Jayson Blair scandal reflects the person, not the profession

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Jayson Blair is beginning to make Pete Rose look contrite.

Blair, the former New York Times reporter who was fired for plagiarism and fabrication of a number of articles, is making the rounds of talk shows to promote his new book, Burning Down My Master’s House. He has appeared on “Dateline,” “The View,” the “Today Show,” “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Larry King Live,” among other programs.

All of that attention is a little bit baffling. Yes, he was at the heart of a scandal that tarnished the reputation of one of the nation’s most prominent newspapers and led to the resignation of the newspaper’s editor and managing editor, but his sole claim to fame is really making things up. Can these interviews – or his book for that matter – convey anything of importance?

Blair apparently thinks so.

“When I wrote the book I made a commitment to stop lying and tell the truth, and that obviously in telling the truth it will hurt a lot of people, but the number of people who could potentially be helped by this book far outweighs those I hurt,” Blair told Editor & Publisher. “There are millions of people who can be helped by this book.”

Even in a country in which shame is often supplanted by a book contract, Blair’s description of his memoir as a boon to millions is a little hard to grasp. While he refers to his struggles with substance abuse and a manic-depressive disorder, his story essentially boils down to this: If you lie and steal from others while working at one of the nation’s most visible newspapers, you’ll probably get caught. The experience will not be pleasant.

Most unsettling about Blair’s interviews has been his repeated assertion that his journalistic crimes echo those of others. Some examples from his book tour:

“As much as everyone would like to paint me as an evil genius, I didn’t come up with these ideas on my own. Many of them I came up with by watching other colleagues,” Blair told Matt Lauer on the “Today Show.”

“There are these journalist war criminals still at The New York Times that have not been caught,” Blair said on “Larry King Live.”

“On an order of magnitude, what I did was an earthquake 10. But there are equally damaging things that newspapers do every day that are not covered by others,” Blair said in his Editor & Publisher interview.

Blair’s book fuels the fires of suspicion among those who view the media negatively, sort of a companion volume to Bernard Goldberg’s Bias. It has also provided inspiration for lawyers for a Philadelphia pharmacy suing The New York Times in an unrelated libel case. They tried to call Blair and former editors of the newspaper as witnesses in order to make a point about unprofessional conduct in the newsroom. A federal judge put a stop to that.

Jayson Blair’s story doesn’t reflect the state of journalism in America today. His book chronicles the misdeeds of a particularly shameless reporter, but there’s much it doesn’t tell:

  • At 27, the age at which Jayson Blair was breathing the rarefied air of The New York Times, most newspaper reporters are still on their first or second job, working in small to mid-size communities across the country. They pay their dues by writing obituaries and covering small-town police departments. Those who don’t get the facts straight wash out quickly.
  • The median age of journalists in America is about 41, with a median salary of about $43,600, according to a 2002 study by Indiana University. That annual salary is less than a third of what Blair received as a book advance.
  • Newspaper reporters closer to Blair’s age make a median salary of about $31,000, according to the 2003 Newspaper Industry Compensation Survey. That money typically pays for an apartment and groceries, not a cocaine habit.
  • Most reporters spend their entire careers without being accused of plagiarizing the work of another reporter or fabricating facts.
  • Someone like Jayson Blair can get away with fabrication for a time because newsrooms are largely founded on trust. Yet most newspapers have strong ethics policies and the good ones take readers’ complaints seriously. An increasing number of newspapers have put limits on the use of anonymous sources and have prohibited reporters from using deception to obtain information. Codes of conduct at America’s newspapers have never been more stringent.

Just as a crooked cop or a careless doctor can tarnish a profession, Blair’s misconduct is just one more blow to American journalism and support for a free press. His book tour adds insult to injury.

Most American journalists would agree with one point made by Blair. The Los Angeles Times quoted him describing journalism as being “noble and important to democracy.”

There are times when even Jayson Blair gets it right.

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