Jayson Blair Cracked the Code
The Young Plagiarizer Beat the New York Times at its Own Game
By Al Giordano
Narco News School of Authentic Journalism
May 12, 2003
The front page of the Sunday New York Times is a big deal for all journalists everywhere; we see one of the largest tips of an iceberg ever seen floating in the murky ocean of Commercial Media:
“Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception,” is the headline, followed by 14, 290 navel-gazing words, including an “Editors’ Note” (registration required) (the “note” doesn’t say which of the editors penned it – the subtle placement of the apostrophe indicates the plural use of the noun – the Times editors are not sufficiently stand-up guys and gals that they would sign their names at a moment of crisis) and a long sidebar documenting glaring falsehoods published by the “newspaper of record” in the Big Apple.
“There will be no newsroom search for scapegoats,” the newspaper cheesily announced. The scapegoat has already been found and slain upon the altar of 43rd Street: He is a 27-year-old ex-New York Times reporter, Jayson Blair, who resigned from his four-year Times career on May Day only after outside media alerted the Times of some, ahem, obvious problems with his reporting.
Jayson Blair should now write a manual: “Steal This Newspaper.” He gave new meaning to the newsroom term “phoning it in.” He would plagiarize material from other media, and sometimes claim, including to readers, that he was in Texas, or Maryland, or Ohio, when, it seems, he was, says the Times now, somewhere in Brooklyn. Sometimes his apparent invention of facts out of thin air harmed real people, like when he claimed that law enforcement sources had fingered the triggerman in the Washington DC sniper case (if that doesn’t unfairly prejudice a defendant to a jury pool, what does?)
The Times has now characterized Blair with words normally reserved for serial killers: “a troubled young man veering toward professional self-destruction,” who was both “prolific,” and “pathological.” The newspaper now marvels at the “audacity of the deceptions,” and “his savviness and his ingenious ways of covering his tracks,” his “hungry ambition and an unsettling interest in newsroom gossip,” his “sloppy” physical appearance, and his penchant for “drinking scotch, smoking cigarettes and buying Cheez Doodles from the vending machines.”
“The person who did this is Jayson Blair,” the newspaper quotes its publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., as saying. “Let’s not begin to demonize our executives — either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher.”
Oh, Mr. Sulzberger, please… Let’s…
Nightmare on 43rd Street
Nowhere in the confessional tome of the Sunday Times is there any mention nor consideration of the institutional pressures on journalists, particularly young journalists, at that newspaper or at Commercial Media institutions in general.
Those institutional pressures, not addressed, will continue. A kid in his twenties killed the New York Times? Does anybody believe that, kind readers? No. The Market killed the New York Times, years ago (the recent circulation dip of five percent in Times sales came prior to the Jayson Blair crisis), and all of the public hand-wringing going on today at that newspaper won’t change a damn thing about its corrupted Modus Operandi.
To work at the New York Times a reporter must, first, pee into a bottle both to prove that he doesn’t smoke grass and to simultaneously show his willingness to suffer the most personal kind of humiliations to get a job there… If he likes tobacco, he has to go outside in the winter cold to smoke cigarettes; this predates the new city laws against smokers by years… He has to wear a suit and tie (or equivalent feminine uniforms if he is a she; indeed, prior to his downfall, the Times now reports, one of the chief concerns one editor had about Blair was the “sloppy” way he dressed, and that’s being spun, incredibly, now as an early warning sign of his deviancy)… In other words, he and she are neutered and spayed before they sign their first byline as Timesmen. That’s how the Times weeds out the free spirits and free thinkers, for starters.
Being “prolific” is a requirement at the Times, not an option. “Times journalists have so far uncovered new problems in at least 36 of the 73 articles Mr. Blair wrote since he started getting national reporting assignments late last October,” the newspaper tells us today.
Let’s do the math: 73 articles in seven months brings an average of about ten a month, or one article every three days… Or, presuming a five-day workweek, that would be one article about every two days for the rookie reporter at the mighty New York Times. Add to that workload the context of the extensive travel requirements to go out into the North American heartland and do the “real people” stories that became his trademark, and there was a lot of pressure on this kid that came from the very same Times that now rattles sabers against him.
