At the Mercy of Journalists

Media

Some had fairly minor complaints. Others found facts wrong, entire scenes concocted, and quotes fabricated. But the victims of Jayson Blair's transgressions whom CJR interviewed did share something: a feeling of helplessness. They either didn't bother contacting The New York Times about the errors, or gave up after their phone calls and e-mails went unanswered or after the problems went unaddressed. Their reactions to Blair's journalistic sins -- and the reasons for those reactions -- vary widely. But none of them should make The New York Times or the rest of us feel good about people's expectations of journalism these days. Here is a sampling of those sources and their reactions; all but one are from the stories the Times corrected in its Jayson Blair opus May 11.

Roger Groot, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, whom Blair profiled on Jan. 2, 2003, says the piece included a physical description and a Lexington, Virginia, dateline, although all of his interviews were by phone. Blair wrote of the "balding professor who looks like a lawyer from central casting." Groot says he is not balding. "I wasn't misquoted, but even if he had misquoted me, I probably wouldn't have called the Times," Groot said. "This happens all the time, doesn't it? It's the rule, not the exception." Groot, a well-known death-penalty opponent who recently joined the legal defense team of John Lee Malvo (the younger of the two men charged in the Washington sniper case) and is mentioned in the press frequently, says he is often misquoted.

But Groot at least talked to the reporter. Robert J. Salemo, the chief financial officer of the American Craft Museum in Manhattan (now the Museum of Arts and Design), was horrified to read that his museum was "already in serious financial trouble before Sept. 11" in the Oct. 20, 2001, edition of the Times. Since Salemo never talked to Blair, the museum's public relations officer immediately protested to the metro editor and a correction was made. The correction, which read: ". . . while lower-level staff members spoke of financial troubles that existed before September 11, the director, Holly Hotchner, says the museum's finances are strong," still left Salemo unsatisfied. He suspects that Blair got his information from a Times employee who was the husband of a museum staff member he had just fired. Salemo also notes that the full financial records of the museum are on the Internet at GuideStar.com. They show that the museum was not in financial trouble before Sept. 11. Salemo felt burned by both the story and the correction and didn't pursue his concerns further. "Jayson Blair took the pen, which is mightier than the sword, and drove it through people's hearts," he says. Later, when a Times reporter called Salemo in preparation for the long corrective article about Blair, "he asked me what I told Blair when he called. I said 'He didn't call me.' The reporter was shocked. I might have been one of the earlier calls" on the reporter's list.

For Pete Mahoney, associate athletic director at Kent State University, the shock came on Monday, Nov. 25, 2002, when his boss told him about a Times sports story from Saturday, November 23, about Division I football programs bending rules to meet the NCAA minimum-attendance requirement. Mahoney was quoted as saying he, too, would bend rules: "We are going to try it until someone tells us to stop." But Jayson Blair, he says, had only left a voice message for Mahoney the day before the story was published. They never spoke. "I was mad as hell because it made me look bad in front of my boss and the administration," Mahoney says. "If I had spoken to him, and my words were taken out of context, then I could have lived with that. But the freaking guy is a freaking liar." Mahoney says he didn't pursue the matter with the Times because "they hold the pen and have the financial resources." His boss, Athletic Director Laing Kennedy, however, did call Blair. "I asked him how a responsible newspaper could put out a story like that," Kennedy recalls. "I said, 'No one here has talked to you; who did you talk to? There are many problems in your story.' Blair was very polite. He said, 'I cannot divulge my sources.'" Kennedy pressed on and got an e-mail from Blair (see above), asking him to detail his complaints, which he did. But Kennedy never heard back. Kennedy then e-mailed William Brink, who was deputy sports editor at the time. But Kennedy sent it to the wrong address and never heard back. Kennedy gave up. Kennedy points out that the Times article was brought to his attention by the president of his college, Carol Cartwright, who chairs the NCAA executive committee. After Cartwright read the story, she left Kennedy a terse note: "This does not represent us very well." Kennedy notes that the "story was corrected in a local newspaper, but that's 100,000 readers. The Times has over one million readers. The Times is a world-class, national newspaper, and the article questioned our credibility. It hurt us. Of course it hurt us."

