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Could I have been the one to stop Jayson Blair?
In the spring of 1998, I was a senior at the University of Maryland, where Blair was a classmate—and also the recently, controversially fallen editor-in-chief of The Diamondback, the university's independent student newspaper. I was but a wee copy editor at The Diamondback—a fresh-faced young journalist who had switched majors the summer before to focus on the craft of reporting, writing, and editing. I had a penchant for chatting it up with strangers and was full of curiosity. As I settled into my new job at The Diamondback, my curiosity was piqued by the gossip swirling around the offices above the South Campus Dining Hall, much of which seemed to focus on one target: This former editor-in-chief, a man dubbed "Webster" and mocked by those who'd spent the previous year under his editorial dictatorship. From what I gathered, Blair was a charming man who had an in with the journalism school, who had used that connection to take the helm of The Diamondback, and who had somehow earned the disdain of his peers during that period. But how? Why did everyone hate him so much?
I wanted to discover what the real story was with this Blair character, and so I proposed my idea to my feature-journalism class: I wanted to profile Blair.
By the end of the term, I had a 1,500-word examination of Blair. I'd spoken to the man himself, extensively, starting with a two-hour interview at the local Applebee's, where he'd promptly handed me a "reference sheet" with names and numbers of top j-school and university professors (with "friend and second mother" typed next to a few of them). I'd spoken to other student editors and writers who'd worked with him. I'd spoken to j-school faculty he'd befriended, and I'd even spoken with his mother, Fran Blair, who told me her son had been a "real, real fat" third grader. I'd produced a piece filled, in retrospect, with foreshadowing: Though Blair's peers didn't like him, he was masterfully ingratiating to higher-ups; he obsessively tracked in gossip and editorial second-guessing about the Diamondback newsroom; he once used a seemingly fabricated excuse for not being where he was supposed to be.
And I never published the story.
Why not? Well, I was young. It's not a piece of writing that I'd be proud of today, now that I'm a professional journalist who knows how to construct and craft a solid article. But, mostly, I didn't try to get the piece published because I have, and had, a strong ethical sense. I was concerned about the impact my profile of Blair would have on the sources I used to craft it. They were talking, they thought, to a college student working on a class project. They didn't expect to see their quotes in print, and I didn't want to surprise them.
But Jayson Blair—even well before he became the man who nearly brought down The New York Times—never had any qualms about who he might bruise in his quest for success.
I realized I didn't have that same overpowering urge to get ahead later that year, on the hot September 1998 night I stumbled into Blair at College Park's Cornerstone Bar and Grill. Coming off a grueling night at The Diamondback, where I was then one of four news editors, two female colleagues and I squeezed into the crowded bar around 1:30 a.m. to make last call. There was Blair, wearing a version of his standard tucked-in rugby and khakis, beckoning us to a nearby table.
"Jayson!" We squealed giddy hellos, offering hugs to a man we regarded as a buddy, who had just completed his summer internship with The New York Times—and was therefore definitely the big man of campus journalism. As my companions turned to grab drinks, Blair pulled me closer.
"Let's have some fun tonight," he whispered into my ear.
I shook my head, mumbled some excuse about needing another gin and tonic, and left him sitting there, alone on a wooden bar chair. In the Maryland journalism scene at that time, it would have been valuable to have Blair as a supporter. "It's professionally not the best thing to have Jayson on your bad side," a woman who had worked with him at a major newspaper had told me while I was working on my profile of him. But I knew I wasn't interested in gaining his friendship that way. Plus, in writing my profile of him—which was how we'd first met—I'd learned he wasn't necessarily someone I wanted to get involved with.
The newspaper staff's disgruntlement with Blair started with his tenure as editor-in-chief—they didn't want him to get it. At the University of Maryland, the paper's staff votes for their choice for editor-in-chief, and then a Media Board affiliated with the department of journalism makes the final selection. In the fall of 1996, the Diamondback staff didn't vote for Blair; they voted for another student, Dave Murray, but the board ultimately selected Blair. There were two theories for why, which neatly track the two theories for Blair's rapid advancement at the Times: Some Diamondback staffers were sure the board had been swayed by top officials in the department of journalism, many of whom Jayson had aggressively befriended, and others thought he got the job because he was black.
Soon enough, four of the editors under Blair had quit, and he replaced them with his friends. One, his girlfriend, was made managing editor at a higher salary than any of the other editors; they complained. There were controversial news decisions, like a prominently placed story reporting that there were rumors of cocaine use by a student who had died, although the autopsy ultimately showed no drug use. (Jayson's justification: "It happened, it was relevant") There were stories of gross mismanagement—writers not getting paid, unexplained absences when deadlines approached.
And, perhaps most ominously, there was the time he was missing and unreachable from the paper one night in the late spring of 1997. When he finally showed up, he had a perfectly good explanation: There'd been a gas leak in his dorm room, and he'd suffered from gas poisoning. Then someone remembered that—just as Jessica Lynch's house doesn't look out over tobacco fields—the stoves in the dorms are all electric.
In early April of 1997, two months before his term as editor-in-chief was scheduled to end, and after at least seven months of controversy and arguments with his staff, Blair resigned as editor-in-chief. His successor, Danielle Newman, remembered him explaining that he was having "personal problems"—but said, at the time, that she suspected he was forced to resign. She would soon learn that despite his resignation, Blair wasn't quite gone from The Diamondback just yet.
Right before my first interview with Blair, I heard a story from one of my then-co-editors about the night when he and two other Diamondback editors ran into Blair at a local convenience store after a night of bar-hopping. Though it had been nearly a year since Blair had stepped down as editor-in-chief, he wasn't happy with how the paper had played a recent story—news of a potential suicide ran on page 3 rather than on page 1, where Blair felt it belonged. He followed them home, continuing to argue the point, and everyone ended the night drunk and disgruntled. The staffers were willing to forgive the alcohol-induced outburst, but when they mentioned it to Newman the next day, she called the police. Turns out this was the fifth time he'd stopped current staffers over the issue, and the new editor-in-chief was worried. Blair's only defense, when I asked him about this: "I don't mind pissing people off for a good reason."
It was a whirlwind not-quite-year that Blair spent running The Diamondback, I learned, because I wrote all about it. Would a tale of college-paper contretemps have stopped his career earlier? Probably not. But we'll never know, because I didn't publish it. Jayson didn't mind pissing people off, but I do. And I still have a job, where I'm honest, my editors trust me, and I have no guilt over anything I've ever written being untrue.
Marisa Torrieri is a Washington D.C. journalist who covers Medicare regulation and freelances for national magazines.