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Interview With Jayson Blair

Aired March 21, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): A journalistic train wreck. Jayson Blair disgraced "The New York Times" with dozens of fabricated and plagiarized stories. And now, he's selling a book about his lies.

Why did he do it? Is he really sorry? Is he still lying? Was race a factor? Is he cashing in on his deceptions? Does the book deserve any coverage? Some difficult questions for Jayson Blair.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the scandal that rocked the world of journalism. I'm Howard Kurtz.

When Jayson Blair was a "New York Times" reporter, he wrote about the family of Jessica Lynch at their West Virginia home. That was a lie. He had never gone to West Virginia. Blair covered the Washington sniper case. Some of the stories were plagiarized or just wrong, one of them drawing this reaction from the Fairfax, Virginia, prosecutor.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Things that are reported in that "New York Times" article are simply not true.


KURTZ: And then there was a story about a Texas woman, whose soldier son was missing in Iraq. That Blair piece was so similar to one by Macarena Hernandez in the "San Antonio Express-News" that I called to ask if he had ripped it off, and Blair denied it. It turned out he had never been to Texas either.

That story led to Blair's resignation 10 months ago, and ultimately to a front-page "New York Times" piece, saying that Blair had fabricated or plagiarized at least 36 stories. The scandal forced the top editors of the "Times," Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, to step down.

Now, Jayson Blair has written a book, "Burning Down My Masters' House," making the television rounds and running into some sharply skeptical questioning.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that you're just a pathological liar.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What you did was pretty disgusting by anybody's standards.

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "O'REILLY FACTOR": If I was at "The New York Times," and I did what you did, I don't think they would have given me the rope they gave you.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL": Well, what's it like to be a liar?


KURTZ: Well, joining me now from New York, Jayson Blair. Welcome.


KURTZ: You have been getting...

BLAIR: Thanks for having me on the show.

KURTZ: Thank you for joining us.

You have been getting creamed by much of the media. How much has that hurt?

BLAIR: I have fairly thick skin compared to how thin my skin was last year. It's certainly understandable. I understand why a lot of people are upset, why they're still angry. It's a part of the process of healing for me to go through this trial by fire.

KURTZ: Did you bring it on yourself by writing this book and reminding people of exactly what you did at "The New York Times?"

BLAIR: Yes, I think I did. But I, you know, also think that I had a very important reason to write the book. I think people can learn from my experience -- you know, any young people who are under pressure, whether you work on Wall Street or you work in a factory in Alabama, and young journalists. And I also think that there are, you know, plenty of topics about journalism that are discussed in the book that I think we should have a debate about.

KURTZ: You've talked and written about the role of mental illness in your problems.


KURTZ: Most people don't find that a very satisfying explanation and here's why. You were mentally ill, but you were still capable of these elaborate deceptions, where you went into the photo archives to reconstruct scenes...

BLAIR: Right.

KURTZ: ... of places you hadn't been. It doesn't add up to a lot for a lot of folks.

BLAIR: Well, I would argue that most people don't understand mental illness. Mental illness is -- you know, it does not necessarily mean that you're incapable of doing creative or interesting things. Actually, you know, Kay Redfield Jamison (ph), a Johns Hopkins University professor, will talk about how some of the most creative people in our history were manic depressives, like Virginia Woolf and van Gogh. They were also very destructive. Virginia Woolf committed suicide, and van Gogh (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

KURTZ: But you also could have taken a leave. You could have gone on vacation. You could have asked for help, and you chose not to do any of those things.

BLAIR: Right. And that is a very good and central point. Even though I do explain what's going on with me and, you know, what was going with me during the time in my book, an important thing to remember is that ultimately I was never so impaired that I didn't understand the difference between right and wrong, and I made bad decisions. And I have to take -- and I am taking -- full responsibility for those decisions.

KURTZ: In fact, at the height of your problems and your deceptions, you write: "I was performing some of my best although most fraudulent writing."

BLAIR: Correct.

KURTZ: On some level, wasn't there a thrill in getting away with it?