This heavy rate of reproduction was not new to Blair’s job description: The Times notes that prior to those final 73 stories in a little more than 200 days, Blair had published, from June 1999 to October 2002, a total of “600” articles; an average of 15 assignments per 20-workday-month; around 180 articles a year.
A personal disclosure: I’m a journalism school professor and president of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism. My J-School is, obviously, on a much smaller scale than the 375-odd reporter corps at the New York Times, of course; I’ve had just 26 Authentic Journalism Scholars come into my responsibility so far this year. Most of them continue collaborating with Narco News Andean Bureau Chief Luis Gómez and me today. We work daily with young (and more experienced) journalists. The care and training of young journalists is something that we know from first-hand experience.
And what is one of the first and biggest problems that young journalists have when entering this vocation? In our experience, it is meeting deadline; getting the story done by the date and hour for which it is assigned.
Any journalist – young or old – assigned to write 73 stories in seven months – 600 in the prior three years – is being asked, in effect, to produce “junk food journalism.” At institutions like the giant New York Times, sure, they dress it all up and make it look sufficiently effete and snobbish so that it has the whiff of expensive uptown champagne rather than cheap Bowery wine; but the hangover from consuming its product is the same. Cheez Doodles from the company vending machines seem a natural backdrop for this form of assembly line journalism: the company, after all, and not Blair, put the the Cheez Doodles into the sacrosanct cathedral on 43rd Street.
Elitism as Marketing Strategy
Although it maintains an “elite” image, the sweatshop of the New York Times, while it may pay better, is not all that distinct from any other corporate slavery gig: the goal is to produce (in this case, reproduce) a product – “news” – for sale. That the product is dually packaged to get the consumer’s buck-fifty at the newsstand and the tens of thousands of dollars per page from the advertising class that constitutes the larger income of the newspaper further complicates the challenge to the worker: He and she have to please a more powerful master than the public; he and she have to please only that part of the public with expendable cash, a minority of citizens in New York, and in the rest of América. That subgroup – and not the democratic majority – is the only public that the advertising class wants to reach. Thus, the affectations of snobbery on 43rd Street are intentional. They are part and parcel of a marketing strategy. That this imposed style creates incentive for workers to become bad human beings, of course, will not be analyzed in the Times’ spin-control over the Jayson Blair saga.
There are rewards, at the New York Times, for all who become cynical in their corruption of this once grand profession called journalism. It can be found in how the newspaper allows Timesman James Risen to cover the “intelligence beat” even as he strikes a deal with the Central Intelligence Agency to review, prior to publication, chapters of his book. It was similarly found recently in the work of Judith Miller – “Miss Suspicious,” as she is called in Authentic Journalist circles in New York – making bizarre deals with government sources about what she can and can’t report in the Times (MSN Slate’s Jack Shafer got two excellent stories out of this one; why not one in the Times, if Raines means what he says?), while, at least indirectly, accepting money from the government of Israel, reports our colleague Dan Forbes on the Globalvision News Network, as she demonizes the Arab world in story after story on her chemical warfare beat.
This institutional snobbery could also be seen the April 28th letter by Times International Business Editor Patrick Lyons: Narco News’ former pen pal and my yawn-inspiring replacement as a regular commenter on letters pages of the Poynter Institute’s increasingly pro-corporate Media News (To paraphrase the late Ronald Reagan: “I saved that Left Rail, Mr. Romenesko!”). Lyons’ recent letter to the aforementioned Media News bemoaned the fact that a media criticism job offered in California only paid $40,000 per year. Lyons was apoplectic at the idea that a working-class journo might be criticizing the upper castes. He asked, citing high property costs in that county of California: “What caliber of person are they going to get to work for $40,000 a year…?” (Is home ownership now a prerequisite for caliber among journalists? Maybe that was Jayson’s problem: Did he not own a home? That, the sloppy clothes, and the Cheez Doodles, made him do it?)
