Jayson Blair

Former New York Times Reporter Jayson Blair to Address W&L Journalism Ethics Institute

Jayson Blair, who was at the center of a major journalism scandal as a New York Times reporter in 2003, will be the featured speaker at Washington and Lee University’s 48th Journalism Ethics Institute on Friday, Nov. 6.

The title of Blair’s talk is “Lessons Learned.” The public is invited to the presentation at 5:30 p.m. in Stackhouse Theater, Elrod Commons.

Blair resigned from the Times after an investigation found that he had plagiarized and fabricated major portions of stories that he had written during four years with the Times. Some of the stories that he covered in this manner were such major news events as the D.C. sniper case and the rescue of POW Jessica Lynch.

“Inviting Jayson Blair to keynote this institute was definitely a departure for us,” said Edward Wasserman, the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at W&L. “In the past, we've brought heroes to Lexington, people of great accomplishment and stature, such as Hodding Carter, Helen Thomas and Lowell Bergman, and people who stood up to pressure in the name of principled journalism, such as Matt Cooper and my W&L faculty colleague Toni Locy, both of whom faced jail time because they refused to give up the names of sources they had promised to protect.

“Jayson Blair, on the other hand, was at the center of one of the signature journalism scandals of this still-new century, and there's no way to imagine that his role in it was heroic,” Wasserman continued. “When I approached him with the invitation, he said that although he has not spoken publicly about the affair that led to his dismissal from the New York Times for the past five or six years, this might be the right time and right occasion. My expectation is that he'll talk not just about his own susceptibilities, but about the pressures and temptations that might induce ambitious and talented young journalists elsewhere in the business to do the wrong thing.”

Blair, 33, attended the University of Maryland where he majored in journalism and was editor-in-chief of the Diamondback, the student newspaper, during the 1996-97 academic year. He had a summer internship with the Times in 1998 and was offered an extended internship which eventually turned into a full-time reporting position. For the past two years, Blair has worked as a certified life coach, specializing in attention deficit disorder, pervasive developmental disorders, mood disorders and substance abuse disorders.

The W&L Journalism Ethics Institutes, held twice each year, bring to campus top media professional and academics for two days of seminars with students from the University’s capstone journalism ethics class. The sessions deal with case studies of ethical dilemmas that the practicing journalists present.

In addition to Wasserman, media professionals and academics attending include Caesar Andrews, Reynolds Distinguished Visiting Professor in Journalism at W&L; Jon Carras, producer, CBS Sunday Morning; Michael Getler, ombudsman, PBS News; Arlene Notoro Morgan, associate dean of prizes and programs 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.

(Editor's note: on Monday, Nov. 2, 2009, I received a note from a broadcast journalism major at Columbia College in Chicago. She wrote an essay about an interview which was conducted with Blair via phone ... as a letter to the editor...

Wendy Osborne

October 10, 2009

"I felt myself recoil; needing to interpret the emotions I felt when I read a quotation from an article written by Armstrong Williams.

"It read, “I don’t understand why I am the bumbling affirmative-action hire when Stephen Glass is this brilliant whiz kid, when from my perspective – and I know I shouldn’t be saying this – I fooled some of the most brilliant people in journalism.”

"The source? Jayson Blair. He was referencing the racial fallout that occurred when he, a young, black, journalist at The New York Times, was caught plagiarizing and fabricating his stories. When caught, he resigned on May 2, 2003. I was taken aback because while addressing the bias in the treatment of black journalists as opposed to white journalists, Blair’s cocky stance of fooling brilliant people, reversed any sympathy one might have had for him.

I believe that race was an integral factor in the Jayson Blair scandal. I am not defending Blair in any way, shape or form. But I wanted to take an objective look at how his being an African American journalist played into how he was perceived.

