Jayson Blair seemed as talented as prospective journalists come.
He was highly affable, often offering a helping hand in this university’s journalism college and eagerly seeking career opportunities. Chris Callahan, then the college’s associate dean, even wrote Blair a glowing recommendation for a Society of Professional Journalists scholarship in 1996, according to a Baltimore Sun article published eight years later.
“I can’t think of a more deserving recipient for your scholarship,” wrote Callahan, who did not respond to The Diamondback’s request for comment.
Blair won the $4,000 in aid, which was hardly the first of his accolades.
He interned at The Boston Globe and The Washington Post and became The Diamondback’s editor in chief. The aspiring journalist left for a job at The New York Times in 1999, fulfilling many former professors’ greatest hopes for him.
Blair, who declined several requests for comment, served as a sort of public face for the college, said journalism professor Chris Hanson. The journalism college invited the Columbia native back for alumni and fundraising events; his picture sat in a display case, and he was featured in a 2000 recruiting video.
The adulation didn’t last long, though. After nearly four years at the Times, Blair was found to have fabricated and plagiarized at least 36 articles within a six-month span. He resigned on May 1, 2003 — just a decade ago — and left journalism at only 27 years old.
The Blair scandal shook one of the world’s most respected newsrooms. And its aftershocks reverberated all the way back to College Park.
“I think unhappily a lot of people still remember it and associate it with Maryland, and that’s a shame,” said Carl Stepp, a journalism school professor who often spoke with Blair during his time at the university. “He hurt the college, and he hurt people who had helped him and gone out of their way.”
When David Cay Johnston began his journalism career in 1968, he tried to absorb as many lessons as possible from more experienced writers.
So when Blair returned to the Times in 1999 for a second, extended internship, the senior reporter — who had joined the Times in 1995 after nearly 30 years in the field — decided to offer the rookie some advice. Johnston saw an opportunity to provide a “cub reporter” the same favor his elders had afforded him decades earlier.
Blair feigned attention when Johnston spoke with him, Johnston said, but Johnston quickly realized Blair had no interest in improving himself. He was a “lightweight going nowhere,” Johnston said. If a rookie wasn’t listening to someone of Johnston’s stature, the Pulitzer Prize winner said, Blair clearly didn’t understand what it took to become a reporter.
Others in the newsroom often saw Blair stick close to managing editor Gerald Boyd. When Boyd left the newsroom for a cigarette break, Blair often followed with his own pack of cigarettes.
There must be something special about Jayson, many staff members thought. How else could a beginning reporter cozy up to the No. 2 editor?
One day, midway through Blair’s four-year tenure, Johnston and a colleague spotted Blair and Boyd standing next to each other across the street. Though the reporter and managing editor appeared close, Johnston told his friend to observe their body language.
Boyd clearly didn’t want to be around Blair.
Odds are Boyd wishes he never had been. Once the entire country learned Blair had deceived the Times’ top honchos, numerous staffers complained about upper management. Within five weeks of Blair’s resignation, executive editor Howell Raines and Boyd left the newsroom after more than 45 combined years at the Times.
But they weren’t the only people Blair betrayed. Professors invested in Blair’s future while he was a student at this university. They wrote recommendations and let him help hire prospective faculty members. Such extra support helped him land his prestigious internships at the Globe and the Post, as well as the Times.
“It made us all aware of the vulnerability and fragility of students,” Stepp said, “and the need not to take anything — including people’s integrity — for granted.”
Perhaps if they had taken more time to get to know Blair, some faculty thought, they would have seen more of the warning signs.
But maybe they simply didn’t want to see the signs, Hanson said. Maybe they allowed the allure of Blair’s promising future — and the ways it could boost the college’s national profile — to obscure their judgment.
“The lesson is you have to be very careful about who you latch on to to promote,” Hanson said. “Once you invest in someone, it might be more difficult to heed the warning signs.”
‘A UNIQUE PROBLEM’
Journalism college faculty members couldn’t help but feel sick as Blair’s life spiraled out of control.
They saw a Virginia commonwealth’s attorney dispute a Blair story on the Washington-area sniper attacks. They learned Blair had fabricated many of his quotes. And they watched as Blair’s web of lies unraveled on the national stage.
His former mentors struggled to understand how he swindled the Times’ editors. The questions were endless, Hanson said. How could Blair have been capable of such deception? What would happen to the college’s reputation?
“People were both fascinated and embarrassed and wondering how much damage would be inflicted,” Hanson said. “It easily could’ve happened somewhere else.”
Within days of the scandal making national headlines, faculty members removed Blair’s picture from a display case in the journalism building. The once-outstanding student — the one who held so much promise just four years earlier — had become a point of shame.
