A newsroom drama reopens the 2003 Jayson Blair--New York Times case.
Tue Jan 31 2012
Photograph: Kevin Thomas Garcia
Fact and fiction were slippery subjects for Jayson Blair, the disgraced New York Times reporter who fabricated and plagiarized his way to journalism ignominy. Now they intermingle in CQ/CX, a new docudrama about the scandal by former Times news assistant Gabe McKinley.
An employee at the paper from 1996 to 2008, McKinley had a premium seat for the tidal wave of embarrassment that swept through the newsroom in 2003, when top brass learned that Blair had embellished facts, faked sources and pretended to be on assignment in places he never visited. CQ/CX, which is receiving its world premiere courtesy of the Atlantic Theater Company, isn't unlike some of Blair's news articles in that it takes a true story and twists it beyond the facts. But McKinley, 34, doesn't claim to have written a biographical account.
Blair, who later attributed his misdeeds to bipolar disorder, cocaine abuse and job pressures, is easily recognizable as the inspiration behind a young African-American journalist named Jay Bennett, who climbs too high too soon. Jay starts off as hungry and resourceful but struggles to deal with the unrelenting pressures of his work as hubris, insecurity and addiction contribute to his Icarus-like descent. One scene has Jay snorting rails off a Best Newspaper Writing anthology. The picture that emerges isn't exactly that of a victim; still, both McKinley and Kobi Libii, the young actor who plays Jay, see race as a crucial factor in the mix.
"There are liberal communities that are very excited about so-called leveling the playing field," says Libii, who, at 27, is the same age that Blair was when he abruptly resigned from the Times. "People of color who believe they've achieved on their own merits become insecure because they're worried that they were only pushed forward because of affirmative action. That's part of what drives this incarnation of the character to deceive his colleagues at the paper." Those colleagues include executive editor Hal Martin, a Howell Raines surrogate played by Arliss Howard, and managing editor Gerald Haynes, played by Peter Jay Fernandez and reminiscent of the late Gerald Boyd, the Times' first African-American managing editor.
CQ/CX—newsroom codes for a verified fact and a correction—is also about the culture and legacy of the Gray Lady, something the playwright knows well. His two older brothers, James Jr. and Jesse, are longtime Times men. The youngest McKinley never shared their career ambitions. He worked for the paper while he was in school and honing his writing, but the job did put him in a position to observe what was happening around him. "Mainly I worked at the news desk, with the top editors who decide page one," says McKinley. "I'd write news summaries, put together the corrections, but I worked in every department."
He hasn't spoken to Blair since he left the Times, but may get the chance again soon. Now a life coach in Virginia, Blair rhapsodized about "the McKinley brothers," and says he'll try to see the play: "Intially I was reluctant, but it's pretty flattering to have someone think that some portion of your life, even fictionalized, should be part of an Off Broadway play. It's kind of a great opportunity again for people to learn from my mistakes."
Almost a decade later, those mistakes still resonate with McKinley: "Jayson's story was such a major event that I filed it away, and over the years, I've thought about it. He had the talent to get to a place like The New York Times at a very young age, then realized that—like many romantic ideals—a lot of it was a sand castle."