Commonwealth Chronicle

Online News Coverage of Central and Southwest Virginia

Exclusive: The Chronicle’s weekend with Jayson Blair

with 5 comments

By Becky Bratu and Cameron Steele

The sun streamed through the room’s large glass windows, lighting the weary faces of Washington and Lee University students, professional journalists, academics and notorious former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair. The crunching sound of chips accompanied Washington and Lee professor Dayo Abah’s talk about media law over a lunch of boxed sandwiches and salads. As the participants of the university’s 48th Journalism Ethics Institute finished the last of their Italian paninis and cobb salads, Abah began to explain false light – a privacy tort similar to libel.

Unless someone is crazy, he’s not going to write a false story about someone else, Abah said. An awkward moment of silence followed her words as most of the 20 people in the room glanced at Blair.

“Oh, and I’m not talking about Jayson [Blair],” Abah added with a nervous laugh.

Blair laughed, and others in the room followed suit. Students shook their heads, making eye contact with each other. As the Ethics Institute neared its end, the feeling that Jayson Blair was the elephant in the room still lingered.

“I’m sorry, Jayson,” Abah said. Blair waved his arms in the air and laughed again, dismissing her apology.

But Blair himself was not forgiven so easily. Blair left the Times in shame after a 2003 investigation uncovered that he had plagiarized and fabricated major elements of his stories. In August, the plagiarist-turned-life-coach agreed to give a public speech as the keynoter for the institute – a two-day event during which journalism students, professors and professionals discuss ethical dilemmas facing the news media. Blair’s public speech read like a 20-minute-long apology.

And forgiveness didn’t seem to follow. Not after Friday night’s speech to about 150 people, and not after the last of the institute’s two private sessions concluded Saturday morning. Still, Edward Wasserman, the Knight Professor of journalism ethics who first asked Blair to W&L, said he was happy with Blair’s performance at the institute.

“I was pleased with the turn-out,” Wasserman said. “I was worried about it.”

In an exclusive interview with the Commonwealth Chronicle, Blair said when Wasserman first contacted him in August, he saw speaking at W&L as an opportunity to permanently close a scandalous chapter of his life.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve forgiven myself for what I did,” said Blair. “I just needed an opportunity to do something good and for something good to come out of my actions.”

The Institute

Since the mid-1990s, W&L’s Journalism Ethics Institute has been the centerpiece for the capstone journalism ethics course. Twice a year, junior and senior journalism majors get the chance to talk to professors and outside media professionals in seminar settings, where the participants discuss real-life ethical cases. Wasserman, who’s led the institute since he came to W&L six years ago, divides these cases into temptations and dilemmas. While the former category deals with clear-cut decisions between wrong and right, the latter poses more challenges, as practicing journalists try to balance out personal and professional obligations.

Wasserman said it’s his goal to transform the institute seminars into “a kind of Socratic garden.” Inviting Blair to participate in the conference was a huge departure for the program, said Wasserman.

“The idea seems absurd of Jayson Blair keynoting an ethics institute, but it’s an opportunity for students to confront a key figure in a major ethical scandal,” he said.

This year, Wasserman invited seven other journalism professionals and academics to join Blair at the institute. They included: Caesar Andrews, former editor of The Detroit Free Press and Reynolds Distinguished Visiting Professor in Journalism at W&L; Jon Carras, producer, CBS Sunday Morning; Michael Getler, ombudsman, PBS News; Arlene Morgan, associate dean at Columbia University School of Journalism; John Watson, associate professor in the American University School of Communication; Reed Williams, reporter with the Richmond Times-Dispatch; and Corinna Zarek, Freedom of Information Director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

journalismSTUDENTS

W&L journalism students smile for the camera. Students, professors, journalists and Blair attended dinner after the Friday night speech.

About 30 people filled the cozily furnished room on Friday afternoon, taking seats to form a large, misshapen circle as Wasserman welcomed participants to the institute. Sitting next to a table laden with cookies, coffee, water and soda cans, Blair seemed a bit uncomfortable. He wore a burnt-orange zip-up sweater, gray pants and brown shoes – a casual look among the suit-clad crowd. Personal introductions followed, then Jon Carras kicked off the first seminar discussion with a case study about celebrity gossip website TMZ’s breaking news coverage of Michael Jackson’s death this summer.

