Given the chance, Macarena Hernandez might have done great things at the New York Times. With a gift for detail and musical prose, she was offered a job after working as a summer intern in 1998 and planned to take it--right up until the day that August when her father, a construction worker, was killed by an 18-wheeler. Her mother needed her, and so Hernandez went home to Texas. With no journalism jobs in sight, she began teaching English to mostly poor Mexican-American kids at her old high school. She urged them to follow their dreams.
One of her fellow interns that summer, Jayson Blair, was also talented and ambitious, and quite a bit luckier. Despite some reprimands for sloppy reporting--like missing the fact that a murder victim was not shot but strangled--he rose fast at the Times, made friends, wooed mentors and eventually got sent to Washington to join the team covering the hunt for the Beltway sniper. There he brought glory to the paper with front-page scoops that left rivals shaking their heads in wonder--and disbelief.
This spring, when he began writing about the families of soldiers who died fighting in Iraq, Blair and Hernandez crossed paths again. Now 28, she had found a job at the San Antonio Express-News; on April 18 the paper published her story about Juanita Anguiano, the mother of a missing soldier from Los Fresnos, Texas. Blair's article about Anguiano landed on the front page of the Times eight days later. Both were moving, vivid portraits of a mother's love and loss. But only one was original. "He stole her story," says Express-News editor Robert Rivard, who wrote to Howell Raines, executive editor of the New York Times, asking him to look into the matter.
Which is how it came to pass that Raines returned early from his honeymoon, Blair resigned, and the country's most prestigious newspaper found itself answering ever sharper questions about just who Jayson Blair was, how much of the material in his 700 or so Times stories over the past five years was made up and what the paper of record was going to do to correct that record. As soon as national editor Jim Roberts began calling sources in some of Blair's pieces, says Raines, "in every case ... there was an apparent falsification."
In the belief that "the proper response to bad journalism is to do good journalism," Raines assigned three editors and five reporters to re-report Blair's suspicious stories and comb through his computer files and expense accounts. The result was a 7,200-word story on last Sunday morning's front page that autopsied what it called a "low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper." According to the Times's investigation, Blair "fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He stole material from other newspapers and wire services." He described the houses of grieving parents he never visited, the nightmares of wounded soldiers who deny discussing them, the tears of people who seldom cry. "It's a huge black eye," said publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., whose family has controlled the paper since 1896.