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

The Slatest

Ben Bradlee Dead at 93

The legendary Washington Post editor presided over the paper’s Watergate coverage.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

Walmart Is Crushing the Rest of Corporate America in Adopting Solar Power

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 5:38 PM Justified Paranoia Citizenfour offers a look into the mind of Edward Snowden.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  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.