Jayson Blair says he's e-mailing me from a New York subway station, using a Blackberry—one of those portable, handheld wireless things with a built-in keyboard.
At first I'm thrilled by this detail; it'll be the perfect anecdote to kick off this story.
But then doubt hits. There are a lot of people out there who'd say I shouldn't trust him.
Blair is the fourth estate's poster boy for plagiarism, the former New York Times reporter who resigned last May after it was discovered that he had plagiarized and fabricated a front-page story about the family of a missing American soldier in Iraq.
The Times later found more: at least 36 stories he wrote as a national correspondent were found to have problems (to his credit, Blair wrote well over 600 stories in his four years at the Times). Within 10 days of Blair's resignation, the paper came out with a 14,000-word chronicle of the 27-year-old's journalistic sins, compiled after an investigation by at least seven Times reporters—the “Blair witch hunt” some Times employees called it. Blair had checked himself into a psychiatric hospital the day after his resignation and wasn't available to explain himself to investigators.
Blair was nailed for everything from misspelling names to using the Times photo archive and other reporters' work to write stories about people he'd never spoken to and places he'd never been. Somehow all this slipped by his editors. It wasn't until a reporter from San Antonio complained about the similarities between one of Blair's stories and hers that anyone suspected anything.
Two weeks after the Times ran its tell-all piece, the paper's managing editor Gerald Boyd and editor Howell Raines resigned. Some put the blame squarely on Blair; others point to institutional dysfunction at the Times, for which the two editors became the sacrificial lambs.
Blair's never denied what he did and, as he told Editor & Publisher magazine, he feels he's forfeited his right to be a journalist. Here is a young man who, in his mid-20s, found himself almost at the pinnacle of his career—journalistically you can't get much higher than The New York Times. He was reportedly making $85,000 a year at an age when most of us are making a third of that amount.
African American, Blair landed an internship at the Times as a minority college recruit. After his resignation, race was thrown into the mix, his critics alleging he wouldn't have been at the Times in the first place if he hadn't been black.
Blair argues, though, that race wasn't what got him hired: “While affirmative action may have played some role in my hiring as an intern, my qualifications were as high as any white reporter.”
His youth, he admits, might have played a role in how he handled the pressure of his job. He was only 23 when he was hired. No one bothered to check to see if he'd even graduated college. He hadn't.
Last month, Blair came out with a book, Burning Down My Master's House: My Life at the New York Times. He says he came up with the title in the month following his resignation. “I was angry about the coverage of the affirmative action issues and set out to prove that it was not true,” he said. “Part of me was on a search for excuses, hoping that racism would be one of the things I could blame it on. As I did a deep moral inventory of myself, I knew that nothing explained my actions other than my character flaws and my own weaknesses.”
The book, it ends up, isn't quite the mea culpa that the journalism world was waiting for. Instead it's largely what the subtitle promises: the ups and down, ins and outs of Blair's career at the Times. He openly admits-and describes in great detail-his addiction to drugs and alcohol, which he increasingly relied on to get him through a grueling schedule and which, he says, were masking manic depression. It's when he finally sobered up that mental illness kicked in, and by the end of the book he's barely able to leave the house, let alone catch a train or plane to the places he's supposed to be reporting from. The Times overview of Blair's fabrications shows that an overwhelming majority of his transgressions were within that time period.
I asked him to describe a moment when he had a choice—when someone else's work was up on his computer screen and he could have done a copy job or made an effort towards original reporting. He deflected that question at first—too tough to answer.
“I would have these clear moments in between these fits of mania and depression where I knew I was doing something wrong,” he finally told me, “and during those moments I would tell myself that I would hit the road [for the next assignment] once I felt better.... And then another story would come or I would descend into madness again.
“I stood at the moral crossroads with the question of asking for help... or lying, and I chose the wrong path,” he admitted.
Blair says he's currently on medication to curb his mood swings and is under a psychiatrist's care. He was on his way to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting when I caught him on the subway platform.
