Everything I Needed to Know About Journalism, I Learned from Jayson Blair
Budding journalist Matt L. Perrone recounts his real-life run-ins with Jayson Blair and Wolf Blitzer in an exploration of the cruel realities of his craft.
This year American universities cranked out what is likely to be the largest graduating class in US history. According to the Annual Surveys of Journalism and Mass Communication, enrollment in journalism programs has increased every year since 1993. In 2004, journalism schools sent over 52,000 graduates into an economy that supported only 66,000 news professionals.
I was one of those graduates.
* * *
So there I sit -- legs squeezed beneath a cafeteria table, stuffing my mouth with cake and listening to Jayson Blair explain why my college transcript, my newspaper clips, and my Bachelor's degree in Journalism are all utterly worthless.
"I understand," he says. "People tell you your whole life to get good grades and go to a good school because that's how you get ahead."
"And?" I ask
"And it's a lie," he laughs, shaking his head.
This wasn't how the week was supposed to end. Things had started as slowly as they usually do on a Monday at the Times Community Newspapers of Northern Virginia. Of course, the elevator wasn't working, so I had to plod up four flights of stairs to our office: a dry, desolate landscape of white walls, dying plants, and coffee-stained carpeting.
On my desk was a fresh stack of fliers, faxes, and press releases. One by one, I started crumpling them into little, white balls and lobbing them at the trash can. About half way through the pile, I stopped. It had to be a joke. It looked like all the other end-of-year invitations I'd received from local schools looking for newspaper coverage, except for one thing, a name: "Jayson Blair, Master of Ceremonies." And what was this for? "The Chantilly Pyramid Minority Student Achievement Awards?"
It was ridiculous. I went to my editor and asked if it was some sort of joke. Nope. As it turns out, the most disgraced newspaper reporter of the last century grew up and went to school in our area. In fact, when he was still a budding high-school journalist he had actually interned at our newspaper. The story was perfect . Here was Jayson Blair, a man who had fabricated and plagiarized dozens of stories while working for the New York Times, trying to pass himself off as some sort of role model to the students in his hometown. It was preposterous, and I would be there to set the record straight.
All week long I had Jayson Blair on the brain. As I walked in and out of the schools of Fairfax County, doing the usual interviews with retiring principals and new PTA moms, I carefully sharpened my journalistic skewer. I'd start Blair off with a softball question, something to stroke his ego a little. Then, the next question would smart just a little, like a bee sting. After that I'd toss a few more tiny darts, sharp enough to pierce the skin without drawing too much blood. Then, when I had him on the run, I'd go in for the kill with one smoldering, hot poker of a question. I would single-handedly skin the archenemy of journalism and come out of it with a hot new clip for my portfolio. It was going to be beautiful.
* * *
Everything went fine before the interview. I got to Chantilly High School's gymnasium in time to watch hundreds of moms and dads file into their seats -- each trying to pick junior out from a sea of heads.
When he arrived, Master Jayson seemed to enjoy himself, charging through a never-ending list of honorees and announcing their innumerable achievements. He shook the girls' hands and high-fived the guys; he bantered with the audience and whispered jokes to the administrators. Everyone seemed to be having a great time. No one seemed to care that this was the same Jayson Blair who only a few years ago had perpetrated the most notorious scandal in journalism's history.
By the time Blair read off the name of the final scholarship winner, I was delirious. While the parents and students made their way towards the red exit signs, I gripped my reporter's notepad and walked straight towards him.
The first thing you notice about the great monster of American journalism is that there isn't very much of him. Approaching Blair from behind, I'm shocked to find that the shyster who somehow conned his way into the New York Times is a good half-foot shorter than I am. Never mind; I take a deep breath and tap him on the shoulder.
"Mr. Blair," I begin, thinking he'll like that. "I just wanted to say you did a hell of a job up there, getting through all those names and all." Before I can tactfully introduce myself Blair's mouth is already moving. Like some weird animatronic robot, he crackles to life, waving his hands and rolling his eyes.
"Oh my God, tell me about it. I thought it would never end, and the worst were those goddamn African kids. They're up there trying to whisper to me how to pronounce their names. 'It's Ig-bock-wee' and I'm like, 'Oh, sure, like that really helps.'" Blair stops; cocking his head and eyeing me through his wire rim glasses.
"My name's Matt Perrone," I quickly explain. "I cover Chantilly for the local paper and I was wondering if we could chat for a minute." He seems pleased by the attention, and before he can launch into another monologue I toss the first dart.
"So what are you up to these days?"
He snorts, looks down for a second and comes back up wearing the biggest shit-eating grin I've ever seen.
