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Updates - 12 June 2003

12 June update: Oh dear god. "Ten additional articles by Mr Blair have since been found to include misstatements or possibly borrowed passages, or quotations that have been denied by the speaker to whom they were attributed." That appeared in today's NYT.

And it has listed in full these terrible "mistakes" that Jayson Blair has made.

When the NYT first published its huge 7,500 words birch-thrashing article about Blair and then went on to excruciatingly list all the mistakes as well as links to every story he had written for the paper, no doubt the managers thought they were doing a good and brave thing.

Journalistically, however, they made the self-same mistake they made in hiring, promoting and putting up with Mr Blair himself. Now, the bastion of American journalism has to take seriously every complaint made against a Blair story. And worse - to print it as if fact.

So what? Take this example: "Silicon Valley Investors Cool to Silicon Alley - March 16, 2001: In this article about the struggles of Internet entrepreneurs in obtaining funds,Mr. Blair quoted Benjamin I. Goldhagen, founder and former chief executive of Redtop, as saying, 'The way races work, is that sometime along the way it's going to be painful. But you just have to say that "it's O.K., it's painful, but you got to keep going to finish the race." But this is nearly impossible.' Mr. Goldhagen said that he did not say 'But this is nearly impossible'."

Here we have a man claiming he never said five words from a conversation he had over two years ago. Fine, you say, because Blair is a know falsifier. But all journalists (I'm one myself) know that people's memory does not work like that. They say something but when they read it, it doesn't fit right. That's because what you say and what it looks like when written down are two totally different things.

Journalists regularly rewrite quotes - for the person that said them's benefit. If you transcribe what people actually say, in print it makes them look simple because the written word is extremely precise and spoken language is far more complex and freeform. (This is why it is also almost impossible to convey when someone is telling you something in a sly manner, or with a grin, or sarcastically, or without really meaning it without adding details - 'he said with a wink' etc.)

Part of this odd transition from speech to print is that people often feel they would never have said something as strong as the words of the page. But if you have a tape of it or the notes, you'll find that's exactly what they did say. This happens all the time and people nearly always (correctly) give the reporter the benefit of the doubt. This is because making up quotes is dangerous and unnecessary - it is far easier to indirectly attribute quotes to people if you want to give a clearer impression of what they were actually saying but not putting into words.

Yes, Jayson Blair has been proven to be flawed in his reporting but now the NYT has put itself in the position where it almost has to print every complaint throw at it. The paper says the corrections are "quotations that have been denied by the speaker to whom they were attributed" - but note no mention of having checked them with Blair's tapes or notes.

Maybe Blair did make them up, but if you go through the list of corrections, these things are so minor (exact words and phrases, exact dates) that it would hardly have been worth his trouble. It is more likely that people have rushed back to the articles written about them by Blair and scoured them for immaterial things that they now feel aren't true.

The New York Times' original plan was to save its reputation by being open and honest from the start. That frankly naive plan has already backfired and now it is the very organ that is dragging itself through the mud. What a mess.


1 Jun 2004: A belated update on the ongoing NYT woes
12 Mar 2004: A review of the New York Times' upcoming book review
5 Mar 2004:
Jayson Blair's official site goes live; media frenzy begins; book details start coming out
4 Mar 2004: The New York Times runs a spoiler story on Jayson's book
12 Feb 2004: Misinformation campaign begins; Gerald Boyd threatens to bore with new media column
7 Dec 2003: Book details, including controversial slavery cover, released; real slave poster draws comparison
12 Nov 2003: Jayson goes quiet but Boyd goes academic and Stephen Glass makes the most of it; the Times hires an Ombudsman
13 Sep 2003: Blair book details come out, ends up with black sheep Michael Viner and a suspicious high reported advance; film said to be in making
22 Aug 2003: Blair's first foray back into journalism is still-born; his childhood however is detailed in length; Boyd fails miserably to address race issue
12 Jun 2003: It dawns on The Times that it's tell-all approach may not have been the best approach after all
5 Jun 2003: Boyd goes, leaving a lot of questions unanswered
May 2003: The start of it all