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Gary Younge
The man who took the New York Times for a ride

As I raise my eyebrows, Blair senses a race to the punchline. "I'm not going to tell my bad joke," he says but, with the minimum of encouragement, he does: "Maybe my first fiction book could be a compilation of my last few New York Times stories."

Around this time last year, Blair's interpretation of the difference between fact and fiction was no laughing matter. For most, it still isn't. Following a complaint from the San Antonio Express-News in Texas that Blair had plagiarised one of its stories, an internal New York Times investigation into his work revealed a litany of deception and inaccuracies relating to half the articles he had written between October 2002 and April 2003. "I started with attempts to garner the truth," he says, "and then just started cutting corners when I couldn't get the truth."

Before long, Blair had cut so many corners, he had reshaped the very notion of journalism into a pattern of pure fantasy. He described scenes he had never seen, invented quotes from people he had never spoken to, assured his editors he was in several different states at different times when he almost never left his flat in Brooklyn.

His resignation on May 1 last year was followed 10 days later by a mammoth correction of almost 14,000 words, spanning four broadsheet pages of the New York Times. "The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper," read the first paragraph of the front-page story. "His tools of deceit were a cellphone and a laptop computer." Over the next month, the paper slowly imploded under the weight of institutional rancour and individual animus. Pulitzer prize-winning writer Rick Bragg resigned after admitting that an unpaid assistant had done virtually all of the reporting for a story on oyster fishers in Florida for which he took full credit. It also emerged that the paper's bioterrorism expert, Judith Miller, had relied on the Pentagon's favourite Iraqi, Ahmad Chalabi, for her stories on weapons of mass destruction, and was accused of having toed their line uncritically.

Attention soon turned to the management style of executive editor Howell Raines. At a staff meeting at the Astor Plaza Theatre, near the Times offices, to discuss the crisis with staff, Joe Sexton, a deputy editor of the Metro section, said, "I believe that at a deep level you guys have lost the confidence of many parts of the newsroom ... I do not feel a sense of trust and reassurance that judgments are properly made. People feel less led than bullied."

Business reporter Alex Berenson asked Raines if he had considered resigning. Raines said no - or at least not unless he was asked to do so by the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr, who was sitting next to him. Sulzberger said he would not accept the resignation even if it were offered. Three weeks later, Raines, as well as his deputy, managing editor Gerald Boyd, had gone. Blair had set off a train of events that would claim two of the biggest scalps in American journalism.

Standing at 5ft 2in and only 27 years old, Jayson Blair looks altogether too small and too young to have triggered such an earthquake. He's never more than five minutes away from a giggle and 15 from a huge foghorn of a laugh. You are left with the impression that he's barely got started with adulthood, yet the first line of his obituary may have already been written. "It's never anything I intended, expected or wanted," he says of the calamity that befell the Times. "I view what happened as a personal self-destruction and personal crisis for me that blew up into something that was much bigger than my personal, individual story. And I wish it was something that could have happened in private. I wish I was in a profession where it would never have made the news."

It is difficult to know where to start with Blair's personal crises. There was the sexual abuse as a child that is referred to several times in the book but is never fully explained. "I cut out that chapter," he says. "It was a family decision. It deals with people who are still around." Then there is the drink and drugs. At times, his story reads more like that of a Fleet Street hack in the 1970s than a young journalist in the far more sober world of American journalism today. Blair bounced from bar to bar, scoring cocaine, snogging colleagues, abusing the company car and coming in to work wrecked or high as though he had only days to live. "I did coke when I was sad and then I needed alcohol to go to sleep," he explains. "There was no fun about it. Towards the end, it was maintenance of life. I had to have the bottle of scotch in the apartment to make it to sleep at night, then I had to have the cocaine so I could make it through the day."

Rehab cured the abuse. But the abuse, he now believes, was a form of self-medication to cure his undiagnosed manic depression. With drugs and booze out of the way, the mania took over. "For the first six months, I was just focused hard on keeping sober and not doing any drugs, and the fact that I felt like shit didn't matter so long as I was going to my meetings and my outpatient programme. Then I reached this plateau. Without the self-medication and the therapy, mental illness just whupped my arse."

And then the descent into deception began. Not a headlong freefall, but a slow, steady slide - a degradation by increments. The first few slips are explicable, if not justifiable. But his lies had an exponential quality - each one, once he had got away with it, simply created more space for, and less ethical angst about, the next. "It starts with you needing just one quote. It's in AP [the wire service used by most US newspapers]. Then you read something and rewrite the whole thing off the wires. Then a story breaks really, really late and I don't want to go back, so I call my sources and ask if it's true and then ask them to give me some facts that nobody else has and then I write it. But I'm not there and I say I am. So that's the trick there. And I don't give credit to the Washington Post, which broke the story. So I'm blurring the lines, more and more and more and more."

Soon, there is no saying where the line is at all. With the boundary between fantasy and reality breached, he just cannot stop. In a desire to look as though its reporters were not just all over a story, but all over the country, the Times paid particular attention to datelines and employed freelancers to help reporters on stories on the ground. This, alleges Blair, led to a practice known as the "toe-touch", which he defines as "a popular and sanctioned way at the newspaper to get a dateline on a story by reporting and writing it in one location, and then flying in simply so you could put the name of the city where the news was happening at the top of the story". A committee set up to review the paper's practices in the wake of the Blair scandal recommended that reporters "skip the trip" and settle for a "stale dateline" when the "toe-touch" serves only to justify a dateline artificially beneath the byline.

