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The making of Jayson Blair

The disgraced journalist's closest peers were troubled by his work and behavior while he was still a student, but no one heeded their warnings.

By David Folkenflik

Sun Staff

February 29, 2004

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When the cab hurtling through midtown Manhattan stops, a young man in a gray suit unfolds himself and steps to the curb. The camera pulls back to reveal a gleaming legend above an entrance: The New York Times.

The front page of The Times' Metropolitan section materializes on screen. A byline is highlighted. It reads: "Jayson Blair." Then the young man -- Blair himself -- begins to speak.

The footage is part of a recruiting tape once sent to high schools by the University of Maryland, depicting the College Park campus as a place where students develop personally and professionally before embarking upon successful careers.

The 17-minute video, made in 2000, features three people presented as distinguished alumni. One is a Johns Hopkins University endocrinologist. Another is an underwater filmmaker. Blair, identified as a member of the class of 1997, is the third and youngest. Facing the camera, he describes how his college days led to his enviable job: "During my second year at Maryland, I sat down with the recruiter from The New York Times who eventually hired me. Right now, I work on the metro desk, covering anything and everything -- I'm a general assignment reporter. It's exciting. It's fun to do."

The university could have chosen one of several eminent journalism alumni for the video: TV news anchor Connie Chung, Pulitzer prize-winner Patrick Sloyan, columnist DeWayne Wickham, among them. But in 2000, Blair must have seemed an obvious choice. He had been the second African-American editor of the student paper, the Diamondback. He had held internships at three of the nation's top newspapers. And, shortly after leaving Maryland, he had risen from intern to staff writer at The New York Times -- all by the age of 24.

Blair's now-infamous fall from grace came last April. The Times investigated a complaint that he had plagiarized passages from a Texas newspaper. By May 1, he was forced to resign. He served as fodder for magazine covers, network newscasts, and television comics. Then, he largely disappeared from the public eye.

Now, Jayson Blair is about to re-emerge. His memoir, Burning Down My Masters' House: My Life at The New York Times, for which he was reportedly paid a six-figure advance by New Milennium Audio & Press, is due out Saturday.

In the next few weeks, he is scheduled to appear on NBC's Dateline, the Today show, CNN, Fox News and CBS, where he is likely to recount how he duped his editors, ruined his journalism career, and deeply wounded America's most prominent newspaper.

Blair declined several requests to be interviewed for this article, saying he was reserving his story until the memoir's release. In his book, an excerpt of which was obtained by The Sun last week, Blair blames himself for his professional lapses while also describing his struggles with mental illness and addiction to alcohol and drugs. On the first line of the first chapter, Blair writes: "I lied, I lied, and then I lied some more." Yet he is at times scornful of his former editors at The Times and writes boastfully of his own talents.

The University of Maryland, which Blair attended from January 1995 to May 1999, but from which he never graduated, once basked in his success. But Blair is no longer listed among the alumni celebrated on the journalism school's Web site. Nor is his photograph, which once adorned a J-school hallway, anywhere to be seen. This month, the dean of Maryland's journalism school angrily rejected Blair's suggestion that some of his proceeds be used to create a scholarship for Maryland students. As the dean's response demonstrates, the sting of Blair's disgrace is still keenly felt.

Since Blair's downfall, many of his former classmates have criticized the journalism school. They claim that Blair's behavior there foreshadowed the flaws that surfaced so spectacularly at The Times. While at Maryland, they say, Blair wooed and won powerful patrons who repeatedly advanced his career while glossing over his lapses. Their objections to his behavior were ignored, the classmates add.

In its own review of the Blair debacle, The Times declared that the school should have recognized nascent problems and might have averted the scandal.

Maryland administrators bitterly reject that charge, saying their reactions to the young reporter -- like those of hisTimes editors -- were based upon what they saw as his extraordinary promise. "There's this perception that somehow Maryland knowingly passed on damaged goods, and that's not true," says Thomas Kunkel, dean of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

Yet surely Maryland is a major character in his story; as Blair himself says in the recruiting videotape, he owes his start in journalism to the university. A review of Blair's years at the University of Maryland offers glimpses of a young man whose intelligence, drive and charisma were offset by erratic behavior and a propensity for skirting the rules.


