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MAY 20, 2003
'E&P' Editor Had a 'Jayson Blair' Moment
Learning From a Youthful Misdeed

By Greg Mitchell

NEW YORK -- Opinion

Since the press seems to be in full-disclosure mode these days, I want to finally come clean. Back when I worked for the Niagara Falls (N.Y.) Gazette (now the Niagara Gazette), our city editor asked me to find out what tourists thought about an amazing local event: Engineers had literally "turned off" the famous cataracts, diverting water so they could shore up the crumbling rock face. Were visitors disappointed to find a trickle rather than a roar? Or thrilled about witnessing this once-in-a-lifetime stunt?

I never found out. Oh, I went down to the falls, all right, but when I got there, I discovered that I just could not wander up to strangers (even dorky ones wearing funny hats and knee socks) and ask them for their personal opinions, however innocuous. It was a puffball assignment, but that wasn't why I rebelled. I just could not bring myself to do it.

So I sat on a park bench and scribbled out a few fake notes and then went back to the office and wrote my fake story, no doubt quoting someone like Jane Smith from Seattle, honeymooning with her husband Oscar, saying something like, "Gosh, I never knew there was so much rock under there!"

Of course, I got away with it. There was no Jane Smith to complain about being misquoted, and no one was going to call all the Smiths in Seattle to find out if she really existed. I suppose the world was none the worse for it. As a story, it wasn't exactly on a par with a sniper shooting up the suburbs of Washington.

Still, I felt bad about it for years and (obviously) have never forgotten it. On the other hand, I was, at the time, just 19, it was a summer internship, and I'd only been on the job about a month.

One of the many alarming things about the Jayson Blair scandal is that he never grew up, and no one at The New York Times ever seemed to notice. My ethical breach at 19 in Niagara Falls was bad enough. One expects a bit more from a 27-year-old with years of experience in New York.

That was just one of the points I tried to make last week in a column I wrote for E&P Online that I called The Blair Watch Project. It seemed to strike a nerve, inspiring dozens of e-mail messages. With so much already written on the subject, I chose to take a darkly humorous approach, pointing out some oddities in the Times' expose on Blair, for example, his addiction to Cheez Doodles and his apparent belief that the Times would let him charge cigarettes, magazines, and blankets to his T&E.

But the serious, if often absurd, nature of the case was captured in one of my excerpts from the Times' report: "Mr. Blair continued to make mistakes, requiring more corrections, more explanations, more lectures about the importance of accuracy. Many newsroom colleagues say he also did brazen things, including delighting in showing around copies of confidential Times documents, running up company expenses from a bar around the corner, and taking company cars for extended periods, racking up parking tickets. ... In January 2001, Mr. Blair was promoted to full-time reporter."

As the e-mail messages showed, many people obviously take delight in the paper's predicament. Some are pleased for political reasons, typified by one fellow who denounced the paper for spending so much time covering "the farting feminists of golf." One writer suggested that the reason Blair didn't leave town to cover distant stories was because he was a drug addict who needed to stay close to his connection -- or perhaps he was a supplier for someone at the paper. I even heard from Lucianne Goldberg (but not Linda Tripp). "I'm on my way to buy Cheez Doodles and charge a blanket to my company now," someone else wrote.

But there were plenty of thoughtful comments as well. Some voiced concerns that too little -- or too much -- is being made of the racial aspect. "Now that this will go down forever as the 'diversity' disaster in Times history, will every black reporter -- veteran and newbie -- have to go through secret correction investigations behind their backs to use as ammunition to fire them?" one asked.

Another reporter wondered, "How many 20-somethings does the Times have covering national news? I mean, it's The New York Times: One is not supposed to be 'getting experience' there. And they say we're not supposed to pick on young reporters? That's exactly what we should do. I was a young reporter -- thank god someone picked on me."

In other words, live and learn -- as I did, after my Niagara Falls meltdown, and as the Times, for sure, is doing now.

Source: Editor & Publisher Online

Greg Mitchell ( , a longtime contributor to The New York Times, is editor of E&P.

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