Monday 12 May 2003

The Blair Watch Project

14 Unanswered Questions in 'NY Times' Jayson Blair Probe

by Greg Mitchell

While thorough and, some might say, courageous, the mammoth report in yesterday's New York Times on the Jayson Blair scandal left many questions unanswered, most notably: How did he really get away with his evil ways for so long? But there were at least 14 other issues, big and small, left unresolved by the Times' investigators, to whit:

Size matters? As a student journalist and intern "the short and ubiquitous Mr. Blair stood out," according to the Times' report. This begs the question, how "short" does one have to be to stand out?

Race matters? Times' supervisors emphasized that Blair earned an internship at the paper in 1998 "because of glowing recommendations and a remarkable work history, not because he is black." But then, in the very next sentence, we learn: "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."

Who knew the Times was that wacky? "There are many eccentric people here, but they've earned it," Jerry Gray, an editor, informed Blair in 1999.

Maybe he should try the "Cheez Doodle Defense"? Another editor, Charles Strum, said, "I told him [Blair] that he needed to find a different way to nourish himself than drinking scotch, smoking cigarettes and buying Cheez Doodles from the vending machine."

A surefire way to get promoted at the Times? "Mr. Blair continued to make mistakes, requiring more corrections, more explanations, more lectures about the importance of accuracy. Many newsroom colleagues say he also did brazen things, including delighting in showing around copies of confidential Times documents, running up company expenses from a bar around the corner, and taking company cars for extended periods, racking up parking tickets. ...In January 2001, Mr. Blair was promoted to full-time reporter...."

Maybe they want to correct that? About midway through the Times' opus we are told, "When considered overall, Mr. Blair's correction rate at The Times was within acceptable limits." However, a few sentences later, the report quotes a January 2002 evaluation of Blair by Jonathan Landman, metropolitan editor, noting that his correction rate was "extraordinarily high by the standards of the paper."

Does stop mean go at the Times? In April 2002, we learn, Landman sent a two-sentence e-mail to newsroom administrators: "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now." This plea would go unheeded for more than a year.

Stop him before he kills again. A few months later, when Blair got briefly shuttled to the sports department, Landman recalls warning the sports editor, "If you take Jayson, be careful." Maybe the sports editor thought Landman meant "be careful to stock the vending machine in the sports department with Cheez Doodles." In any case, Blair was soon promoted to covering the top U.S. story of the time -- the D.C. area sniper shootings.

Sock it to him? After weeks of corrections and complaints about Blair's coverage of the sniper shootings, Jim Roberts, national editor, was finally warned about his "record of inaccuracy" and that he needed to be watched. Roberts, of course, did not pass this warning on to his deputies. "It got socked in the back of my head," he explained last week.

License to thrill. By this time, other Times editors had managed to form their own assessments of Mr. Blair's work. Apparently they considered him "a sloppy writer who was often difficult to track down and at times even elusive about his whereabouts." On a more positive note, "he seemed eager and energetic." Did it occur to anyone that eagerness and energy might be precisely the two qualities you would NOT want in a sloppy writer who no one can ever find?

Blanket pardon? On an expense report filed this past Janaury, Blair said he bought blankets at a Marshalls store in Washington. A check of the receipt (much) later showed that the purchase was made at a Marshalls in Brooklyn. Forget the geographic obfuscation -- does Times policy allow employees to put in for household items?

Overstatement of the year? "Man, you really get around," a fellow reporter e-mailed Blair this spring.

Why wouldn't they card him? "Mr. Blair did not have a company credit card," the Times report revealed, but "the reasons are unclear." Wait a minute, the Times investigators can trace the purchase of blankets to a store in Brooklyn but can't explain why Blair did not have a company credit card?

And who, disguised as Clark Kent... Between October and April, Blair filed articles from 20 cities in six states but did not submit a single receipt for a hotel room, rental car or airplane tickets.

Source: Editor & Publisher Online

Panic and hysteria reign at the New York Times