BLAIR: Yes, there was, as I -- you know, as I've said over the last two days, there was a secret giggle occasionally. But for the most part, it was a personal crisis, and I was just trying to unwind myself from it. As I said to you before, you know, it started as a trickle, and I thought it was something that would only last for a few weeks, but it kept on going on and on and on.

KURTZ: If your meltdown was caused, at least primarily, by manic depression, this was months after you had stopped the all-night drinking and the cocaine binges.

BLAIR: Correct.

KURTZ: Why did you fake an interview with D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams back in '99 when you were writing for "The Boston Globe?"


BLAIR: That was quite a while earlier.

BLAIR: And that -- and those are -- it's not just that one. There was one other example from "The Boston Globe." I think that those are the seeds. That's why I sort of -- you know, I was in a bind, and I cut corners. And that's what sort of planted it in the back of my mind that, hey, I can get away with this.

KURTZ: But that would suggest that your problem was not caused by or exacerbated by "The New York Times." That the problem was Jayson Blair...

BLAIR: Well...

KURTZ: ... that you had lied for much of your life.

BLAIR: No, that's a key point. As I've said before, and I've said in interviews, you know, I believe that ultimately I have to take full responsibility for it; that I have a character flaw. All of us have character flaws. One of my weaknesses happens to be lying, and I could tell you that I'm never going to lie again in my life, but that would be a lie. That's just something I'm going to fight every day.

KURTZ: You're saying even now you can't guarantee that you're going to tell the truth, you're saying it's a struggle for you.

BLAIR: Yes. Yes.

KURTZ: All right. Let me read you some of the reviews your book has been getting. As you know, some of this has not been pretty.

BLAIR: Right.

KURTZ: "The New York Times": "Sloppy, padded and dishonest work."

"The New Yorker": "If you want to put Blair in a category, it would be major head case."

BLAIR: True.

KURTZ: "Orlando Sentinel" -- let me just finish. "Trust me. Don't bother reading Blair's book. I read it for you. It's not worth the paper it's printed on."

"The Dallas Morning News": "A messy piece of vengeance, a self- pitying, self-deluding rant."

"L.A. Times": "This is a vile book, as distasteful a thing as you're likely to handle without gloves."


BLAIR: Oh, all of them I would argue unfair, except for Nicholas Lemann's point in "The New Yorker" that, you know, this book should be under major head case or under recovery. An important point that I think is worth making is I firmly believe that there are those in the media elite, not direct competitors of "The New York Times," but many others who are circling the wagons around "The New York Times" and don't want to discuss the real issues in the book about journalism. And the bottom line is, I'm not the first one who said that the emperor has no clothes and that "The New York Times" is fallible, which is perfectly reasonable -- fallible just like every other corporation or government or whatever it is. And, you know, I firmly believe that they can't take a critical look at the book.

KURTZ: All right. But, of course, those people would say that, sure, the "Times" has problems, but by harping on that perhaps you're trying to deflect a little bit of attention from the problems that were...

BLAIR: Hardly.

KURTZ: ... as you say, self-inflicted. You disagree.

BLAIR: Hardly. I -- you know, I lay out every problem that I have and plenty of details that, you know, there's no particular reason to lay out there. I lay out the case for why I was there, and I don't try and hide from that. I'm trying to move the debate further on.


BLAIR: You know, particularly when it comes to journalism.

KURTZ: Let's go through the record of some of these stories. You wrote about at "The New York Times" the Reverend Tandy Sloan (ph), whose son was killed in Iraq.


KURTZ: And you wrote that he bowed his head and started to cry in his Cleveland church.

BLAIR: Right.

KURTZ: Of course, you had not been to his Cleveland church. You had not been to Cleveland.

BLAIR: Correct.

KURTZ: How could you do that to a man who had just suffered the ultimate loss?

BLAIR: You know, as I said, Howard, during the time period, I really was, you know, selfishly thinking about myself, and I wasn't, you know, focused on how my stories would impact people and the things that I was making up would impact people.

You know, in retrospect, I feel terribly sorry, not just to -- not just to Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd and Lynette Holloway and Rick Bragg and people who lost their jobs because of the situation, but also for the sources. It's very painful to have something that's not true written about you. I was just very selfishly trying to hide the fact that I was in a lot of trouble and I was not doing well. I was trying to make it seem as if I could do something that I wasn't prepared to do, and I'm sorry for those people that they suffered for that.

