Reporter Jayson Blair Is Exposed as a Fraud Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The New York Times discovered that reporter Jayson Blair had plagiarized a story about an anguished mother of a missing U.S. soldier in Iraq, setting off an investigation that uncovered four years of Blair’s fabrications and deceit. Although Blair was fired, and the newspaper took responsibility, the credibility of not only the newspaper but all news sources was questioned.

Summary of Event

Newspapers are generally regarded as accurate, unbiased sources of information. The New York Times, an American institution since 1851, had achieved an immaculate reputation for printing “all the news that’s fit to print.” However, the stories submitted by reporter Jayson Blair were found to be fabrications in some instances and outright plagiarism in others. The failure of the Times to oversee verification of Blair’s facts and perhaps a too lenient approach to a young reporter led to an examination and restructuring of newsroom procedures. Not only was Blair’s career destroyed but also the careers of two high-ranking Times editors. The damage extended beyond the Times to journalism as a whole. [kw]New York Times Reporter Jayson Blair Is Exposed as a Fraud (Apr. 29, 2003) [kw]Blair Is Exposed as a Fraud, New York Times Reporter Jayson (Apr. 29, 2003) [kw]Fraud, New York Times Reporter Jayson Blair Is Exposed as a (Apr. 29, 2003) Blair, Jayson Raines, Howell New York Times;and Jayson Blair[Blair] Hernandez, Macarena Boyd, Gerald Blair, Jayson Raines, Howell New York Times;and Jayson Blair[Blair] Hernandez, Macarena Boyd, Gerald [g]United States;Apr. 29, 2003: New York Times Reporter Jayson Blair Is Exposed as a Fraud[03280] [c]Communications and media;Apr. 29, 2003: New York Times Reporter Jayson Blair Is Exposed as a Fraud[03280] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Apr. 29, 2003: New York Times Reporter Jayson Blair Is Exposed as a Fraud[03280] [c]Plagiarism;Apr. 29, 2003: New York Times Reporter Jayson Blair Is Exposed as a Fraud[03280] [c]Publishing and journalism;Apr. 29, 2003: New York Times Reporter Jayson Blair Is Exposed as a Fraud[03280]

Blair was born on March 23, 1976, in Columbia, Maryland, the son of Thomas Blair, a career civil servant, and Frances Blair, an educator. He grew up in Centreville, Virginia, wrote for his high school paper, and interned for the Centreville Times, a local weekly. In 1994, he enrolled in the journalism school at the University of Maryland. Initially, fellow students and faculty alike were impressed with his charismatic manner and his enthusiasm for finding stories. However, problems began to surface about Blair missing deadlines and concerns that the work submitted might not have been his. At Maryland he rose to the rank of editor of The Diamondback, the student newspaper, but after an alleged plagiarism incident, he resigned.

Jayson Blair.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

During summer breaks, Blair interned at the Boston Globe Boston Globe and Washington Post The Washington Post. In the summer of 1998, he won an internship at The New York Times. Although he was asked to stay on at the end of the summer, he left the paper, stating he had to finish some courses for his December graduation. In June, 1999, Blair returned to the Times and was offered an entry-level reporting job. His extraordinary promise as a reporter-writer and his being African American made his hire a natural for an organization committed to diversity. Had the human resources department checked, it would have discovered that Blair never graduated from the University of Maryland.

Blair was on the fast-track at the Times, scrambling for stories and working long hours. He wrote 137 stories within five months, and only one factual correction was required by editors. Due to his success, he was promoted to a higher level reporter position in November but his work began to slip, and the rate of corrections on his work exceeded that of a typical cub, or rookie, reporter. Blair was warned to be more careful.

Despite problems in his personal life, including substance abuse, and the reservations of many people at the paper, Blair was promoted to staff reporter in January, 2001. The recruiting committee, headed by Gerald M. Boyd, then a deputy managing editor, approved the promotion despite the opposition of Jonathan Landman, metropolitan editor for the paper. Blair’s performance at work continued to decline. In early 2002, Landman sent warnings about Blair’s work behavior to Boyd, stating, “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.” His advice was not heeded, and between January and April, Blair, who was trying to get his life under control, took two leaves of absence from the paper. When he returned, he was reassigned from the metro desk to the sports section; Landman hoped the “tighter leash” in the sports section would help the young reporter.

The Beltway sniper case in the Washington, D.C., area in October, 2002, gave Blair the opportunity to prove he was a good reporter. Executive editor Howell Raines, wishing to flood the area with reporters, transferred Blair to the national desk in Washington, D.C., especially because Blair knew the area well. He was assigned to an exclusive story, based on information gleaned from five unnamed law enforcement officers, which would be published on the front page. This and other stories on the sniper attacks led to an angry response by law enforcement officials and claims that Blair had not told the truth. Fairfax County, Virginia, prosecutor Robert Horan claimed that 60 percent of a story Blair wrote included misquotes and incorrect information. In meetings with his editors, Blair defended his stories and was allowed to remain on the national desk.