The problem is not just that Timesmen, serially, with very few exceptions, become snobs, dripping with contempt for the poor and working classes: This quality – in a word, inhumanity – is expected from them in order to rise up through the ranks of that newspaper. There is manifold harm to society when those who think the First Amendment spoke of “paid speech” and not freedom of speech and press develop a Patrick Lyons-like institutional hatred for all that is poor or less powerful, or, worse, they echo Lyons’ sneering contempt for, and cowardice of, all that is honest and courageous.
Young Jason Blair apparently rebelled against this institutional snobbery with what the Times now claims was his “sloppy” dress. My guess is, working with young people as I do, that much at the root of this current crisis in Timesland – the artfulness of Blair’s plagiarisms, the sheer creativity he put into faking his bylines from “the little sister states” outside of New York – was also sprouted in the fertile soil of rebellion.
Like Bill Bennett waddling up to a slot machine in Vegas, Blair must felt a grand thrill each time he pulled the lever – or clicked “send” on his laptop – and put something over on his bosses. Sure, he probably also had the sensation that he was doing something wrong, but, kind reader, we are speaking of youthful rebellion here inside a corrupted institution: That, combined with the Times’ own institutionalized bluster about “ethics” that is so obviously contrived and false, and the emergence of a Jayson on 43rd Street was predictable; a natural extension of the tyranny of the Market over that newspaper and over Commercial Journalism.
Blair Cracked the Code
Jayson Blair cracked the code. He figured out the fractures in the Times’ bureaucratic vision of “journalism,” and he beat the system for four years. One editor, according to the Times, felt “this reporter was demonstrating hustle and flair. He had no reason to know that Mr. Blair was demonstrating a different sort of enterprise.” Blair scammed his way out of having to write obituaries on those who died in the rubble of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, by claiming to his Times keepers that he had a relative who had been killed there; a claim that later turned out to be false. But: “When considered over all,” the Times now confesses, “Mr. Blair’s correction rate at The Times was within acceptable limits.”
Blair is, to Commercial Journalism, something akin to one of those gambling professionals who have figured out how to beat the house in Bill Bennett’s Las Vegas: The casinos routinely ban those folks from gambling on their premises; but nobody in that industry is so arrogant as to say that the skilled gambler is a “corruption.” Rather, the gambling shark is a natural extension of the industrialization of gambling, just as Jayson Blair is a natural extension of the industrialization of journalism. Eventually somebody figures out: it’s all format and code, and when format and code govern an industry, there is always a safecracker out there who figures out how to beat the system.
But guys like Blair and Bennett – the “moralist” whose penchant for gambling has recently been exposed – always seem to want to get caught. They leave paper trails; in Blair’s case, he stupidly submitted two-bit expense checks from Brooklyn restaurants on dates when he had supposedly filed frontline stories from other locations far away. Indeed, that is one of the evidences that the Times today trumpets as proof of his deceit. His imperfect crime aside, I give a grudging admiration for Blair’s sheer unmitigated gall – his chutzpah – to make asses of his bosses again and again, apparently over four years, while avoiding doing the heavy lifting around the newsroom: Blair as Slacker King. He may yet figure out how to turn his current disgrace into a moneymaker.
I’m not saying, not at all, that what Jayson Blair did was right. I would have fired him, or forced his resignation, too. Or maybe, just maybe, I would have found a better, less pressurized, way to utilize his obvious creativity for truth rather than deceit. If he applied his creativity to breaking the rules, chances are that there was not, in fact, any real outlet for his undeniable talent under the rules. Remember: artists, even con artists, are solitary birds by nature. They only work well in a team when they firmly believe that the team’s mission is worthwhile to them. In choosing my students from so many applicants, I choose those who are smart and conscientious enough to understand that their self interests are the same as the democratic interests of society; the masses.
