell Raines sent Blair to Maryland to cover the biggest story of the year -- the D.C. area sniper story. Raines failed to inform Blair’s new editor about the reporter’s problems. Blair had apparently sought counseling, and Raines said, “We do not stigmatize people for seeking help.”

 So a man with a real problem was suddenly promoted, without proper supervision, into a position where he could do some real damage. And he did.

 After less than a week in Maryland, Blair was on the Times front page with a story that said the White House had pressured local investigators to drop their questioning of suspect John Muhammad just as he was getting ready to confess. The problem is, the story wasn’t true.

 As the Times reported in its May 11 mea culpa, “Both the United States attorney, Thomas M. DiBiagio, and a senior Federal Bureau of Investigation official issued statements denying certain details,” of Blair’s report.

 Regardless of his history, this story should never have made it into the paper, because it was based entirely on five unnamed law enforcement officials. Did any of these five sources even exist? Or did Blair simply create them all to back up some of the idle gossip he heard while hanging around with cops and reporters? Unless Blair writes a book some day (count on it) we’ll never know.
That’s because no one ever asked him to identify his sources. Amazingly, that includes Raines, Managing Editor Gerald Boyd and National Editor Jim Roberts, among others. In fact, Raines, who knew all about Blair’s past problems, even sent the reporter an e-mail congratulating him for “great shoe-leather reporting.”
Blair clearly realized he could get away with making stuff up. So he did it again.

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.”