By Gary Weiss For reporters, the ultimate nightmare is the source who lies. Journalists spend a good deal of their working lives figuring out ways to test the credibility of the people who give them information without alienating them. I encountered this challenge recently when I wrote a book about a stockbroker who was, by his own admission, a skillful and effective liar (see BW Online, 5/19/03, "Using Truth to Corner a Scamster"). His name was Louis Pasciuto, and in my book Born to Steal, I described how much he enjoyed lying. He made a career out of it. He reveled in it. He enjoyed it!
Now comes Jayson Blair, the disgraced journalist who has admitted he fabricated dozens of stories for The New York Times. He made a career out of it. He reveled in it. He enjoyed it! He just told The New York Observer that he "couldn't stop laughing" when the Times corrected his made-up description of the landscape surrounding a female POW's home in West Virginia.
Journalists everywhere are shocked, horrified, and ashamed. Surely, something must be done to stop this kind of thing from happening again. A good deal of soul-searching is under way, with some news organizations forming panels to make sure the same thing won't happen in their midst.
MISSING THE POINT. Well, a little soul-searching wouldn't hurt, I guess. News organizations need to think about the bias that creeps into their coverage, the lack of expertise of their reporters, and the deficit of sophistication that permeates so much of what passes for journalism today.
But outright lying? Sorry. The committees shouldn't waste a second poring over this one. It's a red herring, just as the racial and "affirmative action" elements of this nauseating affair simply miss the point. That's because Blair wasn't a journalist at all. His interview with the Observer proved that he wasn't an overexuberant cub reporter or a poor note-taker, but rather a facile and very skilled scam artist. Kind of a cross between Jimmy Olson and Lou Pasciuto. (My efforts to contact Blair for this story were unsuccessful.)
Blair scammed his way into the Times newsroom, manipulated his way into the best assignments, and then proceeded to scam his editors and, eventually, the readers. If facts are commodities, as valuable as any goods, Blair was a counterfeiter -- deliberately generating phony stories, made-up quotes, and imagined scenes under his bylines.
WOEFULLY UNPREPARED. Pasciuto sold shares of something he called "Goldman Sacks." If the Securities & Exchange Commission is to be believed (for he denies it), Joseph Jett allegedly manufactured profits by manipulating the computer system at Kidder Peabody. Following in such footsteps, Blair sold us all a phony account of the "interrupted" interrogation of a Beltway sniper suspect. Readers of his stories in the Times were infected with his lies, just as Pascioto's lies burrowed into the minds of his victims.
Little can be done to keep yet another ingratiating fact-manufacturer like Blair from sliming his way into a newsroom. That's because it has been proven time and again that legitimate, law-abiding institutions are woefully unprepared when it comes to preventing infiltrations by scam artists -- particularly those, like Blair, who seem to be doing it for kicks.
Wall Street provides numerous examples of august (and not so august) institutions wilting before an onslaught of fraud. The spirit of Jayson Blair could be found in abundance in the dozens of boiler rooms and "chop houses" of the 1990s, which employed brokers who were very much like him -- young, charming, and immoral. Blair would have felt right at home in the "bucket shops" that only pretended to sell stocks. It would certainly have paid better.
PUBLIC FLAYING. The editors of The New York Times have found themselves in the same place as Wall Street regulators when stock fraud began to swell in the heyday of the market bubble: They simply weren't equipped to deal with criminals. (Blair hasn't been charged with any crimes.) Securities regulations are designed to deal with overexuberant brokers and brokerages that bend or even break the rules -- not brokers who sell stocks that don't exist. Editing procedures are designed to deal with sloppy and careless reporters -- not insider traders or pocketbook snatchers who deliberately make things up "to kill the journalist persona," as Blair so charmingly put it in the Observer.
By printing a four-page expose of the Blair affair on the front page of a recent Sunday edition, the editors at the Times have flayed themselves publicly in a way that no brokerage has ever done. Oh, and the Times has formed a committee. It will probably take a look at the paper's supervisory practices.
All well and good, up to a point. Journalists should continue the soul-searching. We should ponder the disease of hubris that infects so many newsrooms, which in this instance was followed, perhaps inexorably, to nemesis in the form of Jayson Blair. But I have some advice for my colleagues on 43rd Street: Don't be too upset. You're only human. You got scammed. Weiss is a senior writer for BusinessWeek based in New York