While Blair has received positive attention for the focus his book puts on addiction and mental illness, he's also been sufficiently demonized by the journalism world, and his name comes up in plenty of “what's the world come to” articles. The kindest review of his book and most comprehensive interview (most news outlets that reviewed his book opted not to talk to him) came from far outside the U.S.-Australia.
Edward Smith, an editor at the Denver Post, points out that Blair sent the journalism profession into a solipsistic tailspin: “The debate and self-examination his fraud set off in the news business was considerable.” Some, however, might say this came too late. Within a month of Blair's resignation, Rick Bragg, the Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer called it quits, too, after admitting he had relied on an unpaid intern to do his reporting, and last month USA Today's Jack Kelley admitted he made up some of his most compelling stories. (If you've not heard of Kelley, it's not surprising. The middle-aged reporter has garnered far, far fewer attacks than Blair, even though some have labeled his plagiarism more egregious.)
Preceding Blair was Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle, who lifted some George Carlin jokes for one of his columns (Barnicle didn't suffer much; he was handed a job as an MSNBC commentator and recently accepted a position at the Boston Herald.) Two decades ago, The Washington Post's Janet Cooke was stripped of her Pulitzer Prize when she admitted she'd made up a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict. And then there was Stephen Glass, the 24-year-old New Republic associate editor who not only fabricated entire stories but also created websites, newsletters and fake e-mail addresses to foil New Republic fact checkers. “I loved the electricity of people liking my stories,” he told 60 Minutes in an interview last spring, admitting that real-life reporting simply didn't deliver the sort of stories he could make up in his head.
Jayson Blair's one guy who sullied the reputation of one profession and one paper-granted it's one of the most public professions and most respected newspapers. If you believe his mental health compromised his work, then he offers a valid explanation for his actions; take it or leave it. Blair, however, has become less one person who made a mistake and more a phenomenon, or, more specifically, a part of a phenomenon. Perhaps the reason Glass or Barnicle weren't as vilified as Blair is because they got caught in the right place at the right time. In other words, Blair had the misfortune of getting caught around the same time lots of other big-name people were getting caught lying. Chances are, the next time you hear a respected journalist hasn't been wholly honest with readers it won't catch you by surprise. We're kind of used to it by now.
Around the same time Blair's book came out, so too did a book by David Callahan who heads the research department at Demos, a public policy think-tank. While working on a book about Harvard's class of 1949-a famously successful group of men-Callahan, was struck by how these guys responded to ongoing revelations of corporate scandal. As Callahan puts it, “[T]hey'd shake their heads in disgust... at the bloated pay packages, the gilded perks, and most of all at the pervasive lying by CEOs....
“Today's business values normalize felonious behavior,” Callahan goes on to say. “Yesterday's values were less tolerant of such behavior. To the '49ers, the corporate scandals were almost that simple.”
Callahan dredged up all he could find on cheating over the past couple decades. He found the practice to be pervasive in nearly every domain: respected historian Stephen Ambrose stole prose from a largely unknown West Coast writer; admissions officers at Princeton hacked into Yale computers to check out applicants; at state fairs, entrants lie about the weight of their livestock in order to win blue ribbons; it's become almost unheard of in professional cycling not to dope up. The product of Callahan's research is The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead. The book's unflinching thesis is this: personal ethics are being cast aside in favor of at-all-costs personal gain.
Callahan stopped by San Diego's Catfish Club political forum last month to discuss his book. He opened his talk with a laundry list of evidence of increasing deviance: Tax evasion has more than doubled in the past decade to at least a quarter of a trillion dollars; three-quarters of high school students admit they've cheated at some point; workplace theft-“everything from the proverbial box of pens to the accountant taking home $2 million,” totals $600 billion each year; lawyers over-bill their clients, and doctors over-bill their patients or give in to “bonuses” from pharmaceutical companies if they champion a particular drug.