KURTZ: But since you brought up Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd...


KURTZ: ... you said this week that you have written several times to them, a letter of apology, but that you haven't sent it. Why not?

BLAIR: Right. Every day -- or not every day, but every week, I would say, I come up with new things that I feel like I need to apologize for and more perspective on things. And I've gone through several drafts of letters. And at some point, I will send them off.

KURTZ: Well, you seem to be having an easier time apologizing from a distance, from a television screen, than actually contacting the people who you say you hurt and whose careers you damaged.


KURTZ: All right. Again, let's go back to the record. When I called you -- this is 10 months ago now...

BLAIR: Right.

KURTZ: ... about that story of a Texas woman, the one that ended your career. Her son (UNINTELLIGIBLE) killed in Iraq...

BLAIR: Right.

KURTZ: ... which you ripped off, in fact, from a reporter you knew, Macarena Hernandez of the "San Antonio Express-News."

BLAIR: Right.

KURTZ: Did you think this is it? Did you think the jig is up?

BLAIR: I think, you know, it was shortly after that that it became clear to me that the jig was up. For a while, I attempted to minimize, you know, the damage. I tried to lie my way out of it, but I quickly realized there was no getting out of it.

KURTZ: How did you think when you were doing it that you could copy the quotes from this woman, that you could use details like her Martha Stewart patio furniture -- which as it turned out was still in boxes, which you didn't know because you hadn't gone there -- and not get caught? I mean, it just seems like it was so risky in addition to everything else.

BLAIR: Well, you know, some people say it was an unconscious cry for help. I don't know. It was a sloppy job of faking it. That much we can tell.

KURTZ: There was a stringer at the "Times" named Lisa Suhay...

BLAIR: Yes. KURTZ: ... who fed you some information for a story about the Firestone tire recall. This was back in 2000.

BLAIR: Right.

KURTZ: She says you changed the quotes, distorted the story, and that when she complained about it, you threatened to get the "Times" to stop using her.

BLAIR: Hardly. Hardly. I vaguely recall the situation. As I recall -- and I may be wrong on this -- I believe the situation was I ended up getting a quote wrong or some kind of characterization wrong. She was working as a stringer for me, and I may have misinterpreted something. And we ended up in some debate afterwards.

You know, I will say that in this situation, once I told my editors, told my bosses that Lisa had this complaint about the story, they said, well, we hope she's wrong, because we've been trying to fire her for a long time. And I think that's why they were unwilling to listen to her at that point.

KURTZ: Well, I just want to say that it certainly differs from Lisa Suhay's recollection, but you can only give your recollection.

BLAIR: Right. And I know they have a different recollection of it as well, so.

KURTZ: And she continues to write for "The New York Times".

BLAIR: Right.

KURTZ: Is it fair for people to say -- and you've heard this, I'm sure, in many interviews -- here is a guy who lied and cheated and hurt people and lied to his family and lied to his friends and lied to his girlfriend, and then he gets a $150,000 book contract. People think that you are cashing in your deceptions.

BLAIR: Well, I think that, you know, as I've said before, the real profit for me has been catharsis and therapy and hopefully moving the debate on issues of race, mental illness, and journalism and some of its flaws and problems. I -- you know, I'm not going to get rich off of this. This is not money that's going to keep me going for the rest of my life. Most of the advance will be gone by the time I'm done with my book tour, so I'm not sure what to say to them.

And, you know, it is contrition. You know, the argument has been made that I'm not contrite because I'm taking money. You know, contrition and taking money to do the book are not mutually exclusive propositions.

KURTZ: Whatever the problems at "The New York Times" -- and your book delves into whether there is bias there and sloppiness, whether there are other people who did certainly much less drastic versions of what you did...

BLAIR: Right. KURTZ: ... do you have the standing to be a media critic of "The New York Times?" I mean, after all, look what you did to that newspaper.

BLAIR: Right. No, I certainly understand that. That's not a torch necessarily that I should carry, but I will say, Howard, no one is really dealing with the fact that ultimately the changes at the "Times" made afterwards, I don't really know 100 percent that those changes really will prevent another Jayson Blair from happening.

