On May 1, 2003, 27-year-old New York Times reporter Jayson Blair resigned
amidst charges that he plagiarized a story about the family of an American soldier
scar on the reputation of one of the country's most influential newspapers, the
Blair scandal launched a massive internal review of The Times' hiring, management
and reporting practices and led to a staff shake-up ending with the resignation
of two of the paper's top editors.
During the debacle, Times publisher Arthur
Sulzberger Jr. called the Blair scandal "a low point" in the paper's 152-year
What Went Wrong
Jayson Blair joined The New York
Times summer internship program in June 1998 after a Times recruiter visited the
University of Maryland where Blair was editor-in-chief of the school's independent
student newspaper, The Diamondback.
According to Times staff, Blair was
a promising and talented writer who had previously interned at The Boston Globe
and at The Washington Post. Because of his performance as an intern over the first
summer, the paper's editors asked him to return the following year.
advanced quickly, not only because of his skill but, according to findings of
an internal report commissioned after the incident by Times editors, because he
may have become favored as part of a "star system" that advanced some reporters
close to then-executive editor Howell Raines.
After four years in the internship
program and as a junior reporter, where, at times, he made more mistakes than
any other reporter in the paper's Metro section, Blair was given a full-time reporting
was given a regular tenured reporting job despite the misgivings of his immediate
boss," the report said of Blair. "He was put on high-profile national assignments
with his new supervising editors receiving no notice of the serious problems that
had marked periods in his previous four years at the newspaper."
editor Jonathan Landman told the Siegal committee -- a committee of 25 staffers
and three outside journalists led by assistant managing editor Allan Siegal --
he felt the fact that Blair was African-American played a large part in his initial
promotion to full-time staffer.
"I think race was the decisive factor in
his promotion," he said. "I thought then and I think now that it was the wrong
After several more mistakes, poor evaluations and a period of
leave during which Blair was said to be dealing with "personal problems," a memo
sent by Landman, warned management "to stop Jayson from writing for The New York
Times. Right now."
The memo resulted in a short suspension from deadline
writing but failed to get Blair fired. In 2002, Blair was promoted to the national
desk to cover the Washington, D.C.-area sniper shootings, according to the report
released by the Siegal committee.
Blair thing was complicated but at its simplest, he worked for our Metro desk
and they knew some of his problems and when he was transferred to the National
desk, they weren't made aware," Siegal told the Online NewsHour.
wrote 52 stories during the sniper attacks. In one instance, Fairfax County, Va.,
prosecutor Bob Horan claimed that 60 percent of a story written by Blair, in which
he was quoted, was inaccurate.
Despite such accusations and a slew of corrections
the paper was forced to make in the wake of his reporting, Blair continued to
cover critical stories for the Times, moving from the sniper attacks to national
coverage of the Iraq war.
national berth for sniper coverage enabled him to slide into military coverage
of military families on the home front of the war in Iraq," the Siegel report
said. "It was on the home front stories, in March and April 2003, that Blair committed
the egregious plagiarism and fabrications that landed like a bomb on The New York
A review of Blair's time on the National desk found that on many
occasions when Blair should have been on assignment out-of-state, he was in fact
e-mailing or speaking to his editors from his Brooklyn apartment or from another
floor of The Times office building.
What Did the Times Do?
Following the revelations of Blair's deceit, The New York Times moved to investigate
how management had allowed a young reporter with what appeared to be obvious problems
to rise so quickly in the paper's ranks.
The Times' first step was to
appoint the Siegal committee to investigate newsroom policy.
"Our goal was
to find out what happened in that case and then to make recommendations for how
to see that that didn't happen again or anything like it," Joann Byrd, former
ombudsman for the Washington Post and a member of the Siegal committee, told the
NewsHour on July 31, 2003.
a series of a few months, the committee interviewed Times staffers at all levels
of the organization. They found what they called "a series of management and operation
breakdowns" and "a stunning lack of communication within the newsroom."
committee made several recommendations, many of which have since been instituted
at the paper, including the appointment of a public editor to encourage access
to the paper and to monitor viewer complaints about the paper's performance.