We live in a market-driven, winner-take-all economy, Callahan argues, where the prizes for winning are increasingly greater. Beneath the winning class, he says, is the anxious class-those of us who see the winners cheating and figure that if they get away with fudging on their taxes or lying in their resume, why can't we?
“The winner-take-all economy has loaded up the rewards for those who make it into the Winning Class, and left everyone else with little security and lots of anxiety,” Callahan writes. “Inequality has also pulled us apart, weakening our faith that others follow the same rules that we do.”
Callahan says there's four reasons people obey rules: the risks of breaking a rule outweigh the benefits; people who break rules might face social scrutiny; we have our own system of values that keeps us in line; and we trust that the people who make the rules have our best interest in mind.
People cheat, he says, when gain outweighs penalties, when cheating becomes the norm or when we invent our own moral code in order to justify our actions.
“A lot of Americans have been inventing their own morality lately,” he writes. “Tens of millions of ordinary middle-class Americans routinely commit serious crimes ranging from tax evasion (a felony) to auto insurance fraud (also a felony), to cable television theft (yes, a felony as well in some states).”
While we might readily point a finger at the Enrons, WorldComs and Tycos of the world, think about it-April 15 is here. Were you completely honest on your taxes this year? What if a friend told you he'd fudged a little on his-would your opinion of him change, or would you write it off as simply what people do these days?
Evidence indicates more of this sort of minor fraud is going on now than in the past. Why? Somewhere along the line America's social contract was broken, says Callahan. Hard work no longer guarantees even basic financial security. Insecurity breeds anxiety, which is often coupled with the nagging belief that those with money lead far happier lives.
Ultimately, Callahan argues, people begin to value wealth more than they value personal integrity. And that, says University of North Carolina at Charlotte business professor Robert Giacalone, is a big mistake. Giacalone spoke last month at the University of San Diego. The title of his talk: “Grateful for Enron.”
Giacalone's basic premise is that major scandals like Enron are good for American society: They cause us to re-think our priorities.
“Envy is a terrible thing in America now,” Giacalone told me over e-mail. “People resent others for their wealth and want it for themselves.
“Now, that is silly,” he continued. “We ought to figure out why we are so shallow as to want things that really aren't very practical or necessary. Some people own islands. Who needs an island? A hundred cars?
“Fix yourself rather than acquire yourself,” he cautions; “connect rather than take; have gratitude rather than ownership. All the wealth in the world can be lost in a moment, but what is gained by pursuing good things, by helping others... is unsinkable.”
In a study released two weeks ago by Boston's Northeastern University, researchers found that corporate executives-members of the winning class Callahan describes-take home 531 times the pay of their low-rung workers. Let's do the math: for every worker bringing home a scant $23,000 a year, there's a CEO somewhere above them enjoying a fat $12.2 million.
This disparity between top and bottom is “historically unprecedented,” the Northeastern study found. It's not to say that every CEO is doing something wrong to earn his pay, but more often than not we see indications that that's the case. A story in last Sunday's New York Times described how Wal-mart, Taco Bell, Family Dollar Stores and Pep Boys will ask managers to shave hours off their employees' time cards-employees who might only be making $8 an hour as it is-in order to keep payrolls from exceeding a certain amount.
Here's a snapshot of numbers attached to corporate scandals:
* Between 1996 and 2000, Enron managed to avoid paying $625 million in taxes.
* WorldCom inflated its earnings by $11 billion in order to keep its stock price up.
* Global Crossing founder Gary Winnick sold off nearly $600 million in stock shortly before his company declared bankruptcy.
Laurie Coskey is a rabbi and a workers'-rights advocate with the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice in San Diego, a group of ministers, nuns and rabbis who intervene in labor disputes in order to get workers their fair share. A large part of ICWJ's work involves direct interaction with corporate managers who, in some cases, have violated state and national labor laws and have been less than honest with their workers.
You'd think a face-off with religious folks would get some people to change their ways. Not so, says Coskey. While there are some big companies that do good things for their communities, those that ICWJ tends to encounter can't seem to shift their focus from the bottom line to the well-being of the people they employ.
