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Former Blair co-workers claim warnings ignored

By Jason Flanagan

The Diamondback (U. Maryland)


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(U-WIRE) COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Former Diamondback co-workers of disgraced reporter and former Diamondback Editor in Chief Jayson Blair issued a detailed account last week of his deceits while working at the newspaper, and put blame on both the journalism school and The Diamondback's parent company for the repeated transgressions.

The Diamondback obtained a letter sent to journalism school Dean Tom Kunkel, Associate Dean Chris Callahan and Maryland Media, Inc. Board Director Ivan Penn in which the group alleged four incidents during Blair's tenure at The Diamondback in which he falsified information in his stories and his whereabouts when stories were not filed -- similar incidents that led to the intense scrutiny of his work at The New York Times and ultimately his resignation.

Blair, who left The Times in April after numerous inaccuracies and falsehoods were exposed in more than half his stories, was editor in chief at The Diamondback during the 1996-1997 school year and highly praised by the journalism school.

The group -- 30 former Diamondback staffers signed the letter -- claims both the journalism school and MMI, the non-profit company that owns The Diamondback and three other student publications, ignored warnings made by several Diamondback staffers about Blair's inaccuracies and poor work habits.

The group, which said it did not intend for the letter to become public, hopes its comments will help the journalism school and The Diamondback "conduct their own views of Mr. Blair's work and create a more open even-handed environment of communication for current students," the letter said.

The letter said staff complaints about Blair were brushed off by journalism school officials, and many complaints were not filed because of a fear that speaking out against Blair would undermine favor with the journalism school. Each of the four incidents were reported by former staffers who worked with Blair.

"Some students tried unsuccessfully to warn faculty members and members of the Maryland Media Inc. board of directors," the letter said. " ... Many others did not, fearful of a culture inside of the College of Journalism that fostered the belief that speaking out could hurt internship possibilities and career hopes."

Kunkel declined to comment about the details of the letter and said any response to the letter would remain private. He said the letter was "serious in nature and I appreciate the things they have to say." He said he spoke with several alumni about Blair before the letter was sent, but would not speak about the accusations that journalism school neglected warnings about Blair's work habits.

"There are episodes and incidents that they have talked to me about, and I take them to heart," Kunkel said. "What they primarily want to know is, do we have a situation where this thing can happen again ... I'm reluctant to get into the 6-year-old history because I wasn't here. The only productive reason to look at this stuff is what can we learn from it, how can we advance on it. I'm not particularly interested in finger-pointing."

According to the group, Blair falsely wrote in 1997 that student Donald Castleberry died of a cocaine overdose; Castleberry actually died of heart complication. The newspaper later apologized, but the Society of Professional Journalists awarded The Diamondback for the stories. The editors asked the college to revoke the awards, but the college never relayed the message to SPJ, the letter said.

The letter also claims Blair would disappear frequently during crucial times. During the production of the 1997 spring break supplement, Blair disappeared for 17 hours when he had both a story due and editing responsibilities. When he returned, he claimed he was poisoned after a gas stove in his campus apartment leaked -- but staffers later confirmed that campus housing is not equipped with gas stoves, according to the letter.

The letter claims that reporters and editors were underpaid, and some were not even paid at all, during Blair's tenure as editor in chief. The letter said Blair hired his girlfriend as an administrative assistant and may have paid her more than most of the staff. Blair did not divulge financial records to the staff, the letter said.

But Penn said mismanagement of the newspaper's honoraria has been a problem with many former Diamondback editors in chief, who are responsible for allocating pay to staff members.

"That's not a Jayson Blair problem," Penn said. "It's a problem we've dealt with for a number of years in a number of ways ... Every year there are issues."

Penn said the group has a narrow view of MMI operations, and that complaints need to be substantiated with "concrete information" before the board considers termination of any editor in chief.

"A majority of the people who signed the letter never sat in a board meeting," Penn said. "That makes things a bit complicated because they come from a perspective of limited understanding."

The letter also demands a more open relationship between The Diamondback, MMI and the journalism school, which has no editorial control over The Diamondback.

The letter comes during a time of intense scrutiny of Blair's work while at the university. Currently, the journalism school is investigating Blair's work with Capital News Service, a wire service operated and staffed by the college. Diamondback staffers are taking over an investigation of Blair's work at the newspaper that was originally initiated by former staffers.

Though the members of the group are part of the Maryland Media, Inc. Alumni Association, the association was not involved in the creation of the letter.

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