Working on the Washington sniper case, Blair got a call to make one such trip. "After making all these back and forth trips, I got another call to go down and I just didn't want to go. I thought, I'll call the AP correspondent, I'll call my sources, I've got a stringer there who's working for me, so what does it matter if I'm there? He's in the courtroom. Then it becomes, what does it matter so long as the AP guy's in the courtroom? And finally, what does it matter if anyone's in the courtroom? By then, you're into fiction."

At times, it seems as if he almost wanted to get caught. "At the time, I would have told you that, as soon as I felt better, I was going to get back out on the road. My doctors believe that I was really crying out for help. It's hard to say, because I don't have enough time away from it. But by the end I was out of touch with reality."

Reality got back in touch with Blair in the most brutal fashion. As the net closed in around his deceptions, he became increasingly desperate. He was chasing his tail, lying to back up the lies he had already told. At one stage, he got up from his table at a cafe in Greenwich Village and went into the toilets, mumbling, "Dead man walking." In the toilet, he tied his belt around his neck as though to kill himself, took a look at the metal hinge up above, and then relented. "That was the moment," he recalls of the time he realised he had to come clean and face the music. "I thought, I'm lying to people who care about me. They wanted to know the truth, but they also wanted what was best for me. I realised I was fighting at that point to hold on to something that I lost a long, long time ago. Having that weight lifted off me was probably the happiest moment in the entire thing."

Blair counts one of his most serious character flaws that contributed to the scandal as his willingness to please. As failings go, there are far worse, but it does not take long to see his point. His first words to me are, "Can I help you with that?" as I ineptly juggle my bag, his new book, a tape recorder and batteries while trying to shake his hand. He banters with the waiter. When I order the lobster club sandwich, he says, "Good call, go for it." When he goes for his coat, I go to the loo. When I come out, he is engrossed in conversation with the cloakroom attendant, who is showing him a room in the restaurant he never knew was there.

If he really wanted to please a lot of people, however, he would have swapped his raucous laugh for a hangdog expression to prove that he has learned the humility to accompany his humiliation. When it comes to Jayson Blair, people do not just want to hear remorse, they want to see it. To many, including several of his former colleagues, his tales of sexual abuse, addiction and mental health problems are little more than flight from responsibility for his actions. If there is a blurred line between fact and fiction in the case of Blair, then there might be an equally fuzzy one between explanations and excuses.

On this, he is clear. "It's deadly dangerous, because however much I say explanation, people will interpret it as an excuse. The reasons for my actions are my own bad choices. Bottom line. Was my judgment impaired? Yes. Did mental illness and substance abuse and the pressures of the job affect my choices? Yes. Were my character flaws the key reason why things went wrong? Yes. I made bad choices. It would be a disservice to anyone who has been through sexual abuse or substance abuse and come through it OK to say otherwise. There are people who go through much more difficult things and make much better choices."

It is about as complete a statement of individual responsibility as you can get. The trouble is, he is still only five minutes from his next giggle. He can sound penitent, but he refuses to look pathetic. There are times when it sounds like he just might break out into a Gloria Gaynor track. "There's an inherent piece of me that loves beating the odds," he says. "Some people fall into the abyss or the deep, dark hole and get shunned there and can't fight any more. But that's the fight I was born for.

"I'm 27 years old. I can live two more lifetimes on top of this one. This is not the end of it. The important part for me isn't what the public view of me is, but what good can I actually do and what do my friends and family think of me, what do I think of myself. If the public or the media want to bury me as Jayson Blair the fabricator, that's perfectly fine. The important part is to take this opportunity I've been given and make the most of it."

Others would have disappeared. Within a year, however, Blair has a book coming out, Burning Down My Masters' House, and is holding forth on the ethics of journalism. "It's an innate part of my personality that I didn't consider for a moment the idea that I wouldn't share my own story. That shouldn't be misinterpreted as me not being ashamed. But I just don't believe that because you're ashamed about something, you don't have the right to speak. I think it would have been cowardly to crawl into a hole and not share the lessons that people could learn from my situation simply because it was going to cause discomfort for me. This whole process has been measurably more uncomfortable for me because I have chosen to speak."

One of the lessons he thinks we should learn is that journalists are not mini-gods and the American public should be far more sceptical and questioning about the role of the media. "In some ways my scandal could do for journalism what Watergate did to the presidency. It shows that there should be controls, there should be ombudsmen at papers ... It's not exactly what I wanted my lasting legacy to be, but the part of my brain that puts critical analysis to it says it's true."

One of the lessons he thinks should not be drawn from the scandal is that affirmative action does not work. "I have yet to see one example where racial preferences or affirmative action played any role in my rise or my fall," he says. "I think more than race, at the Times class plays a role. A lot of the power is consolidated with heiresses and Ivy League grads who were in secret societies together and socialise in the same circle. It's very hard to break into those groups."

All good points, but none of them is best represented by Jayson Blair. Tackling his credibility deficit will take a long time, he says, and right now he is happy to be sober and sane. "Dealing with the mental health issues is the real struggle right now. We're still working on the right medication. The right combination. I feel immensely better. I haven't had bouts of psychosis or extreme mania. I've dealt with some rough depressions, but it's better than it was being out of control."

In the meantime, there is the book to promote and the inevitable brickbats that will come from all angles as he and his former colleagues relive the trauma. On February 23, the New York Times's new executive editor, Bill Keller, issued a memo to staff about its release. "The book pretends to be a mea culpa," he writes, "but ends up spewing imaginary blame in all directions. Some of you may find the smears hurt, even if they are utterly lacking in credibility."

"Redemption comes a long, long way down the road," admits Blair. "It needs a lot of work. I think the book is the beginning of the process. But it may only enhance that pariah status. I have no idea how it's going to pan out. It's just the truth."

Read extracts from Jayson Blair's book

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