COLLEGE PARK — Jayson Blair returned to the University of Maryland’s journalism school to discuss ethics Wednesday for the first time since his 2003 plagiarism and fabrication scandal rocked the nation, resulting in his resignation from The New York Times.
“It kills me personally that (my plagiarism and fabrication) damaged the profession,” Blair said when prompted by university lecturer Sharon O’Malley. “The part that really kills me are the people that I hurt in my personal and professional life who had done absolutely nothing wrong. I’m definitely sorry about it.”
Blair was invited by senior American studies and journalism major Shannon Gallagher as part of a project for her journalism ethics class.
“I was assigned plagiarism as my (presentation) topic, and I think that’s one of those topics that as journalists we take for granted, like ‘yeah, yeah, of course I’m not going to plagiarize,’” Gallagher said.
“Jayson Blair, who went (to the journalism school), obviously had the connection and (I thought) it would be a really good education experience to bring in someone who’s done that,” she explained. “He was in our shoes one time and of course he told himself ‘I’ll never break these ethical rules,’ and ended up (doing that).”
Throughout the question-and-answer session with students and faculty, Blair answered questions about his motives for plagiarizing, his turbulent time as editor in chief of the independent student newspaper, The Diamondback, during his college years and how his life changed post-scandal. Blair also worked for Capital News Service in its Annapolis bureau in the fall of 1995. CNS is operated by Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and also has student-staffed bureaus in College Park and Washington.
Currently working as a life coach in Centreville, Va., Blair said he initially got into journalism because he saw its healing power and ability to educate, entertain and add value to people’s lives. He also said he became conscious of his plagiarism at The New York Times when pressure and exhaustion on the job led him to take a quote from The Associated Press and pass it off as his own.
“Once you cross that ethical line again and again … it becomes a lot easier to do it,” Blair said.
He added that he always felt a sense of panic the moment he submitted his story to his editor, worrying he would be caught each time. But he said there’s probably nothing his editors could have done.
“Journalism relies on implicit trust,” Blair said. “Editors can only get so far.”
“People would love to have a bulletproof way to ferret out what I did … but people who do what I did are just like everyone else,” he said.
Blair also denied fabricating or plagiarizing during his time at The Diamondback, but acknowledged that his management style “left much to be desired.” He said he did not consciously plagiarize until he was at The New York Times.
At The Diamondback, he said his co-workers noticed his self-destructive tendencies during his tenure as editor in chief.
“I have a special gift for rubbing people the wrong way sometimes,” he said.
In 2013, The Diamondback published a three-part series that chronicled Blair’s stormy tenure as editor in chief, punctuated by what the paper said was sloppiness, carelessness, missed deadlines, “questionable ethics” and lying. He left the paper before his term was up after he published an erroneous story speculating about the cause of a student’s death. Blair never graduated from Maryland.
Carl Sessions Stepp, a professor at the journalism school who knew Blair, listened to his remarks Wednesday.
“I thought he did a good job of showing that he understood how much damage he had done and showing contrition for the people he had hurt and showing concern for trying to turn his life around and I respected him for coming, for taking everyone’s questions and answering tough questions,” Stepp said. “As to whether he was being truthful or not, I don’t know what’s inside his head, but I appreciate him being there and saying what he had to say.”
In spite of his failed journalism career and ethical violations, Blair said he has no problem finding clients in his current field and that he “look(s) at the good things that came out of it,” including being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and gaining senses of empathy and humility.
“It’s kind of easy to just see this whole thing as he was a bad person,” senior journalism major and discussion attendee Elaine Hunt said. “I thought it was really interesting how he was able to come to terms with it and separate it from himself as a person … like ‘this is where I am now in my life and it’s ok, it happens and that’s life.’”