"Looking for a job," he replies. We both chuckle, as if equally surprised by his honesty. Before I can get to my second question he goes into a mini-speech about how he wants to work in human resources, "to protect employees who find themselves in situations" like the one he fell into. I just nod my head and scribble down some words. In my research, I'd read Blair recently completed his degree -- the one he never finished at the University of Maryland -- through some online university. Human resources, great.
I manage to get in a few more questions, and each time he surprises me with a candid, matter-of-fact answer. Finally I get down to my last one, the big one, the radioactive, heat-seeking missile question I've been calibrating all week.
"Now Jayson, you have a long life ahead of you. But one day, we'll read your obituary somewhere, maybe even in the New York Times and I'm wondering what you would like it to say."
For the first time, Blair's grin deflates. He folds his arms, cocks his head, and exhales loudly.
"I cannot fathom," he begins. "I cannot imagine anything I could do, no matter how long I live, that will change that first line of my obituary. I could go on to help thousands more people than I ever would have been able to as a journalist, and it still won't make a difference.
"You see, there's this assumption that the lives of really talented people follow one arc that just goes up and up and up. But it's not true," he says looking me straight in the eye. "We all go down sometimes."
For a split second we look at each other, but before I can think of something to say, he breaks the silence.
"So you wanna go get some food?"
* * *
Moments later, I'm sitting in the school's cafeteria, talking to Jayson Blair about my journalism career over graduation cake and Kool-Aid.
"So how long have you been covering Chantilly?" the most disgraced ex-journalist of all time asks.
"Five months," I reply.
"Where were you before that?"
Now it's my turn to eat shit. I grin. I grin with that terrible pain that burns so badly that all you can do is smile and wait for it to pass.
"CNN, Washington bureau."
Jayson raises his eyebrows and lets out a long whistle. Before he can say anything I start explaining: "I got hired there as a freelancer before graduation. I worked on Wolf Blitzer Reports and Inside Politics for almost a year, waiting for them to hire me fulltime, but it never happened. I was putting in 50 hour weeks with no benefits, so finally I said 'fuck it' and came out here to be a real journalist."
Jayson nods appreciatively.
"It must be a pretty big change, going from Capitol Hill to Chantilly High School on the weekends," he says. "Where did you go to school?"
I tell him.
"Whoa," he laughs. "So you went to a good school, huh?"
"What are you talking about," I say, "You went to a good school. I mean, at least Maryland has a solid journalism department." That gets Jayson chortling. I ask him what's so funny and he leans forward, pointing his fork at me.
"The only good thing about Maryland's journalism program is that it has one or two old men who can pick up a phone and get you in the door at any newspaper on the East Coast." I take a sip of Kool-Aid.
"Yeah, I'm sure part of it is connections," I say. "But you still have to have the skills to prove you belong there. I mean, you must have had some great clips to send out when you were in college." Jayson starts chuckling again.
"Do you wanna know how I got my first internship at the Boston Globe?" he asks. "I walked into the Associate Dean's office one day and he said, 'Jayson, we want you to do this Boston Globe summer internship.' And that was it. Nobody from the Globe read my clips. Nobody even looked at my fucking clips."
I don't say anything. Jayson looks at me with an annoyed expression, like a teacher trying to explain a math problem to a slow student.
"Look," he says. "You got good grades in high school and got into a good college and wrote some articles for your school newspaper that you thought were really good, right?"
"And now you're out here, paying your dues, working a small-town beat so that you can work your way up the ladder and write for the Washington Post some day, right?"
I don't say a thing.
"Well, congratulations man, that's a pretty noble path you've chosen for yourself, but I got news for you: it's a fucking lie."
* * *
If it hadn't been for that part about the "noble path," I might have been all right. I might have never put it all together as I sat there in the cafeteria. But that one word, "noble" took me back to my last day at CNN. The day I gave up working in brand-name news and wandered off into the wilderness of "real" journalism.
"Wow, you're taking the noble route," said Kate, the producer I'd interned with, when I told her I was leaving CNN. "I took the safe and lazy TV route. In fact, I've never even had a real reporting job." This from the mouth of a 29-year-old, Emmy-award-winning documentary filmmaker.
It was like that all day. I would tell someone about my new job and they'd give me a puzzled, curious look, as if "newspaper" was the name of some tiny Eastern European republic.
By five o' clock, I'd stopped telling people anything and decided to pretend like it was just another day at the bureau. As I sat down to roll the teleprompter machine for Wolf Blitzer one last time, the man himself burst into the control room.
"Are you ready for hard news!?"
No one was. No one had ever been ready for hard news. In the end it didn't really matter though, since he wasn't asking a question. This was the ritual proclamation that Blitzer made before every show� every single day. No one was sure why he did it. It was just something he liked to do -- like a dog barking at the birds outside.