“How did TMZ get the biggest scoop of its short, four-year history?” Carras asked in his case study hand-out. “Should ‘old’ media have reported the story based solely on TMZ’s report?”

A couple students glanced sideways at Blair, who sat quietly as he leaned an elbow onto the table beside him. Arlene Morgan broke the silence, beginning what was to be a heated, two-day debate between students and professionals about various ethical dilemmas.

“The last I heard, journalism was supposed to be based on facts,” Arlene Morgan said, and a few more students shot looks in Blair’s direction.

The case studies

TMZ was the first outlet to report Michael Jackson’s death, beating the Los Angeles Times, NBC, CNN and others by an hour, said Carras in his case study. The conversation that ensued focused on “new” media standards and practices, and the seemingly unfair competition between traditional and new media to break a story first. The speed versus accuracy debate proved foreboding. In his public speech later that afternoon, Blair talked about the pressure felt in a stretched and fatigued Times newsroom after 9/11.

“Somewhere along the way, on my way of climbing upwards, I lost sight of the very reason I entered journalism,” Blair said in his speech.

When Morgan presented the second case after a snack break and an hour of discussion, Blair appeared relaxed and comfortable enough to take part in the debate. Morgan’s case reviewed a short documentary showcasing the life of an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who died in Iraq and was hailed by many as a hero. The case raised issues about the use of language, racial and ethnic descriptions when telling LCpl. Gutierrez’s story.

While some students and professionals questioned CBS’ decision not to interview Gutierrez’s Guatemalan sister, Blair said he thought the piece had an “authentic voice.”

“It’s genuine. It has perspective, depth of reporting,” he said. “No story is flawless.”

Blair’s eager, constant involvement in the discussion hearkened back to his glory days as a student journalist at the University of Maryland, when many admired his “endless energy” and “daunting drive.” (Read about Blair’s college experience here)

As sunlight softened to the gray of Lexington afternoons, the first of the institute’s seminars drew to a close. Wasserman, Blair and the other insitute participants ended the private debate and moved to the university’s Stackhouse Theater. Once there, the journalism students snagged seats that had been reserved for them in the two front rows of the theater. Blair later announced that his speech in front of about 150 people was the last public address about his career at the Times.

In his introduction of Blair, Wasserman enumerated some of the media statements critical of the keynoter. Seemingly amused from his seat in the front left corner of the room, Blair chuckled at the many examples of media outrage, but his face turned blank as Wasserman read the laundry list of Blair’s transgressions at the Times. Visibly nervous for the first time since his arrival on the W&L campus, Blair took the stage as the C-SPAN television crew shone its bright lights in his direction.

A public apology

Blair’s speech seemed sincere.

“I am at peace with the knowledge that there is no one or nothing to blame for my troubles but myself,” he said. “I am here because of the choices I made.”  His voice shook. He stopped often to clear his throat and adjust his glasses as he read the prepared speech from a lectern.

Blair told the audience he wanted to become a journalist because of his curious nature, his love for writing and his desire to help people. After a series of summer internships, he said he became convinced that he needed to work at the best paper on the best beat to make the most impact on people’s lives. For Blair, that paper was the New York Times. But his many lies and fabrications ended up hurting, not helping people.

“For me, as a human being, the hardest part is the personal part… my friends, reporters and editors, who felt betrayed, and then the subjects of the stories,” he said in response to the first question from a journalism student after he finished the 20 minute speech. But Blair said that while he was lying, he never considered the harm he was doing. That, he said, was largely a result of his character flaws, mental health issues and drug and alcohol abuse.

For an hour afterwards, Blair answered questions from other students, journalists and academics. He appeared more comfortable answering questions than he did during his prepared address, despite his tendency to shift weight from one foot to the other and switch positions from standing to sitting on the center-stage stool provided for him.

In his conclusion, Blair said he believed he was a valuable addition to the ethics institute because he was an example of how good people could do bad things, thanks to bad choices made in “baby steps.”

“We can learn the most from the worst practices,” he said. ” If we merely believe that only bad people do bad things, then you good people have no reason to learn ethics at all, for you are destined to do good no matter what happens.”