In March, 2003, Blair began filing stories about the families of service personnel in Iraq War Iraq. Although the reports were often eloquent, they were filled with inaccuracies. Later, it was discovered that Blair, in many cases, had never visited the places in his reports nor interviewed the people mentioned in his articles. He claimed to have visited the home of Army specialist Jessica Lynch, who had been captured and rescued in Iraq, but his so-called firsthand description of Lynch’s home was inaccurate. Some who read Blair’s stories saw the incorrect details, the fabricated scenes, and the made-up quotations, and then tried to contact the Times about the errors; many gave up after their concerns were not addressed. Others did not bother contacting the paper at all, assuming nothing would be done. They also believed that once a story was published, no retraction could make a difference. Blair was filing stories with bylines from places he had never been, was not in contact with his editors, and was not submitting expense reports. The latter should have been a red flag to his supervisors, showing he was not traveling as much as his stories appeared to attest.

A reporter for another newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News, exposed Blair’s ongoing deceptions. On April 18, 2003, the Express-News published a story by reporter Macarena Hernandez, “Valley Mom Awaits News of MIA Son,” about a missing U.S. soldier in Iraq and his mother’s anguish. The soldier, Sergeant Edward Anguiano, had been part of Specialist Lynch’s convoy when it was ambushed in March, 2003. Blair’s too-similar story, “Family Waits, Now Alone, for a Missing Soldier,” appeared in the Times on April 26. Hernandez read Blair’s story, noticed the similarities, and alerted her editor, who in turn contacted editors at the Times. Blair met with his editors on April 29 but had no evidence to substantiate his claim that the story was his. Anguiano’s mother in Texas stated that Hernandez had visited her home, but no reporter from the Times had visited.

Unable to prove his story was original, Blair resigned from the Times on May 1. On May 11 the Times published a lengthy front-page account of Blair’s acts of fabrication and plagiarism. A staff meeting on May 14 led to extensive criticism of the failure of Raines and Boyd to detect Blair’s deceptions, and both editors were forced to resign in June.

Impact

The results of Blair’s dishonesty were both immediate and far-reaching. He not only lost his job but also destroyed the careers of Raines and Boyd. Both editors were accused of leaning too far to advance affirmative action. Boyd, also African American, denied any favoritism, but Raines admitted that he did give a second chance to Blair because of his race. Although a lengthy article detailing Blair’s actions and including corrections was published on May 11, the blow to the credibility of the Times was severe. The scandal quickly became a source of comedy on a number of television shows and, worse still, the work of other Times reporters was questioned. The paper accepted responsibility for Blair’s actions, apologized to the public, and sought to repair its reputation.

Corrective measures, to prevent any future violation of basic standards of reporting, included forming a committee to address “what went wrong.” The committee, chaired by assistant managing editor Allan Siegal, recommended in its report of July 28, 2003, that two management-level positions—public editor and standards editor—be created at the paper. The public editor would be an ombudsperson, investigating public complaints concerning accuracy and fairness in news reporting. The standards editor would be an “internal guardian” who ensures quality control.

While Blair’s deceptions led to restructuring at the Times, they also produced a ripple effect, encompassing changes in journalism as a whole. Other newspapers revisited their policies and became more stringent in scrutinizing the work of their reporters. In a survey conducted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 350 editors stated they had taken some “specific action” because of the Blair scandal.

Blair published a book in 2004, Burning Down My Masters’ House, which is an attempt to justify his actions. The book, however, was not favorably received. Stephen Pomper, a reviewer for the Washington Monthly, described the book as a “300-page pity party.” Critics were skeptical of the book’s details, given Blair’s history of deception. Blair, Jayson Raines, Howell New York Times;and Jayson Blair[Blair] Hernandez, Macarena Boyd, Gerald

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barry, Dan, et al. “Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception.” The New York Times, May 11, 2003. A lengthy, front-page exposé of Blair’s “frequent acts of journalistic fraud,” published in response to the revelations of his deception.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blair, Jayson. Burning Down My Masters’ House: My Life at “The New York Times.” Beverly Hills, Calif.: New Millennium Press, 2004. This memoir chronicles Blair’s four years as a reporter and how his manic-depressive illness led to his behavior as a cheat and plagiarist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hassan, Adeel. “Blair’s Victims: That Helpless Feeling.” Columbia Journalism Review, July-August, 2003. Details specific examples of Blair’s deceptions and examines the reactions of those directly affected by his fraud.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mnookin, Seth. Hard News: The Scandals at “The New York Times” and Their Meaning for American Media. New York: Random House, 2004. A former reporter for Newsweek magazine tells the story behind the scandal of Jayson Blair and the effect of the fraud and deception on the staff and readers of The New York Times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Patterson, Maggie, and Steve Urbanski. “What Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke Say About the Press and the Erosion of Public Trust.” Journalism Studies 7, no. 6 (2006): 828-850. A journal article that details how Blair’s actions subverted the mission of journalism.

Janet Cooke Admits Fabricating Her Pulitzer Prize-Winning Feature

Time Magazine Cover Uses Altered O. J. Simpson Photo

Journalist Stephen Glass Is Exposed as a Fraud

60 Minutes II Reports on George W. Bush’s Evasion of Wartime Duty

Categories: History Content