The Times Bomb

The executive editor of the New York Times, Howell Raines, was walking down the street in Times Square, preparing for one of the most difficult meetings of his life. It was Wednesday, May 14, and Raines, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman and publisher of the Times, and Gerald Boyd, the managing editor, grinned gamely for the cameras as they made the short trip from the Times's West 43d Street newsroom to a nearby Loews Astor Plaza movie theater. For Raines, it was a session that could determine the course of the rest of his career, a bitter and angry showdown with a staff that had been roiled by the revelations that Jayson Blair, a 27-year-old reporter, had lifted quotes, made up scenes and faked interviews--all in the pages of the most powerful newspaper in the world. Inside the theater, Sulzberger brought a stuffed moose to the stage, a Times symbol that signifies a commitment to talking about the obvious, and obviously uncomfortable, issues on the table. Raines, in his opening remarks, tried to pre-empt some of what was coming. "You view me as inaccessible and arrogant," he told his staff, according to the Times's own printed account of the meeting. "I heard that you were convinced there's a star system that singles out my favorites for elevation. Fear is a problem to such extent, I was told, that editors are scared to bring me bad news." Raines also said that if he looked into his heart, his --guilt as a white man from Alabama had something to do with why he gave Blair, a black reporter from Virginia, second and third and fourth chances. Still, emotions were raw--the metro staff in particular was in a mini-revolt, with reporters and editors bitterly complaining about the lack of leadership that got the paper into its mess. Joe Sexton, a deputy editor on the metro desk with a famously foul mouth, swore; Raines slapped him down brusquely. Finally, Alex Berenson, a business reporter, asked the question he'd ask of any other top executive: Was Raines going to resign? The answer: No.

As the Times meeting was unfolding, Jayson Blair was holed up in an apartment in Manhattan, talking with his lawyer and his literary agent. The week before, friends say, Blair had checked himself out of Silver Hill, a tony inpatient hospital in New Canaan, Conn., where he had been receiving treatment for a history of alcoholism, cocaine abuse and manic depression, NEWSWEEK has learned. Blair says he's been clean and sober for more than a year, but even he knew his behavior had become blindingly self-destructive. Most of the few remaining friends Blair has--almost everyone he knows is a journalist or a source--were telling him to go back into the hospital, to quit working the angles for one last payday. His world was shrinking--down to a dwindling number of longtime friends; his girlfriend, a former Times clerk who had taken a leave the day after Blair resigned, and the opportunists crawling all over a journalistic scandal that was dominating talk radio, cable news channels and Internet chat rooms. He was following his own story, and phoned friends after the meeting for a fill on what went down. At 9:45 that night, Blair sent out a shockingly blithe e-mail to a number of acquaintances, including people at the Times. "hey folks," Blair wrote, "this is my new email address. feel free to forward it to anyone who asks to reach me. spread the word to those who still care that i am holding up as well as possible and love so many of you. I [sic] time will come for more, but it's not here yet. all the best, jayson."

This is the story of two men's rise. Howell Raines, the swaggering, smooth-talking --Southerner, had transformed the culture of the staid New York Times since stepping into the paper's top editorial position in September 2001--elevating the chosen few, pushing his staff with an unrelenting ferocity and, in his first three months on the job, leading the paper to an unprecedented seven Pulitzer Prizes, six of them for the paper's coverage of the September 11 attacks. Jayson Blair, an awkward, overbearing, chain-smoking cub reporter, seemed to intuitively understand this, and was gaming his way to the upper echelon of Times reporters--his personal life unraveling even as he was handed ever more prominent and pressure-packed assignments by supervisors who warned him sternly about his problems while continuing to cheer him on. Said Liz Kelley, a longtime Blair friend: "He was definitely dealing with some heavy issues, and he was getting help, through therapy and self-help programs. I don't know how all this came about. He was self-destructing." Raines's fondness for anointing young reporters as future stars put the two on a collision course--which destroyed one man's career, seriously sullied the other's and severely tarnished the reputation of an American institution in the process.

In a conversation with NEWSWEEK, Blair spoke of his feelings since his career went up in flames: "I can't say anything other than the fact that I feel a range of emotions including guilt, shame, sadness, betrayal, freedom and appreciation for those who have stood by me, been tough on me, and have taken the time to understand that there is a deeper story and not to believe everything they read in the newspapers." Or so Jayson says. As the Times found out the hard way, where Blair is concerned, it can be exceedingly difficult to determine just where fact leaves off and fiction begins.

