The Making of Jayson Blair

The disgraced journalist's closest peers were troubled by his work and behavior at the University of Maryland, but no one heeded their warnings.

Media

February 29, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Staff

When the cab hurtling through midtown Manhattan stops, a young man in a gray suit unfolds himself and steps to the curb. The camera pulls back to reveal a gleaming legend above an entrance: The New York Times.

The front page of The Times' Metropolitan section materializes on screen. A byline is highlighted. It reads: "Jayson Blair." Then the young man -- Blair himself -- begins to speak.

The footage is part of a recruiting tape once sent to high schools by the University of Maryland, depicting the College Park campus as a place where students develop personally and professionally before embarking upon successful careers.

The 17-minute video, made in 2000, features three people presented as distinguished alumni. One is a Johns Hopkins University endocrinologist. Another is an underwater filmmaker. Blair, identified as a member of the class of 1997, is the third and youngest. Facing the camera, he describes how his college days led to his enviable job: "During my second year at Maryland, I sat down with the recruiter from The New York Times who eventually hired me. Right now, I work on the metro desk, covering anything and everything -- I'm a general assignment reporter. It's exciting. It's fun to do."

The university could have chosen one of several eminent journalism alumni for the video: TV news anchor Connie Chung, Pulitzer Prize winner Patrick Sloyan, columnist DeWayne Wickham among them. But in 2000, Blair must have seemed an obvious choice. He had been the second African-American editor of the student paper, the Diamondback. He had held internships at three of the nation's top newspapers. And, shortly after leaving Maryland, he had risen from intern to staff writer at The New York Times -- all by the age of 24.

Blair's now-infamous fall from grace came last April. The Times investigated a complaint that he had plagiarized passages from a Texas newspaper. By May 1, he was forced to resign. He served as fodder for magazine covers, network newscasts, and television comics. Then, he largely disappeared from the public eye.

Now, Jayson Blair is about to re-emerge. His memoir, Burning Down My Masters' House: My Life at The New York Times, for which he was reportedly paid a six-figure advance by New Milennium Audio & Press, is due out Saturday.

In the next few weeks, he is scheduled to appear on NBC's Dateline, the Today show, CNN and Fox News, where he is likely to recount how he duped his editors, ruined his journalism career, and deeply wounded America's most prominent newspaper.

Blair declined several requests to be interviewed for this article, saying he was reserving his story until the memoir's release. In his book, an excerpt of which was obtained by The Sun last week, Blair blames himself for his professional lapses while also describing his struggles with mental illness and addiction to alcohol and drugs. On the first line of the first chapter, Blair writes: "I lied, I lied, and then I lied some more." Yet he is at times scornful of his former editors at The Times and writes boastfully of his own talents.

The University of Maryland, which Blair attended from January 1995 to May 1999, but from which he never graduated, once basked in his success. But Blair is no longer listed among the alumni celebrated on the journalism school's Web site. Nor is his photograph, which once adorned a J-school hallway, anywhere to be seen. This month, the dean of Maryland's journalism school angrily reject ed Blair's suggestion that some of his proceeds be used to create a scholarship for Maryland students. As the dean's response demonstrates, the sting of Blair's disgrace is still keenly felt.

Since Blair's downfall, many of his former classmates have criticized the journalism school. They claim that Blair's behavior there foreshadowed the flaws that surfaced so spectacularly at The Times. While at Maryland, they say, Blair wooed and won powerful patrons who repeatedly advanced his career while glossing over his mistakes. Their objections to his behavior were ignored, the classmates add.

In its own review of the Blair debacle, The Times declared that the school should have recognized nascent problems and might have averted the scandal.

Maryland administrators bitterly reject that charge, saying their reactions to the young reporter -- like those of his Times editors -- were based upon what they saw as his extraordinary promise. "There's this perception that somehow Maryland knowingly passed on damaged goods, and that's not true," says Thomas Kunkel, who became dean of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism in 2000.

Yet surely Maryland is a major character in his story; as Blair himself says in the recruiting videotape, he owes his start in journalism to the university. A review of Blair's years at the University of Maryland offers glimpses of a young man whose intelligence, drive and charisma were offset by erratic behavior and a propensity for skirting the rules.

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