Siegal committee believes, and I agree, that we can profit from the scrutiny of
an independent reader representative," executive editor Bill Keller wrote in response
to the committee's recommendation. "A pair of professional eyes, familiar with
us but independent of the day-to-day production of the paper, can make us more
sensitive on matters of fairness and accuracy, and enhance our credibility."
appointment of the ombudsman-like role marked a major shift in decades-old New
York Times policy.
"The New York Times had a firmly entrenched, almost
bitter opposition to the appointment of an ombudsman, and we turned around on
that," Siegal told the Online NewsHour.
Former Life magazine editor Daniel
Okrent, who was hired as the paper's first public editor, said he has received
45,000 to 50,000 reader e-mails since he took the position in October 2003 --
"everything from I got ink on my thumb to how can your paper publish these lies
and every stop in between."
Since his appointment, the paper has made two
clear policy changes, Okrent, whose term ends in May, told the Online NewsHour.
There is now a corrections policy for Op-Ed columnists that did not previously
exist, and corrections on substantive issues have been separated from spelling
In addition to the public editor, The Times also brought on
a masthead-level editor to oversee hiring and staff development and an editor
in charge of standards such as the use of unidentified sources.
has no written or shared guidelines on when to require multiple sources, and how
many, or when reporters must disclose the identity of their sources to editors
before publication," the committee wrote. "Practices vary across the newsroom,
and our enforcement of existing principles is surprisingly lax."
to Siegal, the paper has also made basic changes at the newsroom level.
heads are now required to meet weekly and to send representatives to masthead-level
meetings, managers are required to attend a "basic training" management skills
workshop and employees are given ethics training, he said.
"We now also
have a rule, and it's an honest-to-god rule, that you can't transfer someone without
first writing an evaluation," Siegal said.
Siegal said The Times also is
preparing to convene a committee on credibility, a brainchild of new executive
Since the Blair scandal, The New York Times also has revised
its newsroom ethics manual, "A Handbook of Values and Practices for the News and
Editorial Departments," and has hired a company to verify background information
given by applicants to the paper, according to the Siegal report.
from the Internal Review
Soon after the Blair scandal broke, The New
York Times held a staff meeting on May 14 during which, according to insiders,
employees, including reporters and editors, vented their criticism of the paper's
At the meeting, Raines, on whom much of the staff placed
blame for Blair's meteoric rise, spoke candidly to staffers.
me as inaccessible and arrogant," Raines said. "You believe the newsroom is too
hierarchical, that my ideas get acted on and others get ignored. I heard that
you were convinced there's a star system that singles out my favorites for elevation,"
he said, according to The Washington Post.
Within a month Raines would
is a day that breaks my heart," Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger told staffers
on the day Raines and Times managing editor Gerald Boyd resigned, the Associated
Sulzberger later issued a statement saying Raines and Boyd
had decided to resign on their own volition.
"Given the events of the last
month," he wrote, "Howell and Gerald concluded that it was best for The Times
that they step down. With great sadness, I agreed with their decision."
know that Arthur had a close relationship, especially with Howell, but also with
Gerald Boyd, and I know that his impulse was to support them and back them as
they tried to find their way out of the morass that Jayson Blair had seemed to
put them in," Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard's Kennedy
School of Government, told the NewsHour on June 5, 2003.
to Siegal, Raines' departure may help bring the Blair chapter of The Times history
to a close.
"Every time we get a letter from anybody who's unhappy about
anything we did ... invariably the name Jayson Blair appears in the first paragraph
and the name Howell Raines appears in the next paragraph," he said.
think their departure made it possible for us to reorganize ourselves internally.
That, in the long run, will make us believable externally," Siegal said.
he added, "we ain't there yet."
-- By Kristina
Nwazota, Online NewsHour