"Diversity programs: they are implemented in many newsrooms in order to foster credibility with the public. The idea is that if a newsroom is more reflective of the American population, then trust is fostered. The New York Times was no exception and Jayson Blair was hired as a part of its diversity hiring program. When his crimes were revealed, people saw him as an African American journalist – not just a journalist.

"Blair’s boast above came on the heels of the question about why Stephen Glass was viewed as a genius and he as a “bumbling affirmative-action hire” when the crimes were the same. Blair was accurate in one regard; his plagiarizing and lying to people who loved and trusted him drew certain disgust towards him that Stephen Glass’ actions didn’t generate. Glass was penalized for his actions; period. However, black journalists around the country were being penalized for Blair’s actions in ways that white journalists were never penalized for Glass’ fabrication.

One white educator made it clear after the Blair scandal.

“I live and work in southwest Georgia, in the heart of the Black Belt. Our population is 60 percent black and 40 percent white. We would never have a Jayson Blair incident at our regional newspaper, because it consistently has no black journalists. Period. The few who are hired refuse to stay because of the backward culture of the news organization. It’s a shame.”

"Pamela Newkirk is an associate professor of journalism and mass communications at New York University, and was appalled at the treatment that young black journalists were receiving in their newsrooms.

“The coverage of the scandal showed once again that African Americans are still not allowed to be seen as individuals when they fail. When they succeed, yes. When they win Pulitzers and earn Nieman awards, they are individuals, exceptions in our society. But when they fail, it’s failure all around, failure for the race.”

"I am from a different country and culture, and have taken a close look at the dynamics of race in this country. African Americans aren’t seen as “American” as their white counterparts are. A Caucasian man is called “white.” Plain and simple. Just white. A man of color is called “African American.” He is labeled as an American with a modifier; much like the titles, Asian-American, Philipino-American and Latino-American, these descriptions tell me that there are “normal” Americans, then there are the Americans that are a type of American, hence the clarifications – Philipino, Asian, Latino and African.

The irony in all of this is that it might have been due to Blair’s race that he was able to advance so quickly and so successfully through the ranks at the Times. So which comes first? Do we curb minority-hiring because of a bad seed, or do we keep hiring through diversity programs, sacrificing the quality of reporters and their stories all in the name of equal opportunity? After all, executive editor, Howell Raines who resigned from the Times because of the scandal, told his employees that because he was a white man from the south, he carried guilt, and in turn gave Blair more chances than he actually deserved.

Caitlin Lamey, a journalism student at Columbia College Chicago believes that Blair has created an unfortunate dynamic for upcoming journalists.

“I feel like (Blair) has created a huge setback for young students,” she said. “He has created a hard obstacle for young people to overcome, because now old reporters aren’t going to trust the young reporters.”

My goal as a journalist is to be aggressive, passionate, accurate, honest, and fair. I intend to be accountable to the newsroom or news station I work for. "I have seen what Blair’s actions have done for black reporters all around the country. This points to something I have always believed. Although we are individuals, our actions affect others whether we know it or not.

"The New York Times was severely affected. The public trusted the Times to be accurate; to have an authoritative and respected voice. This plagiarist, Jayson Blair, hurt that reputation. On Sunday, May 11, 2003 – just 9 days after Blair resigned – the publication ran a story called “Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception,” stating that Blair’s misdeeds showed “a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”

"The irony is that journalism is all about trust. It’s about accountability. Accountability to your employer; to your editor; to your fellow journalists; to your sources; and especially to the public. The public looks to us for their news, plain and simple. If we lie to them, who protects their rights to knowing what is happening in their town, city, state or country? If we journalists aren’t watch dogs; if we journalists cut corners; if we journalists “fix” quotations; if we journalists lie; how will our readers and viewers know what’s true and what’s a lie? They won’t.

"I am not African American, but I am black. I am a black journalist. Blair has ensured that I will be watched twice as hard as my white peers will be, so what do I do? I become the best journalist in my town, city, state, or country. So keep watching; you are going to love what you see.

Thank you, Jayson Blair.)

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