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The Battle for the Newsroom

How the Jayson Blair scandal touched off a struggle for the soul of the Gray Lady.

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Top to bottom: Jayson Blair and Howell Raines  

It ain’t bragging if you really done it!” crowed New York Times executive editor Howell Raines in April 2002. The newspaper had just won an unprecedented seven Pulitzer prizes for its coverage of 9/11 and its aftermath—Raines had assumed the office just a week before the planes hit the towers—and he was standing in front of his office in the third-floor newsroom, addressing the staff.

Not far away, beside the exposed-metal staircase near the heart of the newsroom, was the cubicle of a hale young reporter named Jayson Blair. It was a perfect vantage point for observing the comings and goings of the paper’s editors and reporters—a kind of reporting at which Blair excelled.

That April, Blair and Raines seemed to be going in different directions. Times Metro editor Jonathan Landman, who’d been wrestling with Blair over errors in his copy for months, had finally become fed up. He fired off an e-mail to associate managing editor Bill Schmidt and training editor Nancy Sharkey, insisting, “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.”

A little more than a year later, Blair and Raines’s trajectories intersected again. This time, Raines was sitting before 600 seething Times staff members at the Loews theater at 1515 Broadway. On the dais with him was Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the Times chairman, who’d chosen Raines to head the paper, and managing editor Gerald Boyd, Raines’s No. 2. The simplest question was, how had they allowed the Blair disaster to happen after such a blatant warning? But the issue was much bigger than one bad egg.

To many of the assembled, this triumvirate had come close to destroying the credibility of the newspaper—“this precious thing we hold in common,” as one reporter has described it. And the hastily called “town hall” meeting, on May 14, hadn’t helped, with its gauntlet of news cameras, reporters, and a hectoring man in a Saddam Hussein mask and well-worn loafers carrying a sign announcing FORMER NYT REPORTER, WILL LIE FOR FOOD.

“It was the most depressing and humiliating thing,” said one Metro reporter.

“It’s not the kind of thing you’d think you’d go through because of the Times.”

Inside the theater, it was worse. The outrage wasn’t against Blair, whose misdeeds had already been detailed over 14,000 fastidious words in the Times the previous Sunday, a public mea culpa said to have been opposed by several masthead-level Timespeople. It was against the people onstage—the ones who signed the memos “Arthur, Howell and Gerald.” It was a journalistic version of the perfect storm.

“I think the meeting was a fiasco,” said an editor at the paper. “I came away thinking they were very well-versed in saying, ‘We’re sorry, we’re sorry.’ But the answers were all the same corporate-speak.”

Raines went relentlessly after Bill Clinton on his editorial page, and now he’s facing impeachment calls of his own. Like the former president, he’s given his enemies the ammunition they need. The day before the town-hall meeting, the Washington bureau—home to a number of critics of Raines—held a brown-bag meeting where he was flayed in effigy, his perceived weaknesses dissected: Raines was seen to be p.c. about race, authoritarian, ruthless about restaffing. He was damaging the paper.

Many people have felt slighted by Raines, a cocky bulldog of a man with a relentless zest to remake the vast, self-important news bureaucracy of the Times as quickly as possible. Those whose status and self-determination were reduced by this urgent, top-down transformation want to see him lose. And now the Blair witch hunt (that’s one in-house joke; the other is the Blair lynch project) has begun: Three other writers are under investigation at the Times for reality high jinks, including two who were considered Raines’s favorites. But the Times is a terrifically political place, full of alliances, opportunities, and shadow governments. The Blair affair is both a morality play and a story of byzantine animosities and intrigue.

WHO IS JAYSON BLAIR?

The movie playing at the cinema that was commandeered for the meeting was Identity, and the marquee said: IDENTITY IS A SECRET, IDENTITY IS A MYSTERY, IDENTITY IS A KILLER.

Jayson Blair (who didn’t return calls) didn’t seem like such a mystery. When he arrived at the Times after scoring an internship for minority journalists, he’d already done time with the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. A precocious kid from suburban Washington, D.C., he’d written for his high-school newspaper and many letters to the local papers. His mother is a teacher, and his father is an inspector general at the Smithsonian Institution, in charge of audits and fraud detection. A nonathletic member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, he went off to Jerry Falwell’s religious college, Liberty University, before transferring to the University of Maryland, where he became editor of the school paper.

