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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Friday, May 16, 2003


The clash of Titans! On the subject of Jayson Blair, troubled NY Times reporter, TAPPED endorses the suggestion made by the WaPo's Terry Neal that Jayson Blair was "too good to be true":

Neal makes another worthwhile point too: None of us know for sure what went wrong at the Times that allowed this to happen. But the most logical, intuitive explanation isn't that top editors treated Blair with kid gloves because of his race; it's that he rose through the ranks because his stories stood out -- specifically because they were made up. It's the same reason Glass rose so quickly at TNR: It's a lot easier to produce amazing copy if you're making things up than if you're playing within the rules of journalism. Viewed in that light, it's no surprise that people thought Blair was a rising star, and treated him accordingly.

Hmm, can we have a rebuttal from TAPPED, please?

Now, it's certainly fair to ask whether Times editors overlooked some of Blair's mistakes because they wanted to pull along a seemingly talented, engaging, and bright young black journalist despite his being known to be a little sloppy.

Hmm, he was "known to be a little sloppy", but he was a rising star because his made-up material fooled people into thinking he had talent. Can both of these be correct?

I will cast the deciding vote. From the NY Times account, it is perfectly evident that many folks at the Times, including Howell Raines, were well aware of credibility problems with Jayson Blair:

His mistakes became so routine, his behavior so unprofessional, that by April 2002, Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor, dashed off a two-sentence e-mail message to newsroom administrators that read: "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now."

Star treatment? I would love to see the personnel files at TAPPED - maybe that is typical. Or how about this?

Joyce Purnick, who was the metropolitan editor at the time, recalled thinking that he was better at newsroom socializing than at reporting, and told him during a candid lunch that after graduation he should work for a smaller newspaper. "I was telling him, `Go learn the business,' " she said.


But Jerry Gray, one of several Times editors to become mentors to Mr. Blair, repeatedly warned him that he was too sloppy — in his reporting and in his appearance.

...Mr. Blair continued to make mistakes, requiring more corrections, more explanations, more lectures about the importance of accuracy.

...A few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, he wrote an article laden with errors. Many reporters make mistakes, and statistics about corrections are only a rough barometer of journalistic skills. When considered over all, Mr. Blair's correction rate at The Times was within acceptable limits. Still, this article required a correction so extensive that it attracted the attention of the new executive editor, Howell Raines.

...Still, Mr. Blair's actions stood out. He made mistakes and was unavailable for long stretches.

Mr. Landman sent Mr. Blair a sharply worded evaluation in January 2002, noting that his correction rate was "extraordinarily high by the standards of the paper." Mr. Landman then forwarded copies of that evaluation to Mr. Boyd and William E. Schmidt, associate managing editor for news administration, along with a note that read, "There's big trouble I want you both to be aware of."

Oh, enough. Jayson Blair was closely supervised for several months, his quality improved, and he was scheduled to be moved to the Sports Desk, where he would delight Mets fans by fabricating Mike Piazza quotes. Is that the typical career path of a rising star? However, Raines put him on the sniper team, and the rest is history.

History, that is, for most of us. TAPPED, or at least parts of it, remains stuck wth a fantasy in which Blair's deceit went unnoticed and actually contributed to his success.

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