Their downfall, regarding the Jayson Blair saga, was the institutionalized self-importance among Timesmen. Even now, as they attempt to explain it away, their prior attempts to address Blair’s problems involved, according to Sunday’s report: a “sharply worded evaluation” in January 2002, a “counseling service,” a “two-week break,” an April 2002 “letter of reprimand” and “another brief leave” followed by “a tough-love plan” (where do they come up with this shit?) with a “short leash approach,” a “brooking” of “no nonsense,” and also, “lectures about the importance of accuracy.”
What’s clear, in all this psychobabble, is that the Times managers and middle managers arrogantly presumed that a 27-year-old journalist would take them, um, seriously.
I ask the impertinent question: Why should he take these suit-and-tied maniacs seriously? Why should anyone? What is the mission and organizing principle at the post-modern corrupted New York Times that would make any bright bulb – and for all his stupidities, one can’t deny that young Jayson was bright – take those people seriously with their “sharply worded evaluations” and condescending “tough-love plans”?
Blair’s Times tenure had to be as surreal for him, over four years, as it is for his former bosses today. They have no moral standing to give stern lectures. Leadership requires earning the right to lead. The deep pockets to finance a big paycheck, and the overestimation on the part of Timesmen about how much spectacular terrain they actually own, at the New York Times, do not suffice for leadership in journalism.
You want sacrifice from a young journo? Show him and her that you, too, have sacrificed and continue doing so: Show him and her the mission, the cause, and why it matters. If you have no clear mission other than vague disingenuous rants about “accuracy” (when, after all, accuracy in the commission of half-truths just deepens the lie), you have no hope to inspire the youth. Hint: Kids are pretty fucking smart these days. What Jayson Blair lacked – I’ll venture a guess – was authentic inspiration of the sort that would cause him to believe in the cause. He was smart enough to see through it: there is no authentic cause at the Times, there only the market, the spin, and the heaps of ego-serving illusion. At the same time, Blair was under enormous deadline pressures to reproduce “news,” prolifically. And so he mocked them, artfully and brutally.
Here’s another institutional problem that lurks under these muddy waters:
Let’s look at the kinds of reporting jobs that young Jayson was given that were the gigs that he reportedly used to deceive: Blair was, no matter what institutional title is given it in Timespeak, sent to cover the “real people” beat. Have to interview wounded war veterans or their families? Oh, how plebian: Howell Raines would rather occupy himself with squashing Tim Golden’s investigations into a Democratic Senator’s problems. Send the young black kid in! He’s “hungry,” said Raines, according to the Times’ public confession.
And a quick note on the pigmentation angle at the newspaper that is black and white and now red-faced all over… The Times plays the “race card” against Blair in the very same paragraph that it claims that race (Blair is black) is not a factor. The Times writes:
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.
Huh? They say he came on board “not because he is black,” but as part of a program used “to help the paper diversify its newsroom.” Well, the way they phrased that one, the Times has just given a field day to the haters out there.
Here’s what is inherently racist (and censorious) about the concept that “diversity programs” must mainly recruit young journalists: There are scores of very skilled journalists who happen to be black or belong to other discriminated groups who are not young: They are veteran reporters, with years of experience and seasoning. They are not puppies. They don’t need or want to be housebroken. They don’t need a “short-leash” treatment. They have fought and lived all the right battles, and their bullshit detectors are set on “high.” Want diversity, Howell? Hire them! And while you are at it, hire some “white trash” veteran journos, too, who don’t turn into effete snobs when they finally get a living wage.
But, as previously established, the Times wants employees who are ready to sign up for duty as slaves. And for those old enough to remember the Civil Rights battles of recent decades, slavery, even white-collar servitude, is not an option. The Times would have to give veteran black journos real freedom of speech to tell it like it is, not just about Black America, but especially about White America. And that kind of frankness about the cracks in American culture simply is not allowed at the Times, the equal opportunity censor. And so, instead, the Times recruits inexperienced journos for “diversity” programs to mold them in its perverse Timesian image in a way that most veteran journos of any hue who are race and class conscious would never accept.
