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He Stole a Lot More Than My Words

May 25, 2003|Macarena Hernandez | Macarena Hernandez is a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News.

SAN ANTONIO — One of the last stories Jayson Blair wrote before being unmasked as a liar and plagiarist contained these words: "Juanita Anguiano points proudly to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet in its red case and the Martha Stewart furniture out on the patio. She proudly points up to the ceiling fan."

Eight days earlier, I had written similar words about Anguiano in an article for my newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News: "So the single mother, a teacher's aide, points to the ceiling fan he installed in her small living room," I wrote. "She points to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet still in its red velvet case and the Martha Stewart patio furniture, all gifts from her first born and only son."

When I read Blair's story early on the morning of April 26, it seemed possible, barely, that Blair too had visited Anguiano, a south Texas mother whose son Edward was the last American soldier missing in action in Iraq. There was also a tiny chance she had shown him the same items she showed me. But there was a problem. The Martha Stewart patio furniture wasn't on the patio: It was in its box next to the kitchen table. I doubted that Anguiano had found the energy to haul it outside after we spoke. Also, when she pointed to her furniture and jewelry, there had been no hint of pride, only pain.

I soon concluded that Blair had stolen my work. In the process, he'd also twisted Anguiano's story, dishonoring her pain at one of the worst times in her life.

I spent much of the morning after I read Blair's story searching for a logical explanation. Maybe, I told myself, he came down here but found it difficult to navigate a region where Spanish is more valuable than English. Maybe Anguiano had only given him a short interview and he needed more. I even entertained the notion that maybe he had to rely on my story because of racism. There aren't too many blacks in south Texas: Maybe this Mexican American mother from Los Fresnos did not warm up to a black guy from Virginia.

But the stark fact was that Blair had lifted information from my story without crediting it. In this business, where honesty and trust are at the heart of everything we do, plagiarism and lies can't be ignored.

The situation was made more complicated by the fact that I knew Jayson. Five years ago, we spent three months together as New York Times interns. We were both offered jobs there at the end of the summer, but I returned to Texas instead. Now I wondered whether the pressure of being at the New York Times had proved too much for Jayson. I worried that my calling attention to his theft would cost him his job. But I also knew that if I didn't speak up, he might well get away with fraud.

Two days after Jayson's story ran on the front page of the country's most powerful newspaper, I returned to the Anguiano home. The family had just learned that Edward's body had been found. Juanita Anguiano wasn't speaking to reporters, and while we were all waiting, I bumped into a Washington Post reporter, who had also been struck by the similarities between Jayson's story and mine. I took him around to the backyard and pointed out the empty patio. "Where is the furniture?" I asked.

My editors were already preparing a letter to the Times alerting them to the situation and asking for an apology. But my encounter with the Post reporter accelerated things. A few hours later the Post's media critic, Howard Kurtz, called me for a comment, and things were rolling.

Jayson and I worked for different editors during our intern summer, but I often could hear his loud laugh from where I was sitting. I worked hard to prove myself, because in the end, even if they showed me the door, I didn't want anyone to be able to say that the only reason I had filed stories from one of the most important newsrooms in the world was because I was brown.

All four of the interns were ambitious. We wanted to be asked to stay, so we came to the paper before most of the staff reporters and left at around the time most of them were going to bed. I tried hard to latch on to big stories. I came in on my days off and traversed the streets of New York looking for stories to tell. Jayson would often stop by my cubicle to probe me about my assignments.

Of the four of us, Jayson was the one who chatted up the big bylines and editors. He encouraged editors to take him out for drinks but hardly ever invited any of the other interns to join them. Weeks into the internship, I began teasing him about his kissing up to power. But he just laughed, as if admitting to a character flaw made it forgivable.

At the end of the summer, we were all asked to stay. I left some boxes in a corner of the newsroom, pleased that I'd soon be back to unpack them. But then, a few days later, while I was visiting my parents in Texas, my father died in a car accident. Instead of going to the New York Times, I moved back in with my mother, who doesn't speak English or drive.

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