Jayson Blair’s shortcut to glory | VailDaily.com

Jayson Blair’s shortcut to glory

Don Rogers

The tale of the villainous reporter doesn’t have quite the juice of the rogue cop or the politician on the take. But disgraced New York Times writer Jayson Blair sees enough potential in his downfall to hunt book and/or movie deals. That would be in keeping with the pursuit of glory rather than the more pedestrian truth.

Blair is the young hotshot who, when he wasn’t plagiarizing other publications or making stuff up, couldn’t get anything right when he bothered to try. Still, he made page one of The New York Times regularly and got plum assignments until his assorted misdeeds finally caught up with him.

In addition to making the Gray Lady blush with shame, he poked a thumb in the eyes of the zealots of diversity, became the latest scumbag journalist to demonstrate the pitfalls of our society’s fixation on celebrity, and perhaps finally lowered the public’s perception of a high calling beneath ambulance-chasing lawyers, used-car salesmen and even those damnable self-serving politicians.

The real indictment for my tribe is that so few people who were misquoted, never spoke with him or lied about ever complained. When real journalists asked, these people shrugged and said they didn’t really see the point.

Some couldn’t weather the paper’s bureaucracy when they did call, between unreturned phone calls, unwillingness to follow through on complaints, and the labyrinth of editors to negotiate. Others figured everyone gets it that wrong consistently, exaggerates to make their stories sexier, and tells little fictions to paint a larger truth.

The Jayson Blairs, in reality, are few and far between in my calling. That’s why his story is news. There are lots of easier ways for skunks to make their mark. But there are pressures, as well as siren calls, making Blair’s road a tempting path.

We have an award culture that most infamously tripped up the Washington Post’s Jane Cooke in 1981. She won journalism’s highest prize, a Pulitzer, for a wild tale about a child addict – which turned out to be entirely made up.

As life at large increasingly fawns on celebrity, so too does the journalism world. Some observers trace the modern vein of investigative work to Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein unraveling Watergate. These two did great, great work, but they also opened a Pandora’s box of anonymous sourcing and a tilt toward exaggeration in such reporting by less skilled or disciplined acolytes. I can’t remember the fellow’s name, but a San Jose Mercury News reporter a few years back created a sensation when he traced the crack cocaine boom in California to the CIA. It was baloney, as it turned out.

While far better than a state-run press, the capitalistic model of our news media is tender to the economy at large and hard business decisions. Increasingly, I think, news cannot merely inform. It must sell.

Further, the people who run the business must take care not to overstaff, and this may be the indictment on corporate-style companies, though it’s just as prevalent, if not more so, among the independents who lack the resources of the bigger operations. News folks are not direct revenue generators, and I think there’s a general tendency to think in terms of how few of us can a journalistic outfit employ to get the job done than pushing the other way. There are exceptions, of course.

What else? Perhaps a corollary to the business model, but journalism comes at the bottom of the pile of professionals for pay out of college. Teachers tend to be paid significantly more at the entry level, even with their unpaid summer vacations. The journeyman journalist can eventually match or even exceed the educator, making the right moves to larger markets and taking promotions when they come along. There’s a brain drain, though, as people who start in journalism reach for better paying opportunities with much easier schedules.

Beyond that, though, there’s a star system somewhat like professional baseball. A lucky and talented few can make millions in this business. A break can lift you from single A to the bigs. The more spectacularly you can shine, the better you are likely to be rewarded.

In work where stardom is a possibility, there is always room for hope. But there are darker temptations, as well. There lies Jayson Blair’s shortcut to glory.

To greater and lesser degrees, all the professions come with their high and low roads, and have similar invitations to breeches of integrity. Fortunately, nearly all of us manage not to succumb to our lowest selves.

As long as my calling’s Jayson Blairs qualify as news, we’re not in such bad shape, ironically enough. Still, those cracks in The New York Times’ facade ought to serve notice of a need to better scrutinize this edifice we call journalism, and perhaps make repairs where the structure has weakened. I suspect we’d find some chinks.

Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555 ext. 600, or editor@vaildaily.com

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