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Jayson Blair was once a reporter at the New York Times. The Times is America’s newspaper of record, “the gray lady" with all the news that is fit to print. Last year Blair was caught in a maelstrom of bad publicity when he was forced to admit that he had made up names, stolen stories from other reporters and claimed to be conducting interviews in West Virginia, Texas and Washington, D.C. when he was actually too drunk to leave New York. In a twist of irony and humor he was busted by a former colleague named Macarena who recognized her own work under his byline.

When the story broke the Times engaged in endless self-flagellation, calling the Blair scandal “the low point in our 150-year history.” The Times must not know much about its institutional history. It is quite a stretch to say that Jayson Blair’s alcohol-induced lying is worse than ignoring genocide during World War II. The paper of record buried the holocaust on its inside pages. In 1942 the Times reported that 1 million Polish Jews had been killed by the Nazis, but the story was printed as a blurb and placed well beyond the front page.

There are more recent low points for the Times. When Jayson Blair was exposed as a plagiarizer and fabricator his Times colleague Judith Miller was reporting on the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. She claimed that “anonymous sources” had evidence of weapons programs. Ms. Miller’s main source turned about to be Ahmed Chalabi, a U.S.-backed Iraqi exile who had not set foot in his homeland for 40 years. He obviously had no knowledge of Iraqi weapons programs. Ms. Miller helped make the case for a war that has killed 12,000 Iraqi civilians but a year after the invasion and occupation of Iraq no WMDs have been found. Blair’s conduct can’t be defended, but making a phony case for war is far more harmful to the nation and the world than fabricating a conversation with Jessica Lynch’s parents.

Blair’s photo became a mug shot. His fall from grace was a twofer for the right wing. He was used to keep Black people in their place and to make the Times a whipping boy for conservatives who constantly complain about liberal media bias. Immediately every Black journalist in America felt compelled to make the case that some of us still deserve gigs in the most prestigious places. None of them dared speak of the real crime.

Blair went where he did not belong. The gleeful outrage over his case results from the belief that Black people don’t deserve to be at the Times. If some of us are lucky enough to be in places that are considered off limits we aren’t allowed to fail. If we do our failures are the worst and most unforgivable and we are asked to prove over and over again that we are sorry. 

Blair has just written a book, Burning Down My Masters House, about his downfall at the New York Times. Times have certainly changed for the better. Janet Cooke fabricated the story of a child drug addict in 1981.When her lie won a Pulitzer Prize Ms. Cooke was exposed and has not worked in journalism since that time.

Stephen Glass, formerly of the New Republic, had a book and movie deal after he was caught making hundreds of fabricated quotes, facts and events. If Black people caught in scandal can also make money from their wrongdoing we may have finally achieved real equality in America.

Blair’s book has to be promoted and promotion means an obligatory chat with Katie Couric. Jayson Blair was so vilified that the great perky one felt compelled to defend speaking to him at all. “If we based all of our interviews on people who are doing good in this world, sadly we'd be sorely limited."

After Ms. Couric interviewed Elizabeth Smart, a child kidnapped by a perverted religious fanatic, I didn’t think she would have to explain speaking to anyone else ever again. Of course when Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, and the Menendez Brothers give interviews then everything is fair game.

Unfortunately, an interview with a criminal might have been more interesting to watch than Couric’s sit down with Jayson Blair on Dateline. Ms. Couric did her best hard hitting journalism with statements like, “You sound like an obnoxious jerk to work with.” Blair just looked embarrassed and agreed that he was, “a pain to work with.” However, the would be investigative reporter did not tell viewers that her colleague at sister network MSNBC, Mike Barnicle, was fired by the Boston Globe for committing the same infractions as Jayson Blair.

Katie Couric inadvertently exposed more than she realized. Real journalism just doesn’t exist on television anymore. If Katie Couric was going to spend her time talking to Jayson Blair she could have asked serious questions about his substance abuse and bipolar disorder. She might have asked if he had advice for functioning addicts who reach the inevitable point where they cannot function. Unfortunately, “how do we know you aren’t lying now” is all that Ms. Couric can manage.

I hope that Blair’s book has more substance than was shown on Dateline.  His story is a powerful cautionary tale about human frailty and the cost of cutting ethical corners. He should not be seen as a success because he has a six-figure book deal. Jayson Blair can be truly successful if he does real, serious confessing in a way that can be healing for him and for others who can learn from his story.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in .  Ms. Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City.  She can be reached via e-Mail at [email protected]. You can read more of Ms. Kimberley's writings at



March 11 2004
Issue 81

is published every Thursday.

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