As Blitzer hovered there in the doorway, surveying his domain, I wondered if he'd notice when I wasn't there tomorrow. But, just as I knew that the sun would rise in East, I knew that tomorrow there'd be another freelancer sitting in my place and Wolf would be bursting in and asking him, "Are you ready for hard news !?"
* * *
The wise people at CNN knew my fate long before I did. They saw I was walking into a trap, but how can you save someone from a trap they've set for themselves? Even after I first pulled up to Times Community Newspaper's dull, brown office building on Reston Parkway, I still didn't understand. I managed to tell myself it was "gritty," and not "shitty." Unlike the pristine CNN bureau, this place had "character."
The signs were subtle at first: the expired phonebook holding up my monitor, the Microsoft 98 program that kept the computer running, and the antique equipment used in the photo lab. But, as I began to examine the newspaper where I now worked more closely, I noticed the wood was decayed and rotting all around. The sails were full of holes and the whole place creaked and groaned like it was about to keel over -- and it's the groaning that really got to me.
From what I can tell, there are two types that inhabit the local newsroom: the mutes and the freaks. Instead of protesting the crappiness of their situation, the mutes quietly whimper and whine their days away. A mute will never be heard complaining, because they've taken a vow to bear the burden of the job in quiet desperation. There is something admirable in this stoic approach to misery; it's almost endearing. Occasionally I try to communicate with one of them, though I'm only successful with a 24-year-old female reporter. We have a weekly, Monday-morning ritual that goes something like this:
Me: Hey, did you do anything this weekend?
Her: er... um.
Me: What was that?
Her: (sigh) I want it to be Friday.
The freaks take the opposite approach: they squirm and moan and grind their teeth, all to remind themselves that they are still alive. Strung out on caffeine and cigarettes, the freaks periodically bust into fits of hysteria that disturb the mutes -- but never enough to rouse them into action.
The queen of the freaks is a chain-smoking, pill-popping, foul-mouthed 49-year-old who sits behind me and covers news in the town of Reston. After years spent attending every meeting held by every civic, government, or volunteer association in Reston, she can crank out any meeting story in 15 minutes flat. She also has a unique ability to turn any topic, any topic, into a discussion of her abusive, alcoholic ex-husband and how he robbed her of her children, her home, and her life.
"Oh yeah, I used to cook that all the time. Of course that was when I had a family to cook for..."
"No I haven't seen that one yet. I will though. That's what you do when you're alone; you go to see movies by yourself�"
But the worst is when she gets you alone. The day the pope was buried in the Vatican, I made the mistake of joining my colleague for her second, mid-morning, pre-lunch cigarette break. I started talking about the legacy of the Holy Father and she said she was happy that he'd be remembered as the last pope. When I asked her what she meant by "last pope," she grabbed my wrist with bony fingers and leaned in.
"I'm gonna tell you something I've never told anyone else at this paper�"
"Oh God," I thought. "Here it comes. She's going to tell me she has lung cancer, or throat cancer; or lung cancer and throat cancer."
"We're living in the end times," she said. "And I know it. God puts certain people on this Earth to become aware of certain things, and after the hell I've been through in the last five years, I've come to realize that these are the end times."
* * *
Maybe she was right.
As I sit in the cafeteria, listening to Jayson Blair drone on about how he networked his way into the Times, I see the faces of all my decayed, hollowed-out fellow journalists passing before my eyes.
And for the first time I realize why I truly hate this buck-toothed, smooth-talking sociopath. Not for his journalistic sins, but for his genius -- for the truth that he was able to see. The truth that me and every other desperate journalist "paying their dues" across the globe never understood: journalism is about relationships, not writing. Like business and politics and boating and country clubs, journalism at its highest level is a game for the elite. Jayson learned to play the game without ever being taught. He was a natural, despite not having one shred of dedication to the actual craft of truth-telling.
"Hey man, I gotta get out of here,"
All of a sudden I'm back in the cafeteria. Blair is tapping his pen on the table impatiently.
"Uh, right, of course," I sputter.
"All right man it was good meeting you," Blair says getting up. "Keep in touch." I receive the patented Jayson Blair handshake, which is a combination of a high-five and a bear hug. He shoots me one last pearly grin and he's gone.
I'm alone. It's 7 o'clock on a Saturday night in Virginia, and I'm standing by myself in the middle of a high-school cafeteria. I lower myself back down to the table and try to collect my thoughts. The sun is beginning to sink into the horizon, spilling orange across the rooftops beyond the football field. Slowly, I start thumbing through the pages of my reporter's notebook, and wonder what kind of story I'm going to write tomorrow.
Ed. Note: Since penning this piece, Matt L. Perrone has moved back to the District of Columbia. He's currently covering Capitol Hill for a national medical journal.