Ever since he first took a journalism class in high school, all Blair wanted to be was a reporter. He grew up in an upscale neighborhood in the heart of Fairfax County, Va. His dad, Thomas, is an inspector general at the Smithsonian; his mother, Frances--Fran to friends--a Fairfax County schoolteacher. At Virginia's Centreville High School, he founded a chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and was the index editor of the school's yearbook his senior year. But it was journalism that turned his crank. He loved knowing the secrets and the gossip; he loved trafficking in information. He loved seeing his name in --print. Blair spent his days hanging out at the third-floor offices of the school's bi-monthly student newspaper, The Sentinel, even when he wasn't working on a story. Administrators loved him. "He charmed me from the get-go," Pamela Latt, his high-school principal, says. "He had a very clear focus of what he wanted to do."

While still in high school, Blair interned for the Centreville Times, a local weekly. "He just bounced in one day," says Steve Cahill, executive editor of the chain that runs the paper. "He struck me as a kid who wanted to go places." Cahill describes Blair in language similar to virtually everyone who worked with him over the next decade--he was charismatic, with an "electric smile," but he was also unreliable. There were problems with missed deadlines, with Blair disappearing at critical times, but Cahill figured he was just a high-school student.

After high school, Blair spent a semester at Liberty University, a Baptist school founded by Jerry Falwell. Then he transferred to the University of Maryland. "He was easy to pick out in a crowd," Chris Callahan, the associate dean of Maryland's journalism school, says. Callahan was so impressed he hired Blair to work for him in the Annapolis bureau of the Capital News Service. "He was completely defined by being a newshound. He didn't know when to turn it off," Callahan says.

But while Blair was charming the powerful adults, he was alienating virtually everyone he worked with on The Diamondback, the student newspaper he would eventually run. His tenure as editor was marked by strife, allegations of racism, problematic stories and fantastical tales. "When Jayson was initially hired, people were really upset," Danielle Newman told NEWSWEEK. Newman was an editor under Blair, and succeeded him after he resigned. "We said we just didn't think he was qualified," Newman said. There were concerns about a football game Blair covered--his story was filled with quotes from people another reporter at the game wasn't sure existed. There was a story in which Blair tried to insert quotes from an Associated Press wire story. "We definitely had our suspicions about his reporting," Newman says. "But what could we do?"

Blair's behavior became erratic; he offered explanations that didn't pass the straight-face test, his colleagues said. The paper was putting out a spring-break guide, and Blair disappeared without handing in a story he was working on. "We kept paging him and paging him," Newman says. Blair didn't show up until the next day. "He said he almost died from gas poisoning when his roommate left the burner on. At the end of the meeting... he told me his doctor said he needed to rest. I told him to go home. After he left, someone leaned over and asked, 'Do you believe him?' I said no. She said, 'Good, neither do I'." That night, Newman and others realized the Maryland campus doesn't even have gas stoves. Later, when Newman confronted Blair, he offered to take her to his apartment. "But when I said, 'Let's go now,' he said we had more important things to talk about," she says. Soon after, Blair resigned from the paper for "personal reasons."

Blair, who corresponded with news-week for this article on the phone and via e-mail but refused to answer most questions on the record, did not respond to queries about his time in college, or --whether he had begun to drink and use drugs during this period of his life. But one thing seems clear--Blair had already developed a reckless disregard for truth.

From the moment Howell Raines was appointed executive editor of The New York Times, there was tension in the newsroom. Raines, who refused repeated requests for an interview for this article, had been the paper's Washington editor and editorial-page editor, and had a reputation for being autocratic, arrogant and insensitive. He was known to cultivate stars and freeze out people he didn't like. Many people viewed his editorial page's attacks on Bill Clinton as unseemly. Raines didn't seem to worry much about dissent in the ranks. He was working for a constituency of one, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the Times's publisher, and Sulzberger, who also refused repeated requests for an interview, was an unabashed and vocal champion.

Within days of taking the reins at the Times during the first week of September 2001, Raines led his newsroom on the story that seemed as if it would define his career. The Times dominated the coverage of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Its "Portraits of Grief" series, mini-profiles of every single victim of the attack, was seen as a way the Times continued to fill its role both as the newspaper of record and as serving the public good. "What Howell did at the paper after September 11 was heroic," says Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic. "It was the most exemplary mixture I've ever seen of compassion and objectivity."