I really think there needs to be stricter standards, like what Nicholas Lemann brought up in his "New Yorker" article, of random inspections of expense reports, stories, similar to what inspector generals did to the government after Watergate.

KURTZ: Right. Well, the "Times," just so our viewers know, has hired an ombudsman, has been much more stringent about the process of datelines so that people don't put datelines on places they visited for 12 and a half seconds.

BLAIR: But I think -- I think the problem with ombudsmen is that many of them -- not at your paper, you know, you have an excellent one in Michael Getler -- but many ombudsmen are essentially just customer service representatives. They're not really doing any strong scrutinizing of the work in the paper.

KURTZ: Well, journalism runs on trust, and obviously no amount of assistance can completely protect against...


BLAIR: But, Howard, so does government run on trust. So do businesses. Why should journalism be an exception?

KURTZ: I think it's probably fair to say that editors everywhere are going to be a lot more careful after what happened.

We need to take a break. Stay put. When we come back, we'll talk about race and journalism with Jayson Blair.



CLYDE HABERMAN, "NEW YORK TIMES" COLUMNIST: It is an extraordinary thing that this young fellow did. And it's like I'm even going to take the word, "young," out of this, because a lot of people have been turning all sorts of things on, oh, because he's black or because there's affirmative action or because he's young. He's not that young. He's 27 years old. By the age of 27, people have won Pulitzer Prizes.


KURTZ: "New York Times" columnist Clyde Haberman on this program last night commenting on the Jayson Blair scandal. Welcome back.

Jayson Blair, you complain in your book and in interviews about racial attitudes at "The New York Times". You write, for example, it was harder for a black recovering drug addict. But wouldn't anybody -- black, white or green -- have been fired for your transgressions?

BLAIR: No, not necessarily.

KURTZ: You're saying that a white reporter...

BLAIR: Oh, well -- oh, you mean the fabrications and plagiarism at the end?

KURTZ: Right, right.

BLAIR: Oh, yes, of course. Of course. You know, what I'm referring to there is, you know, my career before that point.

KURTZ: Well, did you get more chances -- second, third and fourth chances -- because you're a minority journalist?

BLAIR: Well, I mean, Howell Raines, the executive editor of the paper, you know, said before he resigned that he didn't even know about my problems before -- you know, until after I resigned. So, it would be hard for him to have given me second chances.

Gerald Boyd, the managing editor, who has denied that, you know, I was given additional second chances, and ultimately my boss, John Landman, was the one who said that he feared even complaining about certain problems that he perceived with me, because he feared he would be branded a racist.

And I think there's something wrong with the idea, you know, that we've gotten so politically correct that, you know, a white manager cannot complain about a black employee without fearing being branded a racist. It certainly did me no favors.

KURTZ: So, in an odd way, it helped you in the sense that they didn't crack down on you sooner, but in retrospect...

BLAIR: It hurt me in the long run.

KURTZ: All right.

BLAIR: Right.

KURTZ: Is there a level on which race helped you get hired, for example? Do you consider yourself to be an affirmative-action hire?

BLAIR: I don't know how one would define an affirmative-action hire. I ultimately do not know what role race played in my hiring. But I would be very naive, I think, not to assume that they looked at me as a candidate and said, this is really a talented journalist, and, as icing on the cake, he is a black journalist. You know, "The New York Times" has been committed to, you know, if not diversity in its news coverage, certainly bringing in more people of color to its newsroom.

KURTZ: I think you and I can both agree that it would be totally unfair for any other black journalist to be tarred with the brush of Jayson Blair.

BLAIR: Oh, yes. Yes. Yes. Or any journalist -- you know, you can't -- you can't paint with a broad brush and say that I'm representative of all African-American journalists or minority journalists. Ultimately, I am responsible for what I did. They're unique to my situation. I made the bad choices. I'm only a spokesman for Jayson Blair, not for anyone else.

KURTZ: But you feel it was more pressure on you. Or did you put more pressure on yourself...

BLAIR: You know, Howard, I felt...

KURTZ: ... because you think you needed to prove yourself to a predominately white institution?