But legal reporting professor Toni Locy said she didn’t buy the “baby steps” scenario. Locy, who had worked at USA Today during a similar scandal involving scorned reporter Jack Kelley, shot Blair a few pointed questions.

“Why didn’t you stop?” she asked.

“I was immature,” Blair said. He went on, explaining how lying “is like erosion, slowly compromising you.” But Locy wasn’t finished. She wanted to know if Blair had made amends with some of the people he had written lies about.

“Did you apologize?” Locy asked. “Did you say ‘I’m sorry’?” she asked again, when Blair refused to answer. He claimed he couldn’t answer because his conversations with his sources were private.

An on-camera interview: sincere or scheming?

That Saturday was warm for November. W&L’s red brick buildings seemed to gleam against the blue backdrop of mountains and sky. Almost finished with his weekend visit, Blair walked into Reid Hall, fondly called the “J-school” by journalism majors. A senior journalism major, and the two Commonwealth Chronicle reporters led the way for Blair.

High heels clicking, the women towered over Blair, who had agreed to exclusive interviews for the Rockbridge Report, W&L’s student-produced Web site and television show, and the Commonwealth Chronicle. Small talk about the weather, coffee and the building itself made the climb of four flights of stairs to the television studio more bearable.

Once inside the studio, the student journalist and Blair continued chatting, as the Chronicle reporters checked microphones and cameras.

Blair acted jovial and calm, cracking jokes and inquiring about W&L’s journalism program. When he saw the teleprompters set up in front of the studio set, he asked with a grin if his scripted answers would appear on it. The RR reporter chuckled. Blair told the slightly nervous student that younger journalists or journalism students usually ask him the most painful or thought-provoking questions.

The more experienced journalists seem to just yap in outrage, Blair said, as he parodied those journalists in a suddenly high-pitched voice. Blair laughed at his joke, and the young woman joined in.

But as the cameras started recording, the mood turned sober. Blair talked about growing up in Columbia, Md., an integrating community that, he said, gave him ideals, taught him values and fueled his first interest in journalism. He then spoke about two Washington Post articles that, in his teenage years, showed him the healing power of journalism. Blair said that both these stories – one about a high school friend who was murdered and the other about an anorexic girl who had been denied help from her health insurance provider – had “cathartic power.”

After that, Blair said, he was hooked on a journalism career.

“I thought I could combine my curiousity with my natural interest in writing with something that could help people,” he said.

But as the Rockbridge Reporter pressed him further about his plagiarism and fabrication while at the Times, Blair conceded that he shouldn’t have been a journalist.

“I probably would not have gone into the profession if I had known the problems that were going to plague me from within.”

When the interview finished, Blair’s somber face turned up into a grin as he congratulated the student reporter on her on-camera presence. You’re a natural, he told her. As Commonwealth Chronicle reporter Cameron Steele took the student’s seat, Blair commented on her stiletto boots.

He said he would’ve liked to throw one of the high heels at Toni Locy’s head when she interrogated him after his speech the night before. After a pause, Blair continued.

“She probably wanted to throw one at me.”

 

To watch the Commonwealth Chronicle interview that followed, click on the video above.

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5 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cameron Steele and Becky Bratu, Becky Bratu. Becky Bratu said: Read all about the Commonwealth Chronicle's weekend with former NYTer Jayson Blair http://bit.ly/QO34z […]

  2. I still don’t believe a word he says. He does not deserve celebrity status for screwing up the news business and other people’s lives…

    GW

    November 10, 2009 at 2:44 pm

  3. Note to J’s life-coaching clients:

    Jayson “enjoyed” journalism, too.

    gangmombo

    November 11, 2009 at 7:24 pm

  4. Really? This guy disgraces journalism, and himself. He puts out a book, riddled with unreadable passages and glaring misspellings, to add further disgrace. and now we’re supposed to find his latest incarnation fascinating? i’m just waiting for his life coaching to lead someone to disaster.

    jr

    November 14, 2009 at 11:00 pm

  5. […] The busiest day of the year was January 5th with 78 views. The most popular post that day was Exclusive: The Chronicle’s weekend with Jayson Blair. […]


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