By early 2002, however, the paper's staff, still exhausted from its 9-11 coverage, was being pushed beyond its limits. Raines wanted a "fast metabolism reaction to the news," and loved to "flood the zone," poring enormous resources into the breaking story of the day. Newsroom staffers also felt as if Raines led the staff on crusades, obsessing about stories--like the ban on women at the Augusta National Golf Club, host to the Masters--in a way that caused the paper to make news instead of break it. (Sources at the paper say Raines nominated the paper's Augusta coverage for a 2002 Pulitzer--which shocked some Times staffers, because the paper had come under fire for spiking two sports columns that took issue with the paper's editorial stance on the subject.) At the time, the feeling in the Times's newsroom was that Raines was looking for young, unmarried reporters to fill the prestigious national-reporting slots, reporters who were just as comfortable in a Holiday Inn as they were in their own beds.

Raines certainly shook things up; by the end of the year, national correspondents Gustav Niebuhr, Carey Goldberg, Evelyn Nieves, James Sterngold, Blaine Harden, Sam Howe Verhovek and Kevin Sack had all left the paper. (Sack went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for the Los Angeles Times.) The Times's investigative team, too, was undergoing dramatic turnover, losing two leaders in a short span. "He had no sense that there was value in having experience," says a Times staffer. "His attitude seemed to be, 'I'll find someone younger and hungrier and make them better than you ever were anyway'."

Enter Jayson Blair, as if on cue. While at Maryland, a school from which he never graduated, Blair interned for both The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. He was not a popular guy, and had a reputation for trafficking in nasty gossip, stealing story ideas and sucking up to superiors so he could get credit for work he didn't do. "All of us are ambitious," one of Blair's fellow interns told NEWSWEEK. "He was to a dangerous extent." When Blair arrived at the Times in the summer of 1998, he came with a loaded reputation, with Globe staffers calling friends and warning them to be careful what they said to Blair.

Almost as soon as Blair arrived at the Times, multiple sources at the paper say, he began to brag about his close relationship with Gerald Boyd, who at the time was one of the paper's deputy managing editors. The mentoring relationship made sense, people said--one of Boyd's responsibilities was to work with young reporters, and Boyd, like Blair, is African-American. "Jayson was always bragging, 'Gerald told me this,' or 'Gerald really likes me.' And there was no reason not to believe him," says one reporter who has since left the Times. Boyd, for his part, says he's never had a particularly close relationship with Blair. "I've had less dealings with him than I've had with most reporters," Boyd told NEWSWEEK.

During his time as an intern, Blair also seemed to have an inside track to people's personnel files, evaluations and private notes sent between editors. Several staffers --say they wondered whether Blair was looking at people's computers after hours. While he worked in the cop shop, the pressroom at New York City's police headquarters, Sean Garner, a police reporter with Newsday, said he saw Blair hack into another Newsday staffer's computer to read a column before publication. "A lot of people thought watching Jayson was watching a train wreck waiting to happen."

There were definite signs that Blair was in danger of jumping the tracks. He was at a party when he was supposed to be covering a crime scene. He was drunk, a lot, telling friends he once passed out at Times headquarters and woke up there the next morning. "He drank Scotch, and he spent a lot of money," said a waiter at Robert Emmet's, a bar around the corner from the Times. And, friends say, he was using cocaine, at least on weekends.

Despite the reservations of many people at the paper, Blair was promoted to staff reporter in January 2001--a promotion that occurred, according to the Times's own account of the Blair scandal, "with the consensus of a recruiting committee of roughly half a dozen people headed by Gerald M. Boyd, then a deputy managing editor, and the approval of Mr. [Joseph] Lelyveld," the paper's executive editor at the time. Jon Landman, the Times's metro editor, was quoted in the Times story as saying he had been opposed to promoting Blair to a full-time staff position, and that Sulzberger and Lelyveld had made clear the company's commitment to diversity.

