One of the most interesting things about the Jayson Blair/NYT journalism scandal is one of the things that I think is being least commented upon, which is how much work Jayson Blair put into his journalistic inaccuracies. Blair put in a fair amount of research time in order to create the illusion that he was going places and observing things, and also worked fairly diligently to cover his tracks. It’s not accurate to suggest he worked just as hard to cover his tracks as he would have if he’d just gone out and did the damn work, but it’s probably accurate to say that he worked hard enough at lying that the extra effort required to actually report would not have been much more onerous.
It’s a replay of the Stephen Glass thing from a few years back (Glass, who in one of those cosmic coincidences, has resurfaced with a largely autobiographical novel called The Fabulist); Glass’ fabrications required him to create fake press releases and Web sites in order to fool his fact checkers and editors. Glass made up stuff, it seems, primarily because he thought reality was too boring (it’s not, it just requires a lot of intensive research. Glass thought it was easier to make stuff up first and then create the background details later; I doubt it.). It doesn’t seem like Blair was motivated by the same impulse; he just looks like a neophyte reporter who lacked the skills he required to do his job correctly, and someone more interesting in being a reporter than he was interested in the process involved in reporting.
Another irony here is that while it’s clear that Blair has shown himself to be be a pretty bad reporter, he shows ample skills to have been a rewrite man — one of the guys who takes information from reporters in the field, augments it with research from other sources, and bangs out an article based on that. The fly in that ointment is Blair’s distressing tendency to make things up, like quotes and details that he wasn’t able to find in stories. That one’s a little difficult to get around no matter what.
Blair had a lot of problems from very early on, and many people are wondering why the New York Times kept someone who was so very troubled. A number of people are pointing to the affirmative-action thing (Blair is black), but I think that not really a direct-line thing, since quite obviously it would not have been difficult to replace Blair with any number of qualified minority reporters; it’s not as if the NYT has to scrape the gutters looking for people who want to work there.
I think it’s more a matter of institutional pride, the idea that for whatever reason, they made Blair a Times man, and by God, they were going to make him live up to the title one way or another. And Blair indeed did the work. He just did in mostly the utterly wrong way.
The final irony is that Blair may find a way of making it work for himself after all. Stephen Glass, who planted fake stories in a number of magazines and precipitated a scandal of his own because of it, has turned the experience into a novel that’s ranked No. 156 on the Amazon rankings, and which was promoted by articles from the chattering classes and by a segment on last Sunday’s 60 Minutes. Name another debut novelist in the last 20 years who has had his work so slavishly followed by the press. And imagine how the story of the man who spoofed the New York Times would sell.