Accuracy in Media

LEXINGTON, Va. — Disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair emerged from media exile here last Friday courtesy of Washington and Lee University. The college that boasts it is “the birthplace of journalism education in the United States” paid arguably the most infamous journalist of the 21st century $3,000 to deliver the keynote address at a journalism ethics seminar.

Yes, you heard that right. Washington and Lee paid Blair, a reporter who never saw an ethical line he wouldn’t cross, big bucks to tell tomorrow’s journalists, “Don’t be Jayson Blair.” What an utter waste of money and embarrassing stain on Washington and Lee’s storied reputation.

Ed Wasserman, the journalism ethics professor who arranged Blair’s appearance and introduced him on campus, unwittingly made a solid case for why Blair should have remained in exile when Wasserman read from the Times2003 investigative report on Blair:

[Blair] committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months, an investigation by Times journalists has found. The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.

The reporter … misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland, Texas and other states, when often he was far away, in New York. He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.

Wasserman noted that Times reporters determined that 36 out of 73 stories Blair wrote from October 2002 through May 2003 had “substantial problems.”

You might think such a “profound betrayal of trust” would forever disqualify Blair from broaching the subject of journalism ethics, especially in an educational setting, and indeed, today’s working journalists made that point after news of Blair’s speech broke.

Slate scoffed on Twitter: “Jayson Blair resurfaces, speaking at a journalism ethics conference. Really.” Rachel Sklar of the media site Mediaite encouraged people to be like Blair and “tweet” about the event even if they didn’t attend. “Sometimes the made-up details are the most fun.”

“We don’t know what lessons Blair plans to impart,” The Daily News in Longview, Wash., editorialized. “But it can’t be the same ones they’re teaching in journalism schools.”

James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal suggested that journalism training at Washington and Lee isn’t worth much. “In case you’ve forgotten,” he wrote, “Blair lost his job when his editors discovered that he had been making stuff up. If the W&L faculty think this involved any sort of ‘ethical dilemma,’ no news organization should ever hire one of their students.”

But none of the criticism phased Wasserman. Before introducing Blair, he mocked journalists in general and Taranto in particular for being unable to get beyond what even Wasserman acknowledged is the “rather obvious disconnect” between Blair and journalism ethics.

“I wrote back [to Taranto],” Wasserman said, “that because I was intrigued by the somewhat medieval ethical notion that it would be just to punish students for the sins of their teachers, perhaps this blogger would like to keynote our next ethics institute.”

I met with Wasserman in his Reid Hall office several hours before Blair’s speech, and it didn’t take long for him to grow agitated as I asked the same kinds of questions in person that others had raised in print: Why did you abandon your practice of bringing “heroes” of journalism to discuss ethics? Wouldn’t it be more valuable to spend $3,000 on a journalist who faced an actual ethical dilemma and chose the right path? Does inviting Blair give your program a black eye?

Wasserman said he invited Blair because he trains journalists, and part of that training is teaching them to “go to the sources” and confront people in the news rather than relying on secondhand accounts. He added that Blair’s wrongdoing and his perspective on it might shed light on dynamics at the Times that are still relevant today.

“Anytime you have major malefaction, if you like, it says something about the institutions within which it happens,” Wasserman said.

Those arguments might have merit had Washington and Lee invited Blair to speak five years ago, as Winston-Salem State University did. But there is no compelling reason for any journalist to confront Blair about his career now, and he offered his perspective about the Times, journalism and more in his 2004 memoir, Burning Down My Masters’ House.

The only reason Blair is in the news these days is because journalists recently discovered he is a “life coach” in Centreville, Va., and found that transition to be as curious as, say, Blair offering ethics advice to the next generation of journalists. Wasserman saw the Washington Post story about Blair’s career and decided to invite him to Washington and Lee.

Wasserman accused me of hypocrisy and doubletalk because I criticized the university’s decision but still visited the campus to hear Blair speak.

“Why are you covering this?” Wasserman said. “I’ve had institutes here for the last six years, seven years. No cameras have been here to cover my keynote speakers. These heroes you’re talking about completely escaped notice of the media.”

But his accusations were illogical. First of all, as I told him, I drove nearly three hours not so much to hear Blair speak as to talk to Wasserman and his students about the decision to invite Blair. I also wanted to see how the audience reacted to Blair in the question-and-answer session.

Second, even though I believe Washington and Lee erred by picking Blair as a keynoter, my opinion did not negate the potential news value of the event, especially to a media watchdog group. The journalist’s instinct is to stop at car accidents and run to fires, too. That doesn’t mean we want drunks driving or arsonists setting blazes so we will have news to report.

Blair’s speech, though at times eloquent, was unremarkable. He told his story by reading it from behind the podium rather than speaking extemporaneously, as he did during the Q&A. He accepted blame for his mistakes — “I am here because of the choices I made” — but also said “confounding factors,” including the emphasis on speedy reporting at the Times, created “an environment ripe for my ethical transgressions.”

Little that Blair said during the evening was new, and none of it was ethically “illuminating,” which is why Wasserman invited him. The fact that Blair, the poster boy of plagiarism, took a potshot at blogs and the Internet for making matters worse than when he was lying for a living, shows how clueless he is about the future of journalism and how irrelevant he has become.

Six years is a journalism lifetime in the information age, and Jayson Blair has been out of the business that long. He has nothing to say that is worth hearing, which was obvious when he responded to multiple questions by pleading ignorance.

Blair didn’t have an easy time at the university. The journalists, students and community members in the audience asked numerous pointed questions: Why didn’t you stop lying when the lies got bigger? Why should we believe anything you say? What qualifies you to be a life coach?

Despite Wasserman’s admonition that people in the audience refrain from the kinds of fiery denunciations made famous at this year’s political town-hall meetings, one of his own j-school colleagues, Toni Locy, badgered Blair about his persistent ethical lapses. Some of the journalists invited to speak at the private portion of the ethics seminar also grilled him.

Blair later revealed to campus journalists that he was annoyed at Locy. “He said he would’ve liked to throw one of the high heels at Toni Locy’s head when she interrogated him after his speech the night before,” the Commonwealth Chronicle reported.

The publication had special access to Blair throughout the seminar, but if the tone of the article is any indication, the reporters on the beat kept a healthy intellectual distance from their subject.

I love the cynicism dripping from the subhead “An on-camera interview: sincere or scheming?” And the article said Blair didn’t find much forgiveness for his misdeeds at Washington and Lee, either after his speech or after the seminar finished the next day.

The university still should not have invited Blair to talk ethics, and it definitely should not have paid $3,000 to learn any lessons from a media fraud. (Blair said he is donating all of the money to the National Institute of Mental Health.) But it’s encouraging to see that at least some of Wasserman’s students appear to realize Blair is not a credible source for anything.

His days in journalism should have been numbered six years ago. Let’s hope they are now.

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