But Blair's performance, already spotty, seemed to be getting worse. His personal life also seemed to be spinning out of control. His apartment in Brooklyn was littered with broken furniture and rotting food, his landlord said; there was fungus, and mold. When he moved out in the fall of 2002, the place was in such sordid condition his landlord considered taking him to small-claims court to recoup damages. "It was real filth," the landlord told NEWSWEEK. "Imagine using a bathroom for two-and-a-half years and never cleaning it."

The September 11 attacks seemed to spur Blair's downward slide. Blair told his editors at the Times that he had a cousin who had died in the Pentagon, explaining why he couldn't help with the "Portraits of Grief" series. In early 2002, Landman sent warnings about Blair's behavior to Boyd and a newsroom administrator; between January and April, Blair took two leaves of --absence from the paper. "Jayson was trying to get his life under control," said one friend who has been in contact with Blair since he resigned from the Times. "He was under huge pressure, and at times he felt like he was barely holding it together, but I thought he was trying." Blair was reassigned from the paper's metro desk on the newsroom's third floor to the sports desk on the fourth floor, and kept on a tight leash. "Sports writing is a supervised, confined world, and a lot of the interviewing is done in locker rooms, with crowds around," Landman told NEWSWEEK. "I thought that would be OK."

But in the fall, a half year after taking a leave in the paper's employee-assistance program and with a personnel file full of warnings and reprimands, the Times's top editors tapped Blair to help cover the Washington sniper case. In the Times's own account, Boyd and Raines made the decision to include Blair on the sniper team. At last Wednesday's staff wide meeting, Raines and Boyd were asked directly who had first brought up Blair's name. As Boyd was explaining how he had conducted a meeting in his office with several other top editors, Raines cut him off and said, according to staff members present at the meeting, "I'm the editor, it was my responsibility." Blair, after all, knew the area, and the national desk was understaffed.

Six days after landing in Maryland, Blair scored a front-page story. Blair wrote that an interrogation of John Muhammad, one of the sniper suspects, had been interrupted by federal prosecutors. That was true. What followed, however, was not: that the interrupted conversation had moved beyond opening pleasantries into Muhammad's explaining "the roots of his anger." Prosecutors hit the roof. But Blair was never asked to produce his multiple anonymous sources, and there was no discussion of pulling him off the case. (Journalists in the Times's Washington bureau raised questions about Blair's sniper scoop before publication, and were told by New York that changes would be made, according to several sources at the paper. But, the sources said, the changes were never made.)

Within months, Blair was circulating drafts of a book proposal on the sniper story in which he discussed his own anger and frustration as an African-American. "[A friend] encouraged me to look for answers about the history of violence in my own family and that of Lee Malvo [the other sniper suspect], suggesting the search would not be in vain, if it at least ended my restless angst," Blair wrote. Later, he told friends that he identified with Malvo.

In January, Blair had conversations with several friends in which he told them he was feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with the pressures of his job. He went so far as to tell Jim Roberts, the Times's national editor, that he wanted off the story, several of Blair's friends told NEWSWEEK. Roberts says that's not how the conversation went down, and it's important to stress that trying to pinpoint reality when dealing with Blair is like trying to grab a fistful of running water. "Jayson and I had a conversation about whether he would return to his sports job or stay on the sniper case," Roberts told NEWSWEEK. "He told me he had an ill uncle, and needed to spend time with him, which I'm sure is every bit as much of a lie as everything else he said." Roberts says Blair did not specifically ask to be taken off the sniper case, and did not talk about being under too much pressure. "I told him that if he needed to attend to an ill relative we would give him some time."

Roberts says he didn't recount this conversation to either Raines or Boyd; he also didn't tell the Times reporters assigned to write up last Sunday's account of the Blair scandal about the conversation. "They didn't ask me about it," Roberts says. (Blair also told friends he was given a raise shortly after the conversation; Roberts says he didn't give Blair a raise. Associate managing editor William Schmidt said he could not comment on any matter involving staff salaries.)

Whatever transpired with his editors, friends say Blair was melting down. "We talked about his initial bout with the star system, and how that, coupled with his own pathologies, were leading him to self-destruct," said one friend, who has known Jayson for almost a decade and spoke to NEWSWEEK on the condition his name not be used. "The drinking and the drugs were more of a symptom than a cause."

