Blair in the House

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By: Joe Strupp

It was almost fitting that the day Jayson Blair came to Editor & Publisher for an interview, word circulated that Mike Barnicle, another well-known fabricator, had been given a second chance in Boston, having signed up with the Boston Herald for a twice-weekly column.

While Barnicle’s past transgressions at The Boston Globe — where he resigned nearly six years ago when faced with accusations of lifting story passages and making up facts — seem to hardly stack up against Blair’s well-documented misdeeds, the timing is interesting. Hopefully it is not a sign that second and third chances for veteran journalists who go wrong are more possible than in the past. Perhaps we’ll see the return of Janet Cooke any day now. Certainly, Blair has shown that unethical newsroom crime can pay.

As one of Blair’s harshest critics, I was skeptical when E&P was given the chance to interview him, wondering if we could avoid helping him sell more books. But we received such an outpouring from readers in response to our call for questions that it’s clear most of them were glad that we seized this opportunity.

Arriving about five minutes early, Blair came to E&P with a part-time assistant and a representative from the audio division of his publisher New Millennium — both of whom sat in on the interview, but said very little.

To look at Blair, you might not guess that he was behind the worst journalistic abuse in recent newspaper history. A little more than five feet tall and soft-spoken, he emits none of the anger or rage you might expect from someone of such notoriety. Or, one might add, the shame.

With a smile, friendly handshake and laughter-filled greeting, Blair might just as easily have been meeting some old pals for a poker game as discussing the news industry’s worst atrocity and his central role in it. It is clear how he managed to fake his way through assignments and falsehoods at The New York Times, displaying an obvious charm, appearing interested in others, and putting possible antagonists at ease with a joking manner.

When things got down to business, Blair’s demeanor remained calm, but guarded. He seemed to think through his answers, stumbling over exact words on occasion, but appearing sincere — remarkable for an admitted liar. Still, under questioning, he often sat nervously in a chair, tucking a hand under his leg as he fidgeted slightly. Sometimes he picked up items on a desk in front of him and fiddled with them.

But Blair did not refuse to answer any questions and set no parameters for the hour-long interview, although he would offer one-sentence responses for some questions and declined to elaborate on his relationship with former Times managing editor Gerald Boyd, who lost his job following Blair’s scandal. He also went off the record at one point to comment on specific pressures he felt early in his career.

His longest pause occurred when he was asked if he would have been hired by the Times had he not been a member of a minority group.

One other thing I learned about Jayson Blair from interviewing him that I haven’t seen anywhere else: He changed his name from Jason to Jayson in eighth grade, but gave no reason why. He said he did not change it legally so, in a sense, even his very name is a lie.

Blair managed to see the irony in his book being fact-checked, offering a laugh when discussing how stringently the project was vetted. He also took a moment to find specific passages in the book at least three times during the sit-down when asked why he wrote something.

When his cell phone rang in the middle of a question, Blair did not miss a beat as he checked the phone, chose not to answer it, and returned it to his pocket all the while responding to the question. But the most bizarre moment occurred late in the interview when he mentioned that the Times was going to pan his book this Sunday, revealed that he had an advance of the review — and offered to give us a copy of it.

Overall, Blair seems to reflect in person what he wrote in his book. He appears willing to take the criticism but taking full responsibility appears difficult. He is quick to blame his mental illness, drug and alcohol problems, and newsroom pressures, while also claiming that his abuses were not as dangerous as some others. “My stories didn’t get any American soldiers killed,” he said.

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