The Jayson Blair Project.

Media criticism.
May 8 2003 5:45 PM

The Jayson Blair Project

How did he bamboozle the New York Times?

Jayson Blair: faking it
Jayson Blair: faking it

What can you say about a trusted professional who makes stuff up and publishes it as fact?

Last week, New York Times reporter Jayson Blair joined Janet Cooke, formerly of the Washington Post, the New Republic's Stephen Glass, the Boston Globe's Patricia Smith, and Jay Forman in Slate as journalists who got caught embellishing, exaggerating, and outright lying in print. The will to fabricate cuts across disciplines, with academics and scientists inventing data, too. Last year, Emory University history professor Michael A. Bellesiles resigned following an investigation of charges that he concocted evidence to support his book Arming America, and Bell Labs fired researcher Jan Hendrik Schon when it discovered he made up scientific data and published it.

The unmasking of a counterfeiter tends to inspire busy discussions of his motive. In the case of Blair, who is black, observers such as Mickey Kaus speculate that affirmative action may have pushed Blair to a position of responsibility before he was ready for it. The busted fabricator almost always cites personal or emotional problems, and sure enough, Blair struck that note last week, telling the Associated Press, "I have been struggling with recurring personal issues, which have caused me great pain. I am now seeking appropriate counseling. ..."

Advertisement

Those seeking to "understand" the liars' behavior tend to blame the liars' employers, making the liar the victim. The bosses pushed him too hard, or they took a young, promising journalist and threw him into the deep end—beyond his known abilities and experience—way before he was ready. Folks rush to swaddle the liar and his motives in psychobabble instead of placing the onus where it belongs.

No single explanation can cover every case, but my guess is that most liars make things up for the simple reason that they don't have the talent or the ability to get the story any other way. According to the Washington City Paperaccount, Blair repeatedly concocted specifics, both sensational and mundane, while covering the D.C. sniper story. He didn't really need to: Other Times reporters were on the story, too. My guess is that Blair made stuff up because he didn't know how to wheedle gossip out of prosecutors and cops, he didn't know how to put two and two together and make the next call to find news, and he didn't know how to take notes and report the facts straight.

Jonathan Chait, who worked with Glass at the New Republic, remembers that Glass wasn't really much of a stylist: Glass' stories read beautifully because the late Michael Kelly poured his genius into them before publication. Kelly would often remark on reading a Glass first draft of how great the story was but that he needed more detail. As it turned out, Glass wasn't much of a reporter, either. Instead of digging for more, he conjured the effects he thought Kelly wanted. A little closer to home, a similar thing happened at Slatewhen I edited Jay Forman's monkeyfishing piece. When Forman, who did go monkeyfishing, turned in a first, flat draft about his Florida Keys adventure, I encouraged him through several rewrites to add more writerly detail to increase the piece's verisimilitude. Forman complied, inventing numerous twists to the tale and even confessing intense remorse for things he never did. (Addendum:In February 2007, writer Jay Forman contacted Slate toconfess that his entire story was untrue. See this article.)

The lesson I learned isn't to refrain from asking writers for detail but to be skeptical about details that sound too good or that you had to push too hard to get the writer to uncover or that are suspicious simply because any writer worth his salt would have put them in his first draft. All that said, it's almost impossible for an editor to beat a good liar every time out.

Blair, like Glass, Cooke, Smith, and Forman, got away with making things up for as long as he did because journalism is built on trust. As New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines told the Washington Posttoday, "Frankly, no newspaper in the world is set up to monitor for cheats and fabricators." When an editor gives somebody a notebook and pencil and tells him to go out and report, it's a little bit like giving somebody you barely know a loaded gun. You expect him to use it wisely and honestly. But one slip, and there's hamburger all over the wallpaper! Hence, most reporters don't make things up because 1) they're as ethical as Jesus Christ or 2) they know they'll get caught.

The Blair revelations should distress everybody who creates or consumes copy. How many prevaricators lurk out there? But the wrong takeaway from the Blair-Cooke-Glass-Forman disasters is to assume that young people can't be trusted to report. Instead (and how about this for drawing a happy face in a mound of manure?), their sordid experiences in the journalism trade indicate that so many young people get caught making stuff up because you can't get away with it for very long. Journalism ain't perfect, but it loves to eat its sinners.

******

Send your lies to pressbox@hotmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 23 2014 6:00 AM Monster Kids from poorer neighborhoods keep coming to trick-or-treat in mine. Do I have to give them candy?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Culturebox
Oct. 22 2014 11:54 PM The Actual World “Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.