Over the next several months, Blair continued to get high-profile assignments from the Times, writing about the families of missing American soldiers and staying on the sniper story. He also became romantically involved with Zuza Glowacka, the Polish daughter of a friend of Raines's Polish wife. (In a statement last week, Glowacka said, "I was in no way aware, nor did I assist Jayson in anything that contributed to his current problems.") Unable to locate his own boundaries, Blair tried to become like the people around him. Writing about sexual abuse, he claimed he himself was a victim. "When the shuttle blew up, he said his dad worked at NASA," said one Times reporter. "When [Gov. George] Ryan pardoned all the prisoners on death row in Illinois, [Blair] said he had a relative on death row. He said he had a cousin in the Pentagon. And when Howell married a Polish woman, Jayson found a Polish girlfriend."

This spring, Blair pushed his deceptions to the breaking point. Staggering under the pressure of his national assignments, he stopped traveling on assignment, using his cell phone and laptop to make it seem as if he was jetting around the country. At times, he was writing from inside the paper's newsroom. Now that his fraud has been unmasked, friends suspect he was having a manic episode. Whatever was going on, Blair was outwardly calm, even listless. Roberts says he went out to lunch with Blair in March to discuss the young reporter's goals. "He did not seem to have any strong desires," Roberts says. The national editor met with Blair again in April. "He seemed even more distracted, and I remember telling other people I thought that was a bit odd, because he had been so ambitious before."

It would soon become clear what was distracting Blair. In late April, he plagiarized a story from the San Antonio Express-News. When confronted about the charge, Blair resigned rather than produce receipts proving he had, in fact, traveled to Texas. For the week following Blair's resignation, the scandal at the Times was a kind of low hum in the nation's newsrooms. But the Times's four-page report, printed on May 11, turned that hum into an all-consuming roar. Instead of answering questions about how Blair had been able to get away with so much for so long, the consensus in the newsroom was that the Times story skirted around many of the major issues--the role of race in Blair's hiring and promotions; the lack of communication--and in some cases, acrimony--between desk editors at the Times; the imperious tenure of Howell Raines, and the institutional arrogance that led the paper to highhandedly correct the smallest errors while never bothering to address much larger thematic concerns about some articles.

"There was all this cordwood lying around, and then along came the spark," one Times staffer said this week. The internal investigation--and extraordinary May 14 meeting--were intended to douse the flames. To some extent, it worked: after an exhaustive week of strife, some Times men were circling the wagons, pride of place supplanting the pain the episode has caused. "A, the crime is Jayson Blair's in the end, and B, we still put out a pretty good paper," said metro columnist Clyde Haberman the day after the meeting. And superstar columnist Maureen Dowd faults the journalistic feeding frenzy. "They say Schadenfreude is good for your health, but this is ridiculous," Dowd said.

Still, embers linger. This week, a Times spokeswoman confirmed that the paper was making informal inquiries into the work of other reporters after questions had been raised about their work. More ominously, there are reports that members of the Times board are concerned about all the bad publicity. (Calls to board members --were not returned.) "That's not true," says a Times spokeswoman. "Members of the board have individually expressed support for management and its actions."

Blair, meanwhile, knows his career in journalism is over. When asked if his life had become unraveled in the past year, one of Blair's friends said, "It was never raveled. He was going to self-destruct, and he had to choose between killing himself physically or killing the thing that was causing him so much pain, his love of journalism."

But he is still working the angles. Blair has signed up with David Vigliano, a literary agent, and is in talks for book, movie and television deals. Ted Faraone, a PR agent who had worked with Blair on stories at the Times, told NEWSWEEK he called the reporter after reading about his career suicide. "He called me back Wednesday," the day of the Times's town-hall meeting, Faraone said. "He sounded in pretty good spirits, considering everything. And, you know, he needs to do something to keep body and soul together, so I put him in touch with one of my clients, Ian Rae, who did 'A Current Affair.' I'm hoping things work out for him." Then Faraone added another thought. "If one thing can be said about this from a literary standpoint, the American people tend to be very forgiving if you come clean. They'll watch the TV movie and pay $9.50 to see the feature film. It's a strange commentary on celebrity in 21st-century America, but in a way that's kind of how we rehabilitate people after they've fallen."

Correction

In "The News Not Fit To Print" (May 26), we said that Ruth Shalit, a former writer for The New Republic, "admitted to plagiarizing passages and fabricating facts." In fact, Shalit (who later rejoined The New Republic for two years) never admitted to any fabrication. NEWSWEEK regrets the error.

The Times Bomb | News