N.Y. Times Uncovers Dozens Of Faked Stories by Reporter
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2003; Page A01
The New York Times, in an extraordinary admission of journalistic fraud in at least 36 articles, called the repeated deceptions of reporter Jayson Blair "a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper."
Describing Blair as "a troubled young man veering toward professional self-destruction," the paper today recounted how the reporter faked stories from Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio and Texas without ever leaving New York, using a cell phone and laptop computer to disguise his whereabouts and deceive his bosses.
It is a portrait of a wide-ranging management failure as well, as the Times's top editors failed to heed one red flag after another while promoting Blair to national reporter. In April 2002, metropolitan editor Jonathan Landman sent newsroom administrators a two-sentence e-mail message that read: "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now."
Instead, Blair was handed such sensitive assignments as the Washington sniper case and interviewing the parents of soldiers wounded or killed in Iraq -- assignments in which, as The Washington Post reported last week, he repeatedly invented or plagiarized the comments of those involved.
Five Times reporters, two researchers and three editors conducted more than 150 interviews in producing a sweeping self-examination filling several pages that attempted to set the record straight and apologize to readers.
"By November," the Times reported, "he was fabricating quotations and scenes, undetected. By March, he was lying in his articles and to his editors about being at a court hearing in Virginia, in a police chief's home in Maryland and in front of a soldier's home in West Virginia. By the end of April another newspaper was raising questions about plagiarism. And by the first of May, his career at The Times was over."
As Times Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. bluntly told his paper: "It's a huge black eye."
Many news organizations have suffered major embarrassments over the last two decades. The Post returned a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 over reporter Janet Cooke's invention of an 8-year-old heroin addict. The Wall Street Journal's R. Foster Winans was convicted of selling advance information from his column. NBC staged a fiery truck crash on "Dateline." The New Republic published 27 fabricated articles by Stephen Glass, and the Boston Globe several bogus columns by Patricia Smith.
But in scope, breadth, pathos and sheer human inventiveness for covering his fictional tracks, Jayson Blair may have no equal, especially considering that his transgressions occurred at one of the nation's most prestigious and carefully edited newspapers.
Blair said he lost a cousin in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon; the victim's family told the Times it was not related to Blair.
Blair falsified expense accounts to make it appear he was traveling the country when he was at home.
Blair last month described two wounded Marines lying side by side at Bethesda Naval Medical Center, though he was never there. While he did interview one of the men, Lance Cpl. James Klingel, by telephone, "most of that stuff I didn't say," Klingel told the Times.
Blair deceived his own freelance photographer when he was supposed to be in Cleveland interviewing the Rev. Tandy Sloan, whose son died in Iraq and who later said he never spoke to Blair. The photographer reached Blair three times by cell phone, only to be told they could not meet. The resulting article lifted a half-dozen passages from other news accounts, including four from The Post.
The Times's own photo editors suspect that Blair used their digital pictures to fake a story from Hunt Valley, Md., where he described Martha and Michael Gardner anxiously awaiting news of their son, a Marine in Iraq.
"I am giving them a breather for about 30 minutes," Blair e-mailed National Editor Jim Roberts. "It's amazing timing. Lots of wrenching ups and downs with all the reports of casualties."
Blair was still in New York when he wrote that note.
How did a 27-year-old journalist from Centreville High School in Northern Virginia -- he had previously been a freelance reporter for The Post and an intern for the Times and the Boston Globe -- work himself into a position where he could practice such high-level fraud? And why was no one at the New York Times able to stop him?
In 1999, when Blair joined the Times as an intermediate reporter who would remain on probation until proving himself, the paper said everyone assumed he had graduated from the University of Maryland -- he had not -- and one editor soon told him he needed a more balanced lifestyle than drinking scotch and smoking cigarettes.
While Blair charmed many colleagues in the Manhattan newsroom, he was "running up company expenses from a bar around the corner, and taking company cars for extended periods, racking up parking tickets," the paper said in its report, which was posted online yesterday. He was also making plenty of mistakes -- there would be 50 corrections in 3 1/2 years -- and being lectured about his inaccuracies.
Landman opposed Blair's elevation to staff reporter in 2001, but a committee that included Gerald Boyd, now the managing editor, recommended the move, and Joseph Lelyveld, then the executive editor, approved it. Landman said top management had made clear that furthering the career of a reporter like Blair, who is African American, was part of the newspaper's commitment to diversity.
"To say now that his promotion was about diversity in my view doesn't begin to capture what was going on," Boyd, the paper's top-ranking black editor, is quoted as saying, calling Blair "a young, promising reporter."