In a little more than three years at Maryland, Blair served as a Rorschach test and lightning rod, inspiring extreme and seemingly irreconcilable reactions. He'd caught the journalism bug as a youth, writing for community and high school newspapers in Centreville, Va. before transferring in early 1995 from the Southern Baptist Liberty University to Maryland, the state's largest public university.

Within weeks, the 19-year-old Blair became ubiquitous in the corridors of the J-school, ingratiating himself with instructors, popping into faculty offices, introducing himself to other students. He often provided an extra set of hands at assistant dean Olive Reid's advisory office, stuffing envelopes or photocopying papers.

Blair mingled easily with university officials and faculty members. But the same social ease and drive in the baby-faced, 5-foot-2 Blair that appealed to professors alienated many fellow students. A few poked fun at his hiccuping laugh. Others dubbed him "Webster" -- an allusion to the 1980s sitcom about a pint-sized African-American youth.

Tom Madigan, a Blair contemporary at Maryland, describes him with a mixture of awe and amusement. "Even back then, he was a master politician," recalls Madigan, now copy desk chief for the Montgomery Gazette outside Washington.

Professors saw the same behavior in a less cynical light. "Jayson was a guy who put his head into every door," says Hodding Carter III, a former Maryland journalism professor who is now president and CEO of the Knight Foundation in Miami. "He wanted to be part of the greater game of journalism."


Christopher Callahan is the Maryland journalism school's chief representative with newspaper recruiters. Lean, intense and with a quick wit, he gives an impression of constant motion as he helps oversee 500 undergraduates and 70 graduate students.

Callahan worked in Boston and Washington as a reporter for the Associated Press, a wire service that prizes speed and productivity. Now, as a school administrator, Callahan is one of a handful of key figures responsible for helping Maryland graduates land terrific jobs. And in the mid-1990s, he selected Blair for the elite internship track, a crucial first step on the career ladder.

At Maryland, there are a number of on-campus media outlets through which students may gain reporting experience. Among them is the Capital News Service, a regional news agency that produces political and local stories written by students and edited by professionals. Owned by the school, CNS is overseen by a director who reports to Callahan, then an assistant dean and now associate dean.

There's also the Diamondback, a student newspaper owned by Maryland Media Inc., an independent not-for-profit corporation -- not the journalism school. University administrators have no formal authority over the newspaper.

In the spring of 1995, Blair, who had been reporting for the Diamondback, agreed to work as a copy editor there that fall. But on the advice of Callahan and other faculty advisers, he switched to reporting for CNS. Diamondback editors considered it a betrayal.

Akweli Parker, a former Diamondback managing editor, denounced Blair's change of mind in an e-mail to more than a dozen other students: "I think it's rude, crass and predacious for [Callahan] to steal our talent . . . for the self- aggrandizement of his beloved cns." In Blair's case, he wrote in a dismissive aside, " 'talent' is a relative term."


Among faculty and administrators, however, Blair's stock was rising fast. In early 1996, with the support of the school, he won a prize from a regional professional association and was chosen to be an academic intern on the suburban desk of the Washington Post. "The college wanted to send The Post its best two students, to make a good impression," Callahan wrote later that spring when recommending Blair for a scholarship.

On campus, encouraged by Callahan, Blair set his sights on another plum job: the Diamondback editorship.

Dave Murray, then the paper's sports editor, was the overwhelming favorite of staffers to become the paper's next editor in chief. But the decision was up to the Maryland Media board, which included Callahan, a few student journalists, alumni and community members.

When Blair, with just a year on campus, announced his application for the job, it sparked outcries from Diamondback staffers. If anything, the students' vehement protests against Blair crystallized his support among some key administrators. "He was an elbows-out competitor," says Reese Cleghorn, then the school's dean. "That was a factor in how others perceived him."

Olive Reid felt there was a racial element to the protests. Only one African-American had been editor since the paper's founding in 1910: Current Sun reporter Ivan Penn, who sat on the Maryland Media board at the time. "The black community's perspective on the Diamondback was that they're not going to give you a chance," Penn says. "An opportunity for a legitimate, solid African-American candidate to become editor was a welcome thing."