“I am still every single time waiting for someone to say, ‘Gosh, I haven't been thinking about it correctly and now it all makes sense to me,'” she said.
Coskey says ICWJ delegations have been lied to—told, for example, that one company's low-paid workers took on second jobs to have some extra fun-money lying around. In another case, a delegation was told by corporate managers that they wouldn't be able to understand the economic pressure the company was under.
“Happens that the nun who was with us had an economics degree from London,” said Coskey. “We told them, ‘Sister Justine here does have an economics degree from London and she would probably be able to grasp it.'”
Paying workers a decent salary isn't only ethical; it's in the Bible, said Coskey. “If you don't pay someone a living wage, that person will cry to God and you will incur guilt,” she said. “It should be about the fear of God and the fear, sort of, of being watched and how you behave.”
Somehow, though, religion seems to have little influence on morality these days, as Callahan points out in his book. Enron's Andrew Fastow was active in his temple. WorldCom's Bernard Ebbers “invoked God regularly in speeches and press interviews.” If religion doesn't keep people from lying and cheating, neither do watchdog agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the IRS. The SEC's 2001 annual budget is just slightly more-$422 million-than what WorldCom “loaned” Ebbers that year: $366 million.
Attempting to curb corporate fraud, in 2001, Congress passed minimum-sentencing guidelines for corporate accounting fraud. The first test case was 38-year-old Jamie Olis, former vice president at Dynergy who got a 24-year sentence for his role in a $300-million accounting scandal. Olis, the child of immigrant parents was making $162,000 annually with a $110,000 bonus. He made only $40,000 off the accounting scam. The media's favorite photo of Olis was of him and his wife walking from the courtroom, the wife carrying the couple's 6-month-old.
“I think that if one of the big bad guys got 24 years, it would be the right message,” Callahan remarked. “But slamming some mid-level player with that time sends a counterproductive message: It's that politicians have gone overboard in their crackdown when , in fact, they haven't gone far enough.”
Meanwhile, Andrew Fastow's wife Lea last week rejected a plea agreement under which she would serve five months in prison tax fraud. She could get off, or could get twice what the plea agreement offered. Her husband, meanwhile, is doing 10 years in prison. The real tragedy that's gone largely unreported by the media is that the couple has two young sons who'll, at the very least, be without one parent for the remainder of their childhood.
In a recent commentary on the 9/11 Commission hearings, author George Cohen took a hard look at the lapse of personal responsibility-taking (Richard Clarke, he pointed out, set a standard with his open apology): “We frankly do not expect our leaders, let alone one another, to act honestly or decently when the stakes or consequences are high. Our leaders regularly set a very low bar for the admission of blame or error. Every manner of excuse or equivocation has become the norm.
“When our leaders are exposed for lying, cheating and stealing,” writes Cohen, “it is handled not with apology, but with good public relations.”
Cohen drives his point home with this: “You can barely count on the fingers of one hand the instances of direct and honest apology in public life.”
I asked David Callahan whether, in discussing his book with large groups of people, he's found individuals who want to come clean and confess their own ethical breaches.
Not really, said Callahan. Rather, he's hearing from people who feel stuck in an environment where they see others behaving dishonestly. “When I was in San Diego,” he said, “some guy came up to me and was telling me how he quit a million-dollar-a-year job over ethics issues because he didn't like the way things were being done; he thought the company lacked integrity.”
For the good majority of us, we'll never be in a position where we have to choose between being honest or dissembling to ensure our company's earnings look good on paper. Maybe, though, we need to be more aware of what kind of influence those sorts of folks are having on us.
Indeed, a study last year by the Ethics Resource Center shows that employees who believe their superiors act ethically are more likely to follow that lead. Certainly the same could be said about any domain where there's a hierarchy in place. It's an obvious conclusion, but a sad commentary on personal responsibility and individual decision-making.