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Jewish World Review May 23, 2003 / 21 Iyar, 5763

Julia Gorin

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Consumer Reports

I should be so lucky as Jayson Blair! | Good for Jayson Blair. He milked The New York Times' good intentions for all they were worth. It amounted to four years, which at a Times union-inflated salary probably comes out to 20 years of income somewhere else. He should be able to retire.

In addition to consistent problems of inaccuracy, tardiness and extended unavailability, the Times' internal investigation of the 27-year-old former reporter found that "he fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not."

But good for Blair. Who needs it? The schlepping, the calling, the waiting for people to return your calls, the fact-checking and so on. It's much easier to just make it up or copy it. Besides, have you ever tried having a conversation with a meticulous, hard-core reporter? Bo-ring!

For all these reasons, I was too lazy to be a reporter. I did it for a while, but it seemed like an exercise in repetition, a game of who can get the same ambulance-chasing story everyone else is getting but two seconds earlier-and that meant a lot of running around. Also, they make you cover beats you couldn't care less about, shuffling you around from the sports desk to the business desk, to automobiles or culture. I remember when I was working at the New York Daily News on a temporary assignment in 1997, and someone had the brilliant idea of sending me to cover fan fever at the Knicks' opening game--even though I assured them I knew very little about football.

No, I preferred to write what I wanted and to make sense of the news, and decided it was a lot less trouble to just opinionate for a living. As for any research or footwork even this may require, if others are happy schlepping to Zambia for a story, why should I also have to schlep when I've got the Internet?

Not that I didn't try. Boy, did I try to get a staff job--at all three New York dailies, plus one in New Jersey and another in Philadelphia. With the exception of the brief Daily News stint, I couldn't catch a break. So to support my freelance reporting, I took a job with The New York Times classified ad department, where I typed advertisements for real estate, help wanted, cars, antiques and everything else. While there, I lobbied hard for a reporting job, keeping abreast of hiring notices that went up, showing my clips to the appropriate people and introducing myself to the big shots when I'd bump into them in elevators.

Then I heard about the summer internship program that Blair would get his start in, a conduit for an eventual staff position. I inquired, but was told I was the wrong color; the internship was geared toward minorities. So I told them I was Jewish, an even smaller minority than black at 2% of the country's population. But that seemed only to elicit giggles.

It was just assumed that Jews are industrious and successful and never in need of a boost. Well, I'm tired of that vicious stereotype! This Jew has been struggling for eight years. I just may be the poorest Jew in the country. My Russian relatives, who didn't even get off the boat until 1991, already have more money than I do. I've actually had to borrow money from black friends! What a country!

In my case, the meritocracy system has never yielded any long-term benefit. Not only was getting hired like pulling teeth every time, but with the exception of the Times gig, I've never not been fired from a job. That includes restaurants, legal temp work, news organizations and more. I've gotten fired from places where I wasn't even hired. That's how expendable a white girl is!

In contrast, note the following quote from The New York Times' three-page article explaining the Blair fiasco:

"His mistakes became so routine, his behavior so unprofessional….After taking a leave for personal problems and being sternly warned,…Mr. Blair improved his performance. By last October, the newspaper's top two editors-who said they believed that Mr. Blair had turned his life and work around-had guided him to the understaffed national desk….Blair was further rewarded when he was given responsibility for leading the coverage of the [D.C.] sniper prosecution."

The only warnings I ever got were my walking papers. Blair's resulted in a promotion!

Blair's immediate supervisor, Jeanne Pinder, told the Times' investigative team on this that she "offered to discuss Mr. Blair's history and habits with anybody-mostly, she said, 'because we wanted him to succeed.'"

No one ever cared if I succeeded! No one fought for me with the higher-ups! If a temporary assignment was ending and no one had bothered to do an evaluation, I wasn't given a second thought. It was like: Oh, is she still here? We don't need anyone!

But back to Blair: By way of explaining his being hired from the initial internship program, recruiting editor Sheila Rule said that during his 10 weeks as an intern, "he did well. He did very well."

This same lady told me to go work at a newspaper in another city for 50 years first, then come back and try The Times. Why was I so married to working for The Times, anyway, she wanted to know.

As The New York Times investigation has found, Blair never even graduated from college, with more than a year of course work left to finish at the University of Maryland. When he returned to the newsroom several months after the internship, everyone just assumed he had graduated, according to Ms. Rule.

Which means that my Hunter College degree counts for less than no degree from some place else. I had counted on the City University to be good for my career, thinking that people would see it on my resume and feel so sorry for me that they would just give me the job.

While he was at The Times, Blair even had the confidence to be contentious with editors who gave him a problem, and pull others' rank on them. Again, from The Times:

"After a disagreement with [the] editor…who tracks corrections for the metropolitan desk, he threatened to take up the issue 'with the people who hired me-and they all have executive or managing editor in their titles.'"

What chutzpah! It never occurred to me to try anything like that! Mostly because I knew that the people who hired me probably wouldn't remember who I was. I envy the protection Blair had.

All the while, The Times describes many in the newsroom as having grown fond of "the affable" Blair. "'He had charisma, enormous charisma,'" Times media reporter David Carr said.

Whereas my charisma is usually resented! Of course, if there is one thing we know about The Times, it's that charisma goes a long way. This wasn't the first time a black man's charisma charmed the objectivity right out of the newspaper and let him get away with all but murder, lest we forget Bill Clinton.

Blair's many deceptions included doctoring expense accounts so his superiors would think he was at some distant location covering a story, when often he was either at home or "running up company expenses from a bar around the corner," as The Times admitted, adding that "between late October and late April, Blair claimed to have filed stories from 20 cities in six states-yet did not submit any hotel, plane or rental car receipts." When Blair was inventing "scoops" for his sniper coverage, executive editor at the time Howell Raines complimented his great "shoe-leather reporting." When he was faking interviews with military families instead of traveling to speak with them in person, national editor Jim Roberts praised the reporter for demonstrating "hustle and flair."

Here I was paranoid all this time that hiring editors and my superiors were somehow able to perceive that I, like Jayson, wasn't really all that eager to run all over god's green earth or fling myself into floods and war zones. If only I'd known that it wasn't my Blair-like passive-aggressive laziness that was the stumbling block so much as my color, or lack thereof.

I just don't know what sounds more bothersome: the running around required for real reporting, or the fancy footwork and shystering Blair had to do to avoid the real reporting.

To answer how something like this could have happened at the paper of record, The Times summed up:

"Some reporters and administrators did not tell editors about Mr. Blair's erratic behavior. Editors did not seek or heed the warnings of other editors about his reporting. Five years' worth of information about Mr. Blair was available in one building, yet no one put it together."

Ignoring red flags, editors filing warnings in the back of their minds, not noticing un-submitted expense reports-this is all quite standard, actually. I speak from experience as a member of the most discriminated-against minority in the country-freelance writers-when I say that the last thing on most any news organization's mind is compensating a writer. Or else I wouldn't have to ask three and four times for the $100 I make per article if I'm lucky. As to the rest of it, people don't like to be distracted from their daily routines, especially when they've got putting out a major newspaper every day down to a science. What kept Blair employed at The Times is what kept me employed nowhere: apathy. Only in Blair's case, people were apathetic and oblivious in his favor.

Even now, after everything, The Times has been calling Blair--pleading for his help in setting the record straight. Up next for Blair are book and movie deals; a literary agent has already signed him.

Whereas my phone hasn't rung in over a year.

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JWR contributor Julia Gorin is a journalist and comedienne residing in Manhattan. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2003, Julia Gorin