According to The Times account, Blair relied on his cellphone, his laptop email account and remote access to the paper's digital system of unpublished photos to manufacture credible details and obscure his whereabouts to editors and colleagues. When he was supposed to be meeting with relatives of Private Jessica Lynch or officials in the Maryland sniper case, he was often sitting in New York, compiling information from second-hand sources, plagiarizing other papers' stories and "refining a book proposal."
For instance, in March Blair apparently invented a live interview with the family of a Marine scout then in Iraq. He spoke to the family at length on the phone, but the story's dateline and narrative placed him at their Maryland home, and included details like the red, white and blue pansies in the garden:
Some Times photo editors now suspect that Mr. Blair gained access to the digital photos that Doug Mills, the photographer, transmitted that night to The Times's picture department, including photos of the Gardners watching the news, as well as the flowers in their yard.
It looked like great reporting to Jim Roberts, a Times national editor who told colleagues he was pleased with Blair's work on the interview.
As he often did, Mr. Blair briefed his editors by e-mail about the progress of his reporting. "I am giving them a breather for about 30 minutes," he wrote to the national editor, Jim Roberts, at one point, referring to the Gardners. "It's amazing timing. Lots of wrenching ups and downs with all the reports of casualties."
... this reporter was demonstrating hustle and flair. [Roberts] had no reason to know that Mr. Blair was demonstrating a different sort of enterprise.
Awful, right? Well, sure. Like the article says, "Mr. Blair repeatedly violated the cardinal tenet of journalism, which is simply truth."
He was actually e-mailing from New York.
But I also hear some melodrama in the above revelation of Blair's electronically-concealed whereabouts. One-sentence paragraphs add a dramatic charge to prose, as anyone who's ever read Stephen King knows.
It is a great piece of reporting. The five Times reporters and two researchers deserve nothing but praise, as do the publisher and the senior editors, for tremendous thoroughness, great writing, candor in an embarrassing situation, and for choosing to report it all on the front page of the Sunday Times.
But there's a "Dragnet"-style current of reproach when Blair's abuses of technology are described:
His tools of deceit were a cellphone and a laptop computer -- which allowed him to blur his true whereabouts -- as well as round-the-clock access to databases of news articles from which he stole.
It's reminiscent of the tone Joe Friday used lecturing errant teens about drugs and alcohol. The tone of The Times article reveals a nagging institutional anxiety about the tools of Jayson Blair's trickery, but Blair's story is a story of bad reporting and deplorable ethics, not a cautionary tale about technology.
Digital technology and online information have become almost universal tools for journalists. The Times publishes its regional editions by delivering pages digitally to printing facilities a continent away. It's hard to imagine the two biggest recent news events, the 9/11 attacks and the war on Iraq, without amateur video footage or fractured images from embedded reporters' handheld cameras. Reporters everywhere are filing by email and editing online, or over cellphones.
Despite this paradigm shift, journalists remains instinctively wary of electronic tools. News outlets that rely too heavily on wire stories are considered inferior to those that offer firsthand reports. Few newspapers have added continuous online updates to their operations, though The Times has.
The public expects journalists to be skeptics. We want reporters on the scene and in the field. That's part of the reason that Jayson Blair let his readers, colleagues and editors down. When we hear that Times Executive Editor Howell Raines once praised Blair for "great shoe-leather reporting," it inspires us with an archetypal image. The top editor at the top paper is upholding a standard older than cell phones and more reliable than captured images off television coverage.
But information crosses organizations and state lines faster than a reporter can follow on foot or over the phone. Technology and the adoption of technology place new demands on old habits.
The Times' own account of the story includes email warnings from Blair's editors which somehow didn't surface visibly enough to jar upper management. As Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., acknowledged in Sunday's article, "Maybe this crystallizes a little that we can find better ways to build lines of communication. ..."
On May 12, The Times announced the creation of a new committee to examine its "editing system." Reliable news outlets need to rethink their processