Monday, May 06, 2013

Jayson and his Enablers

Others can probably say better than I why I read every word of last week's three-part series in the University of Maryland's student newspaper on their notorious grad, Jayson Blair (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3,). You remember Jayson, fired ten years ago last week from the New York Times after it became clear that his whole career was just a boatload of lies.  About his Times years it didn't tell me much that was new--I had followed the story when it was new, fascinated by Blair himself, even more fascinated by his handlers at the Times: one would have thought them the least gullible people people in the world, but here they were, sucked into the Blair fantasy as tightly as if it was a Nigerian 419 scam (or did I just put my own gullibility on display?).

The part that I didn't know was the prequel (see especially Part 2 of the series), about his years as a student at UM, where the same MV seems to have been on display from the beginning.  You've got to admire the professionalism of the student editors and their sources for seeking to manage the mix of schadenfreude and and sheepish embarrassment over the evidence that Blair could have gotten away with so much and for so long.

The paper also touches on, but doesn't really embrace, what is perhaps the most interesting lesson of the whole episode: i.e., new evidence for the ancient insight that you can't cheat an honest man.  We've had years to meditate on why the bigfeet at the Times--notably editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd, who lost their jobs in the riptide--were so eager to let themselves be hypnotized by Blair's poppycock.  What was new and even more interesting to me was the student paper's dissection of the role played by the various enablers at the J-school.

There's a fair amount of oh-what-a-shame  gee-we-just-wanted-to-help on display here.  But near the end of the third installment, somebody let slip what strikes me as a more promising theme.  "maybe they simply didn’t want to see the signs [a UM professor] said. Maybe they allowed the allure of Blair’s promising future — and the ways it could boost the college’s national profile — to obscure their judgment."

Unh hunh.  Read the whole thing and you can't escape the inference that a whole lot of people wanted Blair to succeed because they had skin in the game: that they hang onto his coattails and go along for the ride.  Please God let him burnish the reputation of the school where I work; and while we are at it, God, would it kill you to let him help me get a better job?

Aside from clothes-ripping self-mortifying confession, I suppose you can never really nail anybody on this kind of a charge.  I suppose there were some people who were, despite the warnings, genuinely taken in by Blair's schtick (but if so, for cryin' out loud why were they teaching in a journalism school)?   Easier to surmise that there were some who believed because they wanted to believe--which certainly puts them in good company, alongside Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd.  And I think it is fair to wonder how many knew perfectly well that the wheels would come off the Blairite bus, but just hoped that they could enjoy the ride and get off safely at their own stop.  If I'm right on that last, the cynicism on display would be something appalling.   But maybe that is the lesson the kiddies are supposed to learn?


Anonymous said...

President Obama is another J Blair.

chidimma said...

I would like to know more on the updates concerning this article kindly send to unec at the university of Nigeria

bjdubbs said...

Could Jayson really do anything for UM? He's one reporter, and I don't think anyone mistook him for the next Halberstam. I don't really see anybody having any great stake in his future, other than wanting to see him succeed. If Blair ever had coattails, that would be surprising . . . Maybe the real explanation is that the mistakes were relatively harmless, so they went unpunished for a long time.

Anonymous said...

i spent a lot of my younger years laboring in newspaper newsrooms from good ones like the anniston alabama star and the louisville papers of the bingham era, and i spent some time in dishonest and lousy ones. to this day i cannot comprehend why the lower levels of editing, asst city editors, and what we used to call copy readers, the guys around the copy desk, let jayson get away with wholesale journalistic corruption. my mind keeps saying he was black and all the editors except the ME were white, and that was why they didn't scream fraud when his copy hit the first editor's desk. but -- has anyone ever gotten to the low level editors and gotten the truth out of them about how it happened?

Buce said...

Red, I think there is plenty of evidence that lots of people saw through Blair all along the line. The really interesting question is which ones were in a position to do anything about it. One of the most fascinating parts of the new Maryland series is its documentation of tweendecks complaints against Blair while he was still a student--complaints from people not in a position to do anything about it, ignored by people who were.

As to the Times record, there's a bit of good background here: -- including the quote from Jonathan Landman who got his fifteen minutes of fame for having written (months before the collapse): "We have to stop Jayson Blair from writing for the Times. Right now." Nosing about, I get the impression thst Landman is/was pretty much of a lifer deskman: the kind of faceless guy that a place like the Times must have to make its reputation, but without the bling needed to give him real influence.

I wouldn't get carried away with the black angle. I suspect what counted for most of the enablers was the fact that Blair could improve their own lives: the fact that he was black being incident, not substance.

BTW the first comment above is about the dumbest this blog has ever been honored to entertain.