He Stole a Lot More Than My Words
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.
For nine months, the highlight of my evening was watching the Mexican soap opera “La Mentira” (The Lie) on Univision. During the days I taught English to high school sophomores and tried not to cry when my students asked me why I had left journalism. I hardly looked at the New York Times because I didn’t want to see the bylines of my three fellow interns -- Edward Wong, Winnie Hu and Jayson Blair -- and be reminded of how my life had changed when my father died.
Until last month, I didn’t think much about Jayson. I was back in journalism and feeling inspired. Even after his resignation amid the media flurry, I didn’t want to talk about him. But something happened after the Times wrote its four-page confessional. It was obvious that the conversation about Blair had taken a wrong turn.
Blair’s misdeeds are not, despite what the pundits say, about race, diversity and affirmative action. His story is that of a guy who disrespected his profession, cheated his readers and deceived his editors. Period. Any other way of looking at it lets Jayson Blair, a man who stole from me and many other journalists, off the hook.
I am Blair’s latest victim, but I am also a product of the same program that supposedly “created” him. And I resent that his crimes will now make suspects of journalists of color across the country. If the New York Times was sincerely committed to diversity, Blair’s editors would have chopped off his fingers at the first sign of trouble instead of helping him polish his claws. If the guy is too lazy and drunk to take his job seriously, he doesn’t deserve to work there.
Editors who hire and promote reporters solely because of the color of their skin or their surnames are admitting that their idea of diversity is only skin-deep. Still, newsrooms, which remain predominantly white, do have a social responsibility to reflect the communities they cover. If newspapers kill programs like the one Jayson and I went through because of what he did, they will increase the damage he inflicted on our profession. They will have allowed a thief to steal from the poor.
Two days before Jayson resigned -- and hours after I’d talked to the New York Times about his plagiarism -- I got a call. “You’ll never guess who this is,” a friendly voice said. I assumed he was calling to apologize, that he felt horrible for not only discrediting the profession, but also for stealing from someone he knew. Instead, he asked for a copy of my story, with the explanation that his editors had questions about a quote that one of Anguiano’s daughters had translated for him. Had he actually interviewed Anguiano, he would have known that she spoke English.
“Jayson, I have a very hard time believing that you don’t already have a copy of my story considering that your story reads exactly like mine,” I said.
“I’ve never seen your story,” he said. There wasn’t much more to discuss.
In early May, when I learned that he had resigned rather than produce receipts for a Texas trip he never took, I pictured a devastated Jayson exiled to his dirty apartment, wringing his hands and wondering how to apologize. I prayed he wasn’t all alone. Then he started talking to the media.
I haven’t heard a single note of regret for what he did to Anguiano, to his colleagues and to readers. Instead he is shopping his story around shamelessly. He says he wants his tale to help others “heal.” He says he had to kill Jayson the journalist to save Jayson the human being. He could, he says, write “a book full of anecdotes” about racism at the New York Times.
That last statement is particularly galling. It’s not that there isn’t racism in the newsrooms of America. There is. But that wasn’t what brought Jayson Blair down. And what he did has reinforced racist views, prompting some to say, “look what happens when we let them in.”