Blair's behavior became more erratic after the Sept. 11 attacks, when he claimed to have lost the relative and was unavailable for long stretches. Blair's mounting corrections caught the attention of the new executive editor, Howell Raines.
By January 2002, Landman told Blair in an evaluation that his correction rate was "extraordinarily high by the standards of the paper." He warned Boyd and another top editor of "big trouble" in a note that accompanied the evaluation. Blair soon spent two weeks in an employee counseling program, and later took a brief leave.
Blair was shuffled to the sports department -- "If you take Jayson, be careful," Landman recalled warning the sports editor -- but at Boyd's urging, he was soon drafted to cover the Washington sniper case.
Within six days, Blair had a front-page scoop about the arrest of the older sniper suspect, John Muhammad. Blair reported, based on unnamed law enforcement sources, that U.S. attorney Thomas DiBiagio in Maryland had forced a premature end to the interrogation of Muhammad just as he was ready to confess.
In fact, said the Times, two senior law enforcement officials now agree that Muhammad was trying to arrange for a shower and a meal, not "explaining the roots of his anger," as Blair wrote. DiBiagio and a top FBI official protested, as did several veteran Times reporters in Washington.
Raines, however, sent Blair a note praising his "great shoe-leather reporting." He told the newspaper he did not ask Blair to disclose his sources, as is sometimes done in sensitive cases, because he had no idea that he was dealing with "a pathological pattern of misrepresentation, fabricating and deceiving." Nor did Raines tell national editor Roberts of Blair's earlier problems.
In December, Blair wrote a piece about the teenage sniper suspect, Lee Boyd Malvo, that prompted Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert Horan to call a news conference and declare the story "dead wrong." But the Times felt unable to publish a correction because Horan would not specify the errors.
In January, metro chief Landman finally told Roberts that Blair was error-prone and needed to be watched, but in another example of the communications problems that seemed to prevent action, Roberts said the warning "got socked in the back of my head" and he did not tell his deputies.
By now, Blair's fiction-writing extended to his expense accounts. He said he bought blankets at a Marshalls department store in Washington, but the receipt showed the purchase was made in Brooklyn. He said he dined with a law enforcement official at a Tutta Pasta restaurant in Washington, but the Tutta Pasta was in Brooklyn. No one caught the discrepancies.
Raines and his senior editors, meanwhile, were so impressed with Blair's seemingly far-flung reporting that they discussed giving him a permanent spot on the coveted national staff. "Here was a guy who had been working hard and getting into the paper on significant stories," Raines told the Times. But Roberts balked, saying he told Boyd that Blair "works the way he lives -- sloppily."
Between late October and late April, Blair claimed to have filed stories from 20 cities in six states -- yet did not submit any hotel, plane or rental car receipts. Blair did not have a company credit card and his own cards were maxed out, forcing him to rely on Roberts's credit card.
It was near the end of this period that Blair, as previously reported, faked an interview in West Virginia with George Lynch, the father of the rescued POW Jessica Lynch. The family joked about the nonexistent tobacco fields and cattle Blair described in an article as being near the house. But no one complained because "we just figured it was going to be a one-time thing," Jessica's sister Brandi told the Times.
Even as Blair's deceptions finally caught up with him, he refused to confess.
When the San Antonio Express-News complained that Blair had plagiarized its account of a Texas woman whose son was later found dead in Iraq, Roberts confronted Blair and asked him to describe the woman's house. He did, right down to the red Jeep in the driveway and the roses in the yard -- details again drawn from the paper's photo archives.
At one point, Roberts demanded: "Look me in the eye and tell me you did what you say you did." Blair did just that.
Media analysts said the damage -- 36 fabrications in Blair's last 73 stories -- could be lasting. Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism called the Times investigation "pretty remarkable," but added: "I'm not sure they've come to grips particularly well with why did this happen and should the paper have caught it sooner and why didn't they."
Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs said that "any time you find something so pervasive, you have to wonder what else slips past the checks and balances. The Times was a standard that journalists looked up to. Now it's something they're going to have to live down."
Steven Roberts, a media professor at George Washington University and a former Times reporter, said that "there are no official methods of accountability in journalism -- no review boards, no licensing procedures. The first rule of ethical behavior is when you make a mistake, find out everything you possibly can and come clean as quickly as possible."
Blair has given no interviews since resigning and did not speak to the Times, and spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said the editors would have no further comment yesterday. Raines is quoted as saying he will appoint a task force to identify lessons for the newspaper.