In the days after Jayson Blair resigned in shame from the New York Times, everyone tried to reach him. Television, radio, newspapers, magazines, old friends, colleagues. He spoke to almost no one.
But he did call one person — an agent named David Vigliano about a book and movie deal. Those deals are now in motion. And that’s all you need to know about Jayson Blair.
This was a story about lying, cheating, plagiarism, racial preference, white guilt, newsroom culture and flat-out ignorance. But mostly it was about the arrogant entitlement of one 27-year-old semi-journalist, who, in interviews last week, revealed himself to be little more than a spoiled child who smokes and drinks.
To read Blair’s quotes is to want to scream, “Grow up!” He calls his editors
“idiots” (the ones who kept giving him chances to redeem himself). He suggests his booze and drug habits might be the Times’ fault. (“Do you pick up the substance because of the environment you’re in?” he ponders.) He even complains that another disgraced writer, Stephen Glass, who did his lying for the New Republic, is getting better treatment.
Says Blair: “I fooled some of the most brilliant people in journalism.”
Amazing, isn’t it? Even in shame, he’s not getting enough credit.
The bottom line
This is one mixed-up kid. But there were ample warnings. His high school journalism was riddled with red flags. His university colleagues considered him a liar and a potential plagiarist; he resigned from his college paper.
Even so, he was given internships at — note this — the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the New York Times. That’s the grand slam of internships, folks, and no matter what anyone tells you, that was about race. So was this African-American’s quick ascension at the Times, which he joined without graduating from college (he lied about that, too — a fire-able offense, if anyone had bothered to check). Despite repeated irresponsible behavior, questionable reporting, and a boss who told his superiors, “We must stop Jayson from writing for the Times,” Blair was promoted and assigned to two of the biggest stories of the year.
How does that happen? It happens because newsrooms are so devoted to diversity, they sometimes overlook what no normal business would overlook: the incompetence of an employee. When asked if Blair was given too many chances out of racial guilt, Howell Raines, the executive editor, said, “As a white man from Alabama . . . when I look into my heart . . . the answer is yes.”
Raines may think he’s doing an honorable mea culpa here. If I were black, I’d be insulted. Opening the doors is different than letting people jump out the window. By giving Blair so many chances, the Times insulted every other minority journalist whose hard work and earned promotions now might be questioned.
No sense of remorse
Having said that, in the end, only Blair’s ascension can be pinned on the Times. His actions are his own doing. So is his posing for the cover of Newsweek puffing a cigarette like some rogue agent. For all his talking last week, I never saw the words, “I’m sorry. What I did was terrible.”
Instead, he called himself “young and conflicted.” He talked about his favorite plagiarism. (His favorite? What is this? “American Idol”?) He even said, “In order for Jayson Blair the human being to live, Jayson Blair the journalist had to die.”
Oh, please. I know it’s going to be a movie. I didn’t know he was writing it.
The sad lesson is that Blair, a kid addicted to the fast flash of attention, will likely get it and make big money for it. What he doesn’t get is that journalism is not Hollywood. It’s not about closing the deal. It’s not about face time. It’s about — simply put — telling the truth.
On that, he failed miserably, not because he was black or vulnerable or persecuted. Because he was unable or unwilling to do it. Last week Blair told CNN, “I hope to . . . write and share my story so that it can help others heal.”
Heal yourself, kid. We’re busy working out here.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.