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The case

It is difficult to pinpoint when Jayson Blair started lying in his news articles. Although in his book he refers to a September 2001 story in which he made up a day trader's surname as the first time he knowingly made details up, it appears that long before Blair had scant regard for facts and sticking to them.

What we do know is when the curtain finally came down. On the evening of Monday 28 April 2003, Blair received a call from The Times' national editor Jim Roberts asking him about similarities between a story he had written two days earlier and one written by San Antonio Express-News reporter Macarena Hernandez on 18 April. Ms Hernandez had had a work placement at The Times years earlier and had worked alongside Blair. She didn't like the fact that details in Blair' story was exactly the same as in hers. Not only that but quotes were repeated verbatim.

She made her concerns known to her editor, who fired off a letter of complaint. There was no escaping the fact that material has been taken from the San Antonio article.

"So the single mother, a teacher's aide, points to the ceiling fan he installed in her small living room. 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," reads the third paragraph of the San Antonio story. In the next: "He bought me this lamp for Mother's Day. He bought me that on Christmas, the entertainment center."

Blair picks out the exact same details in his opening paragraph: "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, the lamp for Mother's Day, the entertainment center that arrived last Christmas and all the other gifts from her only son, Edward, a 24-year-old Army mechanic."

"I wish I could talk to a mother who is in the same shoes as I am, who has her son missing in action," read Blair's third paragraph. The exact same quote had appeared in the San Antonio article eight days earlier.

The beginning of the end

All journalists steal odd details from others' stories. But by mirroring strong "colour" details from another newspaper's story and leading with them in an opening paragraph, Blair's plagiarism was so blatant that it led to Times' editors continuing to press him through numerous excuses and further lies until he could prove he had interviewed the worried mother of a missing US soldier.

At first Blair told editors he had downloaded some stories onto his laptop and must have confused them with his own notes. He told The Washington Post's media reporter Howard Kurtz the same thing when Kurtz called him on 29 April and posted a story on the paper's website shortly afterwards. It appeared in the printed paper the next day.

The Washington Post is The New York Times' great rival and Kurtz clearly relished impugning the paper's reputation for accuracy. He tied it in with a minor tale a week earlier in which another Times story had been said to have taken a quote without attributing it correctly. Similar accusations had been pitched another numerous other high-profile newspapers in recent years, he noted.

It was a small story, amounting to little more than media gossip. That was until 2 May, when Blair resigned and Kurtz started really digging.

 


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