Callahan was Blair's most ardent champion on the Maryland Media board. Ultimately, Blair was appointed editor in chief. Furious staff members demanded a new way to pick editors. Callahan resigned from the board, saying he did not want to serve at odds with students. But that spring, Callahan again championed Blair, recommending him for a grant from the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

"Mr. Blair is the most promising journalist at his age that I have encountered in my career in journalism and journalism education," Callahan wrote. "I can't think of a more deserving recipient for your scholarship."

In an accompanying essay, Blair wrote, "[T]he one thing that really disgusts me are people who become journalists for their own egos, or to manipulate others." He won the $4,000 fellowship and a special commendation.


The Boston Globe, The Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida all were interested in having Blair as a reporting intern that summer. Blair chose the Globe.

In summer of 1996, Blair bustled around the Globe's Washington bureau seeking stories. "He had good ideas," says Mary Leonard, then the Globe's deputy Washington bureau chief. "Because he was a local kid, he was in touch with local stories that we would have missed. He was, in many ways, a very mature and aggressive intern."

Within the close confines of the bureau, though the confidence admired by editors grated on colleagues. Once, the 20-year-old summer intern taunted an experienced colleague about the amount of time she was spending on a story. In another incident, he playfully shoved a senior reporter; the action seemed inappropriate. He was an uninhibited eavesdropper and a profligate gossip, according to those who worked there.

His editors knew that Maryland had backed Blair strongly and that the Globe wanted to augment its minority staff. But their final assessment, while acknowledging Blair's ability, noted his immature behavior and expressed concerns about his "accuracy, spelling and proofreading," according to the Globe. David Shribman, then Washington bureau chief, made it clear to editors back in Boston that Blair was trouble.


When Blair took over as Diamondback editor, he sought to open the paper to fresh blood. He wrote an advertisement in the fall of 1996 that beseeched students to "Join the NEW Diamondback." It continued: "All that counts is that you are willing to work hard and learn from your work at The Diamondback."

But he also was beginning to behave erratically. To avoid low grades, he had withdrawn from many courses, falling behind a typical four- or five-year pace for timely graduation.

Reid, the assistant dean, also ruefully jokes that Blair knew all the College Park bartenders by name. Blair himself has suggested that he abused drugs in college. But several friends say they never saw evidence of the alcoholism that, along with dependence on cocaine and mental illness, Blair later cited for his troubles at The Times.

In one episode, no one at the Diamondback could reach Blair for three days. When he resurfaced, says Kristi E. Swartz, then a friend who was working on the Diamondback, Blair told several newspaper staffers that he had blacked out because of a gas leak at his room.

The story couldn't have been true; his dormitory was not supplied with natural gas.

"With most people you meet, the basic assumption you make about them is that they're telling the truth most of the time," says Adam Lilling, a commentary editor under Blair who is now a law student at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. "With Jayson, he lied most of the time."

Blair's abilities as a manager also came under fire. Turnover was dizzyingly high during his tenure. Nearly every significant editing post beneath him revolved at least once. The paper consistently missed its production deadlines, costing extra money. And some of his stories provoked controversy.

Alex Knott, the managing editor, accompanied Blair to a November 1996 football game at Byrd Stadium in search of students carrying banners critical of the football coach. When Blair's story was published, Knott was astonished to read the colorful quotations attributed to the less-than-talkative students he had witnessed Blair interviewing. Blair insisted the article was accurate.

The same story had other problems. One quotation was discovered to have been lifted from an Associated Press article and was edited out before Blair's story was published, says Todd B. Rhoads, then a sportswriter. Still another was attributed to a Maryland student named Eric Bouch, whose existence could not be confirmed by suspicious Diamondback staffers. No one with that name was registered as a student in 1996, according to the university.


That fall, Knott says he warned Michael Fribush, the professional general manager who oversaw financial issues for Maryland Media's publications, that Blair's mismanagement of the payroll was damaging staff morale. At the time, the newspaper had an annual budget that exceeded $1 million. Reporters were paid as little as $13 a story, while editors could make up to $1,000 monthly. A handful of Blair's friends, including his girlfriend, had been given key paid positions. But Blair refused to show anyone the newsroom budget.