But before the college could fully move past Blair’s demise, another alumnus was in the thick of yet another scandal.
Less than a year after Blair’s resignation, USA TODAY journalists found reporter Jack Kelley had made up substantial portions of at least eight stories, lifted quotes and other material and manipulated an investigation of his work.
Like Blair, Stepp said, Kelley was determined to become a nationally recognized name.
“I think every college has had instances of students who have misbehaved,” said Chris Harvey, the journalism college’s internship and career coordinator. “You can’t control a student’s behavior once they leave your building.”
It was easy for faculty members to dismiss Blair as an isolated incident. The Kelley case, though, made outsiders start to question this university. Was it all just too coincidental?
“We were unlucky that the Jack Kelley thing popped up,” Hanson said. “It gave the impression to some we had a unique problem.”
Stepp and Harvey didn’t want Blair to leave school when he was offered a reporting position at the Times in spring 1999. He was only a few credits short of graduating.
“The Times will still want you,” Harvey told Blair.
But a few more classes wouldn’t have prevented Blair’s downfall, Hanson said. He could’ve come from any college.
Today, Hanson feels strange using Blair’s story in his journalism ethics classes to illustrate the far-reaching consequences of selfish ambitions.
Blair, after all, helped Hanson get his job. The then-senior helped interview Hanson for a tenure-track position in 1999, and he commended Hanson’s knowledge of important plagiarism cases.
“I always tell the story about why I’m so qualified to teach the class,” Hanson said, “because I got the green light from Jayson Blair.”
Blair held prominent positions within the journalism college, and he interned at some of the country’s elite newspapers. But Stepp said that doesn’t mean Blair was ready for one of the world’s toughest, highest-paced newsrooms.
“It slowed us in pushing people too far too fast,” Stepp said.
Blair helped cover the capture and rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch during the Iraq War, then one of the nation’s most followed stories. He co-wrote a story that ran April 3, 2003, carrying Palestine, W. Va., as its dateline.
“The little brat’s caused a big stir in this county,” Blair quoted Lynch’s father as saying. “As soon as she’s capable, we’re planning one heck of a big shindig.” Blair also wrote that Gregory Lynch got to speak with his daughter that afternoon.
An internal Times investigation, however, later found that Blair likely never visited the town. Lynch family members told the Times they didn’t remember ever speaking with Blair.
The Lynches never complained about the story, the Times reported. They thought the fabricated quotes and description of their home would be a “one-time thing.”
Tom Madigan, who worked with Blair at The Diamondback, was dumbfounded when he heard about his former colleague’s coverage of the Lynch story.
He knew Blair often lied, Madigan said, because he experienced it firsthand while they were both students. But here was Blair, covering one of the most-watched national stories. And the distrust in the media was so high that the Lynch family didn’t feel compelled to speak up.
“[Jessica Lynch] is one of the most famous people in the world, right?” Madigan said. “And this guy could make up these interviews and details, never having even met her basically, and the family didn’t say anything and she didn’t say anything.”
Madigan started to question his own career. How could he be in the same profession as this guy? Was this really what he wanted to spend the rest of his life doing?
Madigan remained in journalism until 2011 before moving to personal finance. He is a board member of Maryland Media Inc., a nonprofit company that is separate from the university and oversees The Diamondback.
Blair’s former Diamondback peers don’t believe he’s truly learned from all that happened 10 years ago. But Blair has grown, he wrote in a 2004 memoir. In the book, Blair details his struggles with bipolar disorder and drug addiction to explain his problems at the Times. He now works as a life coach in Virginia.
“If there’s any positive spin to come from this behavior, you’d hope it’s a story you can recall to students as a cautionary tale,” Harvey said. “Don’t kill your career. Don’t bring other people down with you when you decide to implode your career.”
The journalism college has certainly changed since Blair’s days. It’s housed in an entirely new, state-of-the-art building. It is adapting to the digital age. It hangs high-definition television screens, rather than pictures, on its walls.
But university and journalism officials still boast about its notable alumni.
Carl Bernstein helped break open the Watergate scandal that eventually led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. Connie Chung is one of the most renowned faces on television as a news anchor with CBS, NBC and CNN. Scott Van Pelt, a host of ESPN’s SportsCenter, is a prominent sports personality with a national following.
If Jayson Blair had just geared all of his talent in the right direction, Stepp said, he could have been among them.
“We all said if he had put half as much energy into being a journalist that he did cheating at journalism, he would’ve been a great one,” Stepp said. “He did not have to cut corners to be a good journalist. That’s the saddest part about it.”