Accuracy in Media

LEXINGTON, Va. — Serial plagiarist Jayson Blair, who resigned from The New York Times amid a scandal in 2003 that also cost two top editors their jobs, delivered the keynote speech here at Washington and Lee University’s journalism ethics seminar over the weekend.

Blair, who described himself as “a man who left some deep scars on his chosen profession,” said he hopes the speech will be his “last public comment on journalism” (text tweaked, see clarification), though he has spoken to journalism students in the past and said he will continue to do so.

“I believe it is my duty, despite my new focus on psychological coaching and mental health causes, to do what I can to aid journalism students by providing them guidance in how to avoid the rocky roads that lead to ethical transgressions,” he said.

I will have more to say later about Washington and Lee’s decision to invite Blair to speak. I’ll also be posting video to the Accuracy In Media Web site. Until then, here are highlights from Blair’s “Lessons Learned” lecture and the question-and-answer session for anyone is curious:

Blair on journalism

  • “My story is an anomaly in many ways because of the breadth and the largesse of it. It’s not an anomaly in terms of ethical problems in journalism in general. … To suggest that the model for journalism is changing, transforming and becoming this Web-based, faster model … [and] that that doesn’t have some ethical implications or potential ethical landmines seems a bit silly to me.”
  • “Do a test. You know, find the story that’s written about this event. … Google a couple of lines from it and see if you can find it copied word for word somewhere. I’m willing to bet you will. And now this isn’t a knock on journalism. It’s not so much journalism that’s driven this part of the plagiarism and fabrication stuff post-me-off-the-side-of-a-cliff. A lot of this has to do with blogs and Web stuff that’s getting taken. So when you ask me this question, ‘Do we have a problem with plagiarism and fabrication?’ Yes we do. How much of it is in the mainstream media I don’t really know because I don’t pay attention to it.”
  • Blair declined to answer a question about whether journalists need to be licensed like other profession but added, “I do know that licensing boards are not the panaceas to ethical problems. … They have as big or bigger ethical problems.” [Editor’s note: That this question was asked at a university that bills itself as the birthplace of journalism education in America speaks volumes about the elitist attitudes that plague traditional media.]
  • Blair rejected the notion that his story should have any bearing on the future of other black journalists or efforts to achieve “diversity” in American newsrooms. “When you look at the facts of the case, I think race played very little role in either my rise or my fall. The people who have commented and said that it did, not only are they uninformed, they weren’t ever close to the situation.” Blair said his qualifications were “far above” any of those his age when he was hired. “And if you look at my fall, it has to do with my personal failings and nothing to do with my race. … It’s just a silly argument that to me is not even worth engaging in. The type of people who are gonna go and run with that, I’m not gonna ever change their minds.”
  • He also downplayed the suggestion that he advanced professionally because of his personal connections rather than his skills. “Journalism, like any other profession, involves networking and relationships and other things like that. … That’s just a natural part of any business, and I don’t think it’s necessarily incongruent with meritocracy. The idea that somebody would be your advocate doesn’t bother me.”
  • “For a story about journalism ethics, you go and you read the collective facts that are out there supposedly about my career, and you will find lots of … factual inaccuracies.
  • “It becomes a little bit harder to trust … reporting any time you’ve been written about in small ways or big ways just because of the mistakes that do get made that you can see.”
  • “Journalism can be a very what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business.”

Blair on The New York Times

  • Blair said Howell Raines created tension in the newsroom by “coming into the paper and essentially sending the message, ‘Hey everyone, you know, you weren’t good enough before I got here. You gotta do it better, faster.’ Then we get hit by the September 11 attacks. So instead of what would have normally happened — the section editors get replaced slowly over time — he’s stuck with the last executive editor’s section editors after he’s criticized them both during his campaign to get the job and when he came in the door. But now he’s stuck with them. The communication was not very good at that point. … When those communications structures broke down and people decided not to pay attention to each other or not talk to each other, they weren’t technically making ethical decisions, but they had ethical implications.”
  • “There were a lot of changes to the culture of our newsroom. It was a newsroom that valued accuracy above all else, comprehensive coverage over everything else, that had moved to a speed-driven environment. And there were some things that were going on during that period where I would say people were getting closer and closer and closer to different kinds of ethical lines.”
  • “I was at the newspaper at a time when we had a new editor who put a much greater emphasis on speed and impact. I’m sure that this editor did not intentionally decide to sacrifice accuracy, and in fact he said that he believed we could do things faster and more powerfully with the same amount of accuracy. However, the focus on speed and impact had an ultimate result of sacrificing some accuracy through a flood-the-zone philosophy that reallocated resources and left less time being devoted to the reporting, writing and editing of each story. This likely contributed to other problems the paper had during the time period.”
  • He said he was able to lie for so long because “here was just general dysfunction during that time period. … I don’t think it could have gone as long if we hadn’t been sort of as stretched and people hadn’t been as fatigued as they were.”
  • “It’s a wonderful newspaper whose editors came to my rescue on the day of my resignation. They responded with human kindness by emptying the newsroom to find me to make sure that I was safe and to get me the medical attention they assumed I needed.”

Blair on his unethical behavior

  • “I have been in touch with some of the people that I have written about, and I have made apologies to them that don’t make any excuses.” He declined to elaborate or name specific people. “I think it’s private conversations. Whether those people reached out to me or I reached out to them, they made a decision to allow me into some private aspect of their lives, and I shouldn’t drag them back into this mess in a public way.”
  • “We [at the Times] were emotionally in the midst of a never-ending marathon that had taken a cumulative toll on our editors and reporters. It was in this environment that I recall first crossing the line. Once it was crossed, like so much else in ethics and other areas of life, it was so much easier to cross again.”
  • “I would cross the line, and then I would tell myself, ‘I’m never gonna do that again,’ and then I’d cross that line again. … My only accountability was myself.”
  • Blair said he became a journalism to “heal people through my stories, and I ended up hurting individuals — the subjects of the stories, sources of the stories, people who read the stories and believed some part of it that wasn’t true.”
  • “What I think [my story] did was it really gave people, a lot of people who were distrusting of the news media at the time and continue to be … it gave them an example to make the point that they wanted to believe or say whenever they disagreed with … a story.”
  • “There’s no reason you should be compelled to believe anything. It’s your choice. I would tell you to do the same thing I do on a daily basis. … You listen to what people have to say. You examine it. You compare it to the facts that you know. … You collect information from collateral sources, and you make a determination for yourself about the credibility of it. …There’s no reason I think you should necessarily be compelled to believe my version of events. I’m just offering it. You know, I’m not trying to, I think, convince anyone of anything.”

Blair on ethics

  • “Rarely are our choices in life presented as a major, dramatic question. If they were, it would be easy. … Instead, our most important choices in life, including ethical ones, present themselves in small baby steps — one step at a time in minor choices that may not even seem related to the ultimate outcome. And then one day … you can turn around and find yourself close [to] or across a line that you never thought you would go anywhere near.”
  • Journalism students “can at times have a hard time [understanding] the notion that I got into the profession because I was curious, loved writing and wanted to help people. My reasons sound as noble as their own, and this can create some cognitive dissonance. I think it’s hard for people to process the idea, to internalize the notion that I once was so much like them. But it’s an important premise in looking at my career. Because if you buy the idea that I became a journalist for such noble reasons and that I could cross the ethical lines that I did, you can buy the notion that you can.
  • If we merely believe that only bad people do bad things, then you good people have no reason to learn ethics at all, for you are destined to do good no matter what happens. This seems contrary to everything we know about the human condition.

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