BLAIR: Howard, I think you nailed it there. It's hard to say whether there was more pressure on me, but certainly I put more pressure on myself. In retrospect, you know, I said to you earlier last week, you know, when we did the interview for the -- an interview for "The Washington Post" that I didn't feel like I had a chip on my shoulder. I might rephrase. I mean, you know, perhaps there was a bit of a chip on my shoulder.

KURTZ: Let's go back to the plagiarism question, because you said earlier, well, early in my career I may have stolen some quotes here and there. Why did you think that...

BLAIR: Well, I wouldn't say, well, you know...


BLAIR: ... sort of dismissing how wrong that is.

KURTZ: But why did you not think it was wrong at the time? I mean, it is a form of journalistic theft.

BLAIR: You know, I was just -- I can't even tell you what I was thinking at the time other than the fact that I was cutting corners and, you know, ethically, clearly the one thing here is that I was playing fast and loose with ethics. You know, a lot of journalists, you know, have a much more solid ethical grounding than I clearly did at that point.

You know, I'm trying to come back to my roots. I was not raised that way, as you know. And I'm trying to come back to my roots of honesty and ethics.

KURTZ: And why didn't you get this solid ethical grounding that most people in the profession have? We're not talking about (UNINTELLIGIBLE) here. We're talking about stealing other people's work and making things up. Why did you miss that?

BLAIR: You know, it's a really good question. I do not know the answer to that. I'm sure it's more personal than it really does have to do with my professional training, you know. But I'm trying to turn a corner and turn over a new leaf in terms of, you know, both ethics and honesty.

KURTZ: We have about a half a minute left. What's next for Jayson Blair? Can you be a journalist again?

BLAIR: No. I don't think I have a right to be a journalist again, though I am thinking about continuing a career in writing, perhaps writing novels. I also want to talk about, you know, these issues -- mental illness, affirmative action, race, and, you know, what we can do to make the media stronger and better. Because I still love journalism, Howard. I love it. That's why I got in it. It breaks my heart that I had to leave it. I deserve to be cast out, but I love it dearly.

KURTZ: All right, well, it hasn't been easy, I'm sure, sitting for these interviews. Thanks very much for joining us, Jayson Blair.

BLAIR: Thanks, Howard.

KURTZ: When we come back, "USA Today" confronts its own Jayson Blair problem. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Jayson Blair faked stories without leaving his Brooklyn apartment, but "USA Today's" Jack Kelley became a serial fabricator from trouble spots around the world. That according to a seven-week independent investigation by the newspaper, which found that is former star correspondent lied, plagiarized and made things up over a 10-year span. Kelley became a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his account of a pizza restaurant bombing in Jerusalem in 2001, which he described in print and in an interview on RELIABLE SOURCES.


JACK KELLEY, USA TODAY: I turned and there was a gentleman who would be the suicide bomber in front of me. I said "excuse me" and walked about 30 yards right down the street when kaboom.


KURTZ: But "USA Today" now says Kelley could not possibly have seen the bomber. He also wrote about a Cuban refugee who drowned on a boat in 2000, but the woman is alive and well in the United States.

Editor Karen Jurgensen told me that she and the paper are devastated by Kelley's betrayal of their trust.

Kelley was fired in January when he lied to editors examining several of his stories. He told me then that he had never fabricated a story, but on Friday he dropped the denials for a simple "no comment." The investigation continues.

Still to come, did a satirical newspaper fool an MSNBC anchor? That's next.


KURTZ: A new federal study is said to report that 58 percent of all exercise performed in America is carried on television, including two billion of the 3.5 billion push-ups done last year. Sound ridiculous? That's because it is. The results were part of a recent story in the satirical paper The Onion. But the bogus news got one MSNBC anchor's heart racing.


DEBORAH NORVILLE, MSNBC ANCHOR: According to a new study by Thompson's department, 58 percent of all the exercises done in America is broadcast on television. Put it another way, according to the study, 99 percent of the time that someone's using one of those Soloflex machines is when it's being broadcast on one of those late night commercials.


KURTZ: The show's producer says the program knew it was a satire, and inadvertently didn't credit The Onion, which is hard to understand. Why not let viewers in on the joke?

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media.



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