12:04 pm
Tue March 23, 2004

Jayson Blair

How he got away with it.

Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Wally's commentary.]

What kind of society do we have when a book by a reporter fired for fabricating stories draws fawning, softball media interviews and public attention, while another reporter fired for lying reaps fortune from the movie version of his life story? Answer: a human one.

In this Postcard from the Digital Age, we'll talk about Jayson Blair and how he managed to get away with so much for so long.

No one, including Mr. Blair, seems to know why he did what he did, though he seems willing to blame just about anyone or anything but himself. Here's a quick review of his story.

Jayson Blair was a reporter for the New York Times. He was fired in May, 2003 for making up all or part of many of the 600 stories he worked on at that newspaper. His firing led to the firing a month later of two senior editors and intensive process review and soul-searching at the Times.

How outrageous were his lies? Pretty outrageous. Take the story he wrote about Private Jessica Lynch's family.

Mr. Blair never actually visited the family or interviewed them. His story set their house on a hilltop. It's in a valley. He said the family had a long history of military service. It doesn't.

Later, Mr. Blair wrote stories based on made-up interviews with Iraq War veterans. He made up "facts" about the DC Sniper investigation. Still, it took quite a while for the Times to investigate and fire him. How could that happen, especially at an institution like the New York Times?

Technology played a big role. With a cell phone, Mr. Blair could tell his editors he was in West Virginia when he was actually in Brooklyn. With online access to pictures taken by Times photographers on location, he could add physical details to his stories. With online access to hundreds of newspapers, he could copy the work of others without leaving home.

But, if it was Digital Age technology that made it possible for Mr. Blair to perpetrate his frauds, it was good old human nature that let him get a way with them for so long. He was personable, even charismatic. He appeared to be hard working and he appeared to have promise. And so his superiors liked him and viewed him through the lens of trust.

We're funny that way. Often we see what we want to see. We're human beings and we consistently let the folks we like get away with things. Most of us are consistent in our habit patterns, too. Mr. Blair certainly was.

In the investigations that followed his firing, the Boston Globe, where Blair had worked as an intern, found that he had fabricated stories there, too. It seems that he may have done the same thing when he was student editor of the University of Maryland paper. None of them caught it at the time. It was all clear in hindsight, but that's always 20/20.

Issues like this hit organizations hard. They almost always generate a paroxysm of effort to put more controls and procedures in place. That's well-meaning, but dangerous.

All those checks and regulations and reviews and emphasis on catching the bad guys can cause a shift in the organizational culture. That shift can easily be away from emphasis on organizational purpose and toward emphasis on organizational protection. It can easily be away from trust and toward control, away from covenants and toward contracts.

And, the sad thing is, all those checks and regulations probably won't work. Liars and frauds will always find a way to deceive us. And we'll always trust the people we like and give them the benefit of any doubt.

There is humanity at both ends of this story. There is humanity in the demons that drove Jayson Blair to lie to the people who trusted him. And there was the humanity of the editors that trusted him even as the evidence piled up that he was a fraud.