Gary Ahlert, the owner of a small marketing firm in Connecticut, says he was also hurt by Blair. In November 1999, he was helping the Times with information for a story on white-collar crime against individuals and small businesses and the difficulty in prosecuting the cases. Ahlert had been looking for an investment loan and found an ad for one in, oddly enough, The New York Times: "Attention Brokers. Hard Money Financing. Ivex Financial." He checked it out and it seemed legitimate. Only it wasn't. After reporting the fraud to the government and getting nowhere, he thought it would be a good story idea and contacted the Times. Apparently, the Times agreed. "There was another reporter working on the story and she had all the facts correct," Ahlert says. "But she was reassigned and Blair came on. He made appointments. He blew off appointments." Ahlert says he gave Blair boxes of evidence for the article and when he finally met him, he says Blair was "compassionate and kind." Blair's article appeared on the front of the metro section on Mar. 13, 2000. The story, which Ahlert thought would cast his business as a victim of white-collar crime, implied shady business deals on Ahlert's part and had many facts wrong, he says, such as what investments were made, and even the name of Ahlert's daughter. "Everything he wrote was fiction," Ahlert says. "He totally humiliated the business, my own business." What happened next may be equally shocking. "We just decided to let it drop," Ahlert says. "They're creating facts and we didn't want any more publicity. We were greatly embarrassed by the thing." Ahlert happens to be a former newspaper reporter, and says the incident changed him. "I used to believe in journalism," he says. "I had the highest regard for journalists. The Times can be used as toilet paper as far as I'm concerned." The Times finally made a correction on May 11, 2003, citing two inaccuracies. Ahlert contacted his attorneys and says he is considering his options, arguing that if the Times knew of Blair's behavior and didn't stop it, the newspaper should be held accountable.

Lieutenant Commander Jerry Rostad, the public affairs officer at the National Naval Medical Center, is more forgiving: "In any profession," he says, "there are a few bad apples." In a front-page story on Apr. 19, 2003, Rostad saw Blair's deceit from the dateline: Bethesda. But: "He was never here, he was never at the hospital," Rostad says. "I knew everyone who was at the base. Some reporters did try and sneak in, but they were caught." Blair's story quoted six wounded marines at the hospital, some of whom were not even staying there at the time, Rostad says. Yet he didn't complain. "There were a couple of reasons why I didn't contact the Times: One, I was above my eyeballs in responding to queries. So I had to weigh minimizing the mistakes in one paper versus fifty media requests. Two, I likened it to a business relationship or a relationship you have with a neighbor. You have to think about whether you want to complain. I didn't want to willy-nilly call the New York Times and start World War III with them." Rostad says that one of the injured marines Blair quoted falsely had his mother call the Times. "She said who she was and why she was calling," Rostad says. "She's a marine mother and they didn't respond. That was a tough pill to swallow."

Even journalists were among those who failed to notify the Times about Blair's transgressions. When Blair called Lee Gardner, editor of the Baltimore City Paper, last December about a sensitive trial that had split Baltimore, Gardner says he was helpful, giving him some information, but stipulating that his quotes were not for attribution. But then Gardner saw his name and a quote the next day in the Times. Gardner says that there were two reasons he didn't call the Times: "One, it wasn't that big a deal, and two, I think I've gotten used to everyone saying 'I was misquoted' or 'That was taken out of context.'"

Second Lieutenant Cathy L. Milhoan, a spokeswoman for the 512th Airlift Wing at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, also had polite interactions with Blair. In fact, he e-mailed her a link to the Times's Apr. 1, 2003, story in which she was quoted. Still, she says, Blair got it wrong. "I saw I was misquoted and it bothered me because I spent a lot of time explaining that particular point to him," she says. Blair quoted her as saying of the reservists who staff the military mortuary there, "They have really been taxed both logistically and emotionally." But she says that no one felt "taxed" and that it was their duty. She claims that she never uses words like "logistically." "That's not the way I speak," she says. "None of the quotes were the way I spoke them. I called him and he apologized. He said 'I'm sorry, I must have gotten that wrong.'" There was also another error in the article, which Blair agreed was incorrect. But no corrections were made until the May 11 mea culpa. Further, Milhoan says that when she reread the story she felt as if she had read it before. She had. She keeps a file of all articles about Dover Air Force Base, and found that part of Blair's article had been plagiarized from the Delaware State News. When she consulted her logs, she discovered that Blair had never been to the base. But Milhoan didn't question Blair's dateline. Despite all this, she hasn't soured on journalism. "The New York Times is still a fine newspaper," she says. "This doesn't change what I think about them or the business."

One Blair article, published on Sept. 16, 2001, that was not corrected in the May 11 piece was about a town ninety miles north of New York City. Kingston, New York, according to Blair, was struggling after an IBM plant closed there. But the plant wasn't even in that Hudson River city. It was in Ulster, a neighboring town. "Blair had started calling in July and Aug. of 2001 and I spoke to him two times," says Thomas Collins, a local real-estate agent. "He interviewed me a couple of times on the phone for a half-hour each, and I sent him to other people. I gave him leads and set up an appointment with the mayor." Then he saw the article. "I read it and I couldn't believe how he butchered us," Collins says, of Blair's descriptions of Kingston's problems with drug abuse, homelessness, and crime. "Blair never even came up here. I didn't respond. When it comes to the media, I just leave it alone. In my point of view, so much damage was already done. And I thought nobody in the world read it just a few days after the tragedy of Sept. 11." The story ran with a Kingston, New York, dateline and opens with this scene: "The weed-strewn parking lots and abandoned houses became a common sight here . . . ."

James Maloney, the Ulster tax assessor, left two voice-mail messages for Blair about two factual errors in the article. Maloney says that on occasion, he has contacted newspapers about errors. "But no one has ever run a correction," he says.

Adeel Hassan is an assistant editor at CJR.

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