Though the Times assumed he had graduated from Maryland, he’d in fact stopped at least a year short. It wasn’t the first mistake the paper made about him. And Blair quickly made an impact in the newsroom. He knew how to make friends. Astute at gossip and eavesdropping—which are crucial newsroom skills—he learned everybody’s name and quickly went on to know a lot more. In fact, colleagues were amazed—to the point of suspicion—at the volume and quality of his information: From salaries to assignments, he had the goods. For one thing, there was the key position of his desk. “He was right next to Janny Scott and Glenn Collins and other big shots,” says a newsroom neighbor. “He saw everybody come in, in the morning.” Strangely, he was often there already. And when people went home at night.

“He seemed to be very in-the-know, and everything he said seemed to be accurate,” says another staff member. “He’d tell people they’d be transferred before they knew it themselves. He spent enormous amounts of time on his office-politicking. He wandered around the Times building collecting his tidbits.”

Glad-handing, making friends with up-and-comers, he also wasn’t above dropping the names of higher-ups he was friends with. He talked a good game, much to the resentment of the younger staff whose careers seemed less blessed.

Blair had no shortage of friends at the paper. “There’s that whole younger generation of Metro reporters,” observed one reporter who’d gossip and carouse with him. Blair was one of its brightest lights and a social nexus. “He hung out at [Robert] Emmett’s, on 44th and Eighth—one of those new prefab bars on Times Square,” with a group of young Times people.

One of Blair’s closest friends was Charlie LeDuff, a rising star in Raines’s firmament known for his colorful writing style. “Jayson would sort of tag along” with him, said a friend of LeDuff’s. “He was very competitive with Charlie, and then kind of took it many, many steps too far—because he could get away with it.”

Also, says a friend of Blair’s, “there was this constant refrain about corrections.” The Times has always been fetishistic about corrections. The corrections box was instituted regularly under Max Frankel, but policies became even more stringent during the regime of executive editor Joe Lelyveld. “You had to write a memo saying how you made it and how you’d not do this again,” says a reporter. “Everybody felt persecuted by it.”

But Blair made a show of being singled out. “He’d always say, ‘Somebody was on my ass. Why are they on my ass? It’s not fair. Why does Charlie get to go and do all these great stories and I don’t get respect for my writing?’ ” But Blair survived these trials. He was promoted to full-time reporter in January 2001. He was still making more than his share of mistakes, but at least some of his superiors believed that his energy and potential more than made up for his drawbacks.

Jayson Blair’s “personal problems,” as the Times has called them, like his journalistic sins, were hidden in plain sight. “It’s sort of an open secret that he was a cokehead,” says an acquaintance on the paper. “Everybody says he’s a really nice guy; there’s something about him that’s really strange. But that’s partly because he’s a total cokehead,” said a friend.

“It’s so Bright Lights, Big City,” said one of his friends who indulged with him. “He was constantly coming into parties or coming over at, like, literally dawn, and always with a ton of coke. And he was the kind of person who didn’t let people leave until it’s gone. Every time I saw him, it seemed like it was eight o’clock in the morning. The most epic nights I’ve ever had, he’s been there. And he’s been the driving force.”

The effects of his bingeing were often too severe to hide—and sometimes, he didn’t even try. “I remember shortly after September 11, I saw him really disheveled on the subway, and he said, ‘Dude, I’ve been up for four days straight,’ ” says a reporter.

At some point that fall, Boyd took him into his office and discussed his problems. He seemed to get better for a while. “He’s a very nice guy. I know he had a lot of issues, but I don’t know what they were,” says publicist and crisis manager Steven Rubenstein (son of Howard Rubenstein), an acquaintance whom Blair called shortly before he resigned.

For the most part, Blair cut a compelling figure at the paper. “He was irreverent in a way that kind of gets you places in the Times,” says a friend. “This cocksure swagger and willingness to laugh at tradition. He never wore a tie. He’d keep the company car for weeks at a time. He’d take one and be gone for a month. There were like two in Metro. When he would return it, it was trashed and there were parking tickets on it. But especially in a period where Howell and Gerald were trying to shake things up, it was good attitude.”

When the Washington Post ran its story about the similarities between Blair’s article about a missing soldier and one that had been previously published in the San Antonio Express-News, Blair showed it to a colleague. “This looks really bad,” said the other reporter, advising him, “The only thing to do is tell the truth.”

But Blair, summoned to a meeting with National editor Jim Roberts, didn’t.


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