The Magazine

The New York Times's Meltdown

From the May 26, 2003 issue: What explains it?

May 26, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 36 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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New York

Last Wednesday, the hundreds of New York Times staff lined up outside the Loew's Astor Theater on West 44th Street, a block from their offices, felt like they were part of a "perp walk," as one of them put it. As they filed into the front entrance (beneath a marquee advertising a film called "Identity"), the paper's top brass--publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., editor Howell Raines, and managing editor Gerald Boyd--rushed down an alleyway (past the poster for "Anger Management") and into a side entrance (past the poster for "On the Ropes"). An emergency meeting, closed to the public, had been called to discuss a crisis that began as a scandal over one reporter's plagiarism and fabrication, and has blossomed into an institution-wide crisis that the Times itself describes as "a low point in the 152-year history" of the paper.

In late April, the editor of the San Antonio Express-News read a story by young Times reporter Jayson Blair about Juanita Anguiano, the mother of an Iraq war MIA. He found that large tranches of it had been plagiarized from an article by an Express-News reporter--who had, coincidentally or not, known Blair as an intern at the Times half a decade before. Blair's editors were alarmed, but not all of them were surprised. A smart, affable, 27-year-old black kid from the upper-middle-class suburbs of Washington, D.C., Blair had always had a reputation within the paper as a sloppy reporter. Now, internal investigations for plagiarism showed an almost unbelievable pattern of deceit. For months and even years, Blair had invented quotations and descriptions. He had lifted material from other journalists without attribution. He had faked whole trips, penning stories from his Brooklyn apartment, relying on a New York Times bank of unpublished photographs to help him set the scene.

Blair had written about 700 stories for the Times since leaving the University of Maryland (from which, unbeknownst to his future employers, he did not graduate). A full accounting is still in progress, but a 7,200-word article assembled by a seven-man Times team of writers, editors, and lawyers and published on Sunday, May 11, found that at least 36 of 73 stories Blair filed since October are substantially invented, stolen, or factually compromised, including at least 29 with fraudulent datelines. In a story datelined Palestine, West Virginia, Blair described the way Iraq war hero Jessica Lynch's father "choked up as he stood on his porch here overlooking the tobacco fields and cattle pastures, and declared that he remained optimistic." Had Blair ever gone to Palestine, West Virginia, he would have discovered that the Lynch house was nowhere near tobacco fields. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz came up with five people--including three soldiers' parents--with whom Blair had faked interviews, and even identified an instance when, as a cub reporter for the Boston Globe, he had lifted an interview with Washington mayor Anthony Williams from the Post.

Blair had been in a lot of trouble of late. In November, he wrote a story about how certain universities exaggerate football attendance in order meet the minimum levels for Division I-A status. The athletic director at Kent State claimed he'd been quoted without having talked to Blair. In December, Virginia state attorney Robert Horan Jr. called a press conference to address an alleged "leak" in the D.C. sniper investigation reported by Blair, and indicated he suspected a fabrication. "I don't think that anybody in the investigation is responsible for the leak, because so much of it was dead wrong," Horan said. Blair is now the target of a U.S. attorney's investigation, the Times announced last week. (One can speculate--and it is only speculation--that Blair's report of nonexistent irregularities in the sniper investigation might involve obstruction of justice.)

Yet, although several Times editors had been alarmed at the slipshod quality of Blair's work, although he had even been reprimanded, he kept getting promoted, formally and informally, first to a regular position at the paper, then to some of the biggest national stories of the day, from the Washington sniper to the domestic fallout from the Iraq war. How could the Times have been so blind? Several explanations were put forward in the days after Blair resigned in early May: (1) that Blair had been protected by a left-drifting Times hierarchy bent on racial diversity; (2) that Blair rose thanks to the corruption and mismanagement of the Times itself; (3) that Blair was a con man of rare gifts; and (4) that Blair's misdeeds were just one manifestation of a continuing crisis in American journalism. Any of those reasons would have been sufficient to draw Times reporters to the closed meeting at the Astor Theater on Wednesday, and they will be sufficient to keep the Blair scandal roiling long beyond that.

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