Anyway, they sent the “hungry” kid (Howell Raines’ adjective for Blair) off to look for America…
According to the Times, Jayson Blair faked on-the-scene interviews with wounded marines in the Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland; and he claimed to have been, also in Maryland, at the family home of a marine overseas, describing “the red, white, and blue pansies” in the soldier’s mother’s front yard, notes the Times, when he had only interviewed the mom via telephone (Blair was such a skilled artful dodger that the family, “delighted,” says the Times, wrote a letter to the editor, promptly published, that praised the article, and his editor also regaled him, too, for that story); and Blair reported on an Ohio church service for a dead U.S. soldier as if he was physically present in Cleveland when he was, in fact, hundreds of miles away, even deceiving the Times’ own photographer, they now say, who was present, with a creative cat-and-mouse evasion as to his whereabouts.
Here’s a choice passage from the Times’ Sunday confession about a faked journalistic visit to West Virginia:
Mr. Blair pulled details out of thin air in his coverage of one of the biggest stories to come from the war, the capture and rescue of Pfc. Jessica D. Lynch.
In an article on March 27 that carried a dateline from Palestine, W. Va., Mr. Blair wrote that Private Lynch’s father, Gregory Lynch Sr., “choked up as he stood on his porch here overlooking the tobacco fields and cattle pastures.” The porch overlooks no such thing.
“We were joking about the tobacco fields and the cattle,” the soldier’s sister later told the Times.
Jayson Blair’s shining accomplishment – we must give him points for this – was that he figured out, almost flawlessly, the “code” for how the New York Times writes about a matter it knows little about and, in fact, has only disdain for: the little people of Middle America, their quaint pansy gardens and tobacco fields, the Rockwellian images of a world that is much better described by our 2002 Journalist of the Year, Marshall Mathers, and his graphic uncensored imagery of the pent-up rage and violence that really is found throughout the trailer parks and shopping malls of “White America,” than it has ever been reported by the New York Times. Blair delivered to Times editors and readers a format of hokey “real people” coverage that adhered exactly to the formula the Times, its advertisers, and its readers, have come to expect: A reassuring illusion, not the disturbing reality.
It was precisely due to his gifts of mimicry and illusion that Jayson Blair survived through 673 stories that he wrote for the New York Times.
Mr. Sulzberger, is your Nightmare on 43rd Street really Jayson Blair’s fault?
A Simulation of Full Disclosure
Last week, New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines went on the Jim Lehrer News Hour to try and spin the story his way. “The antidote for bad journalism,” waxed Raines, in full cliché mode, “is to do good journalism about how the bad journalism got into your paper.”
Oh, really, Mr. Raines? Is that how the New York Times handled the problems brought to its attention in recent years by Narco News about the unethical behavior by disgraced ex-Mexican Bureau Chief Sam Dillon, by the serially inaccurate and unethical rookie Juan Forero who has reported knowing falsehoods from Venezuela and Colombia, by the blustering intimidation attempts against smaller online publications by International Business Editor Patrick Lyons, and others? The New York Times – Raines included – routinely stonewalls and refuses to answer inquiries by other journalists when ethics and accuracy problems come to light at the newspaper.
We must have missed the “good journalism” about how Forero – like Blair, a rookie who began that same year of 1999 at the Times – reported, in April 2002, that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had “resigned.” Or Forero’s non-disclosure that U.S. Embassy officials babysat his “interviews” with U.S. mercenary pilots in Colombia; where was the “good journalism” about that breach of the Times’ own Ethics Code? Or many other breaches of the Times’ and the readers’ trust reported again and again and again by this online newspaper.
Somehow, we never saw the “good journalism” about how Timesman Sam Dillon’s name ended up in the text of the Banamex lawsuit complaint against us, or the efforts by former international editor Andy Rosenthal to launder his image when the mierda hit the fan in Mexico.
