10th Anniversary of Jayson Blair Scandal, Which Was as 'World-Class' as the NY Times Itself

May 7th, 2013 12:28 PM

Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times public editor, noted a shameful anniversary for the paper -- the 10th anniversary of the Jayson Blair scandal -- but not without calling her paper as "world-class" as the scandal itself.

But to the paper's liberal readership, the more shameful mistake involved reporter Judy Miller's overly credulous reporting on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction during the run-up to the Iraq War.

The scandal that exploded 10 years ago last week was epic, as world-class as the newspaper where it happened.

Jayson Blair, a young Times reporter, lied and faked and cheated his way through story after story -- scores of them, for years. He fabricated sources, plagiarized material from other publications, and pretended to be places he never went. The problem, once fully investigated and made public by The Times itself, brought down not only the reporter but also The Times’s executive editor and managing editor. For a while, it even made The Times a laughingstock in late-night comedy routines.

Of course, to the paper's liberal readership and editors, the more shameful mistake involved Miller's overly credulous reporting on Iraq's WMD.

Have The Times and its reputation recovered fully? My sense is that they have recovered better from the Blair scandal than from the paper’s flawed reporting about the existence of weapons of mass destruction that led up to the Iraq war. I hear about this, disparagingly, from readers far more often....

The University of Maryland student newspaper ran an interesting three-part series last week to mark the 10th anniversary of the Blair saga. Before gaining infamy at the Times, Blair served one tumultuous year as the paper's editor in 1996-97, winning the post despite fierce opposition from those who knew him best -- his fellow journalists. For their pains, they were accused of racism.

Blair had an impressive resume: reporting and copy editing positions at The Diamondback, an internship at The Washington Post, reporting at Capital News Service.

Eager to boost that resume, Blair applied for The Diamondback’s editor in chief position -- which is named in April -- in the spring of 1996.

Dave Murray, the then-sports editor, seemed the obvious choice and the newsroom favorite, staff members said.

Maryland Media Inc., a non-profit company separate from the university that oversees The Diamondback, Mitzpeh, Eclipse and the Terrapin yearbook, chooses the editor. The company consists of lay board members, along with alumni. Christopher Callahan, then an associate dean in the journalism college who helped Blair land high-profile internships, strongly advocated for Blair for the position, according to a 2004 Baltimore Sun article.

The board elected The Diamondback’s former reporter, and staff members were furious. Murray had put in his time. How could Blair possibly be qualified when he didn’t have any leadership or managing experience?

So the editors convened in the middle of the night at Plato’s Diner on Route 1. They would go on strike, they said, until the board came to its senses.

The editors tried to tell the board why Blair couldn’t be in charge. All they heard in response, Newman said, was that they couldn’t handle the success of a black man.

“We’re not racist,” the editors told the board. “This has nothing to do with the fact that he’s black.”

It didn’t matter what they said. Blair would begin helming the newspaper in a few weeks.