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Getting Over NYT's Blair

May 23, 2003|Dana Parsons

It was already a very bad day at the office, so I went outside to walk it off. Anger Management 101: why fume in the newsroom and run the risk of killing some unsuspecting co-worker with my bare hands? Better to step outside and calm down.

Unexpectedly, my idle thoughts settled on Jayson Blair, the disgraced New York Times reporter who resigned earlier this month after being caught making up and plagiarizing details in a number of articles.

Indulge me a moment and I'll tell you why he popped onto my mental screen.

I was in a funk because work I'd just done for a column was swirling down the drain. Getting a late start on a column idea, I'd finally hit upon one around noon, but it required that I hot-foot it to Garden Grove. Once there, I interviewed a couple residents on the street where they lived and high-tailed it back to the office, knowing I'd be pushing yet another deadline.

Nothing heroic in that. Just the opposite. It's the mundane part of the job -- what we do so we can write about people.

Still, I admit to feeling some self-satisfaction. I could have thought of an idea that wouldn't require me to leave the office. I've done it many times, but, liking the Garden Grove idea, I committed to it and knew it needed in-person interviewing -- even if it would put me under the gun.

When I returned, editors told me that another reporter was on the same story. I hadn't checked that ahead of time. The editors weren't keen on both of us writing on the same subject.

Not wanting to give up yet, I made a call to the woman who was the focal point of the story but whom I hadn't interviewed earlier. If by chance my colleague hadn't talked to her, maybe she could give me something extra that would justify separate stories.

Instead, the woman's husband answered my call and said his wife was being interviewed in their home, at that very moment, by my colleague.

A minute later, I was outside, a couple wasted hours behind me and trying to think of Plan B.

And that's when Blair's face of ignominy appeared before me.

I reflected on my colleague and thought about what Blair would do under similar time constraints. From what we've read about him, he would have made something up. Complete with nice detail and ahead of deadline, it would be a nice piece of fraudulence.

I pictured my colleague, also pushing a deadline, but sitting in the living room and interviewing the woman. A phone interview would have saved time. But she went to her home for a face-to-face interview, no doubt enhancing the story.

What would Jayson Blair have done? He probably would have gone to a movie and lied to his editor about being unable to reach the woman.

What my colleague and I did at work Thursday is what journalists in every newsroom in America do, every day. Just the nuts-and-bolts of journalism.

That's why what Blair did should repulse every reporter who ever got a bum address but still tried to find a house on a dark night. Or who knocked on a door for a comment, knowing that the person behind it might bite his head off. Or who made the follow-up phone calls to avert a mistake.

That's what we do. That's what we're taught in journalism school. Ask the extra question. Make the tough call. Get it right.

Of course we make mistakes. Sometimes of our own doing, sometimes the result of incorrect information from others.

Jayson Blair isn't one of us. We don't make stuff up. We don't conduct phantom interviews or conjure phony images of places we haven't been.

I got over my office snit soon enough. Getting over what Jayson Blair did to reporters' reputations will take a lot longer.

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at or at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.

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