The Times has never listened to its critics. In the Jayson Blair saga, it didn’t even listen to some of its own mid-level managers. Metro editor Jonathan Landman went on the record in January 2002, to his superiors, in a written memo: “There’s big trouble,” he said, with Blair. Did they listen? No. By April 2002, according to the Times, Landman pleaded: “stop Jayson from writing for the Times.” That’s pretty clear; no wiggle room there. But if the Times didn’t heed its own in-house warnings, it certainly doesn’t listen to Narco News’ good journalism, or anybody else’s, when we correct the NYT’s bad journalism.
How about some “good journalism” about the pressure tactics by Times International Business Editor Patrick Lyons that preceded the Poynter Institute’s removal of a link to our report on the embarrassing resignation of Times freelance Venezuelan correspondent Francisco Toro last winter? (To the small group of insiders who may wonder why I haven’t contributed to that journalism site since January, well, that incident showed that the corporate coup d’etat is in full glory over there.) Or his own, and the Times‘, apparent violations of the newspaper’s own Ethics Code so exhaustively documented and sent to Mr. Raines via e-mail?
Not to mention the “good journalism” we’re all waiting to read about the adventures and misadventures of Miss Suspicious – Judith Miller – on the bio-war and Middle Eastern beats or those of “intelligence reporter” James Risen, and their compromising deals with government agencies in the great trade-off of silence for access? Send five carnivorous reporters after the true facts of the Latin American bureaus, of all the foreign desks, and this could get very interesting very fast.
“Here at the Times we regard the trust of our readers and our integrity as our most important asset,” Raines told Jim Lehrer. “We want to reassure our readers of our intentions to use whatever resources it takes to set the record straight, to tell our readers what was wrongly reported in our paper and how it got in there.”
Of course, until the competing press exposed Jayson Blair’s false reporting of the Washington DC sniper case, and a Texas commercial newspaper complained of plagiarism by Blair of its work, and this problem became a public relations crisis for the Times, the “newspaper of record” has almost never used “whatever resources it takes to set the record straight.”
To the contrary, the New York Times and its agents have set out to intimidate and bully smaller media to shut up about its problems. The punishment is always the same: Criticize the New York Times, and the “newspaper of record” will never find any “news fit to print” about your projects unless you get into some kind of embarrassing trouble. Jayson Blair is today’s scapegoat not because he was dishonest, but, rather, because he did not follow the institutionalized instructions on precisely how to be dishonest, and, above all, because he got caught.
In all this loud display of supposedly “setting the record straight,” the Times is not even taking the tough questions from the media outlets, like the Washington Post, from which it stole stories without crediting them. Howard Kurtz reports in Sunday’s Post that Times “spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said the editors would have no further comment yesterday.”
Howell Raines, in his response to this crisis, picked his media appearances on public TV and radio programs guaranteed to lob him only softballs, and meanwhile hides in his bunker from questions by any competing colleagues with gravitas. Raines “declined repeated requests for an interview with NEWSWEEK,” noted Seth Mnookin in that weekly magazine’s online site. In the coming days, the industry’s biggest whores will reveal themselves with disingenuous praise for the Times for having somehow come clean, just as they did after the Times’ witch hunt against unjustly imprisoned scientist Wen Ho Lee unraveled three years ago. Get out your scorecard, kind readers: the response by other media will be as revealing as the Times’ own.
“The NYT needs an ombudsman,” I wrote last December 13th in the aforementioned Poynter Institute website; “too many scribes and editors suffer from an institutionalized tradition of impunity.” Now even the cicadas of Fallaci-lore will sing that song.
But it doesn’t matter any more, not like some stuck-in-the-past journalists, who still fantasize about getting jobs at the Times, think:
It was precisely the art of illusion perfected by Jason Blair in perfect harmony with the real operating practices at the New York Times that caused the newspaper’s current woes. Meanwhile, the slow class continues to live in fear and seek the favor of the newspaper that claims, falsely, to be “without fear or favor.”
The New York Times is a “Newspaper Tiger.” Put a magnifying glass to it under the sun. The paper tiger burns just like any other pulp product. But as it attempts to place the blame for its troubles on its young ex-employee for his four years of dishonesty as a Timesman, the Newspaper Tiger is playing… with matches.
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