In spring 1997, staff members complained to Chet Rhodes, a journalism instructor who replaced Callahan on the Maryland Media board. They were told to take the matter to Fribush or to Michelle Singletary, then chairwoman of the board. (Singletary, a personal finance columnist for the Washington Post, would not comment for this article.)

Soon after, however, Blair announced he would leave the editor in chief position prematurely, citing "personal reasons." Many staffers believe his departure and their complaints were linked. Those who were close to him give different versions. Swartz, one of his few allies at the Diamondback, says Blair was tired of all the sniping. Reid, the assistant dean, says Blair "felt it was better if he bowed out early."

During his final days as editor, still another controversy arose. On April 7, Blair and reporter Alan Sachs wrote a story about the on-campus death of undergraduate Donald Castleberry. In it, they compared the ensuing investigation to the inquiry that followed the fatal cocaine overdose of Maryland basketball star Len Bias. A second article, written by Sachs and edited by Blair, focused on campus rumors that cocaine played a role in Castleberry's death.

In two subsequent stories, Blair and Sachs reversed themselves and reported Castleberry's death did not involve drugs but was caused by a rare heart defect.

The next week, Blair's successor as editor in chief, Danielle Newman, published an apology for the Diamondback's speculative reporting. "It went against everything students are taught about journalism," Newman wrote. The journalism school, because it has no formal responsibility for the Diamondback, took no action.

On Blair's last night as editor in chief, staff members gathered in the newsroom without him to celebrate. They cranked up the music, popped open a few beers, and flung a typewriter from the windows of the paper's second-story editorial offices.

Departing Diamondback editors in chief traditionally paint their names on the cinderblock wall of their newsroom office, adding flip catch-phrases to commemorate their time at College Park. Not Blair. Instead, Lilling scrawled a caustic inscription: "Jayson Blair, R.I.P. "


Despite Washington Bureau Chief Shribman's misgivings the previous year, the Boston Globe's crop of summer interns in 1997 again included Blair. "We had hoped in the larger confines of the newsroom up here [in South Boston] that some of the personality issues would diminish," says Charlie Ball, the Globe's intern supervisor for more than two decades.

From the outset, Blair was hyper-competitive. He showed initiative, as always, chatting up editors and seeking important stories, but he also gossiped about colleagues and patronized other interns. Some interns complained to Blair's supervisors, Ball and then assistant managing editor Louisa Williams.

More problematically, his Boston colleagues say, Blair sabotaged their work, denigrating their stories or, conversely, stealing their ideas. The newspaper ran a clarification after editors learned that he obtained quotes by eavesdropping on an interview between a lawyer and reporter from the competing Boston Herald.

Blair's final Globe evaluation said Blair was "smart" and "energetic" and the owner of a "sharp news sense." It also noted unprofessional behavior. He "seems interested in making a splash and getting bylines" to the point where it could interfere with his "taking the measured steps needed to become a complete journalist," stated the assessment, provided by Ball. "He's prone to factual error and superficiality and even sloppiness in copy."


Precisely what the University of Maryland journalism school knew about Blair's flaws and what it could, or should, have done about them continues to be the subject of dispute.

Journalism schools aim to teach fundamental skills -- how to conduct interviews, gather facts, and write on deadline. College administrators mediate clashes among students nearly every year. It can be difficult to sift serious complaint from youthful gossip or jealousy. And no institution can control what its former students do once they leave campus. "I have great humility on this subject," says Loren Ghiglione, journalism dean at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "We do the best we can."

Other educators, though, add that schools have a responsibility to instill in their students core values -- and to catch and correct serious flaws on campus or professional internships while students are still enrolled there. "If something comes up, we owe it to [students] to read them the riot act," says Richard Cole, journalism dean for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"If they do something on the student newspaper that's not full, fair and accurate -- we let them know. ... If they make too much of something, we call them on it. That's all part of their education."

At the Globe in summer 1997, some of Blair's behavior was consistent with the tenacious, even confrontational drive of some veteran news reporters. "Our city editor used to tell new reporters that she wanted people to be very industrious, very ambitious, very in-your-face," says Louisa Williams, who left the Globe in 2001. "Jayson had that."

She talked briefly about both sides of Blair in conversations with Callahan, then an assistant dean. But he didn't probe deeply -- Callahan neither read nor requested the Globe's written assessments -- and Williams says she cited no "red flags." Callahan informally cautioned Blair about his immaturity, warning that busybodies were rarely admired. But he heard no problems about Blair's underlying reporting. A few missteps at the student paper were considered par for the course.


In summer 1998, Blair was one of four young minority reporters to participate in a highly competitive fellowship at The New York Times, which is owned by the same parent company as the Globe. Given the Globe's assessment of Blair, the selection was a shock to Ball, the Globe intern director, and Matthew V. Storin, the Globe's top editor.

At the Times, Blair spent much of his time asking editors out for drinks, while slighting his fellow interns, as one of them, Macarena Hernandez, later wrote in The Los Angeles Times.

When Blair returned to Maryland in fall 1998, academically still a junior, he continued to loom large, despite the distrust of other students. He received a teaching assistant slot that is usually reserved for graduate students.

Blair left the university after May 1999 without graduating. The Times had offered him a second, extended internship, which would prove a gateway to an intermediate reporting position. He was more than a year away from earning his degree, but, according to The Times, he didn't mention that to his new editors. "The New York Times never asked us if they should have hired him, which I think was incredible," says Cleghorn, then the dean. "We would have said, 'No.' It was too soon."

Still, the university didn't hesitate to trade on its new star.

A photo of Blair hung in a favored place in the journalism school's first-floor hallway and he was included on a Web site of distinguished college alumni. Dean Kunkel, among others, invited Blair to return to campus to speak. In summer 2000, he was featured in a story in the university's alumni magazine titled "So, you want to be a Reporter."

That same year, the university sent a crew to Manhattan for the recruiting video. In early 2001, Jayson Blair got the promotion he'd been waiting for, the sort of job that J-school deans dream of for their graduates. He was hired as a full reporter at The New York Times.


Last April, Blair himself became news. The top editor of the San Antonio Express-News had pointed out similarities between a Blair article and a story written by one of its reporters -- the same Macarena Hernandez who had been a Times fellow with Blair.

Blair's career quickly unraveled. The Times revealed that dozens of articles had been compromised -- pocked with fabrications, plagiarized passages and inaccuracies -- and published an extensive apology. Within the newspaper, angry reporters and editors demanded to know why the young journalist's transgressions weren't discovered and stopped. Times Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd were forced to resign.

Last June, a group of Diamondback alumni wrote a letter to Kunkel and university President C.D. Mote Jr., arguing that the journalism school had ignored their concerns about Blair.

A section of The Times' internal review of the scandal admonishes the university for its failure to identify and halt Blair's early deceptions. "[T]he university faculty gave him good reviews, and The Times recruiter who visited the College Park campus over three years uncovered none of the controversy," the report read. "Thus, the first CHOKE POINT passed, a lost opportunity when a more successful inquiry or different input from the university could have set the newspaper on a different path."

Kunkel and Callahan dispute the issues report's conclusion, noting that the Times' review relied heavily on the alumni letter. A school-commissioned review of the 17 articles that Blair wrote for the Capital News Service found seven errors and several disputed quotes, but no plagiarism. Alumni volunteers abandoned an examination of Blair's Diamondback articles, saying they were too biased against Blair to execute it fairly.

Kunkel and Callahan say they have been anguished by the legacy of Blair. They have met with students to talk about the ethical implications of his actions, and spoken with faculty to learn about the school's interactions with him.

Callahan, like Kunkel, now labels Blair a journalistic "war criminal" for his conduct at The Times. But Callahan makes no apologies for having advanced Blair's career, given what he knew at the time. "That's sort of my job," he says.

"What happened with Jayson was terrible in every regard," Kunkel says. But "we would not have been doing our job if the school had not backed Jayson up. ... This school has, for a long time, made its reputation for getting the best students and getting the most outstanding of them the best opportunities."

Even in retrospect, Carl Sessions Stepp, an avuncular professor who was a sounding board for students, says that he would have been hard-pressed not to recommend Blair for jobs. Nonetheless, he says the complaints about Blair's character should have served as a warning.

"The people who worked closest with him were the people who got suspicious first," Stepp says. "That's a lesson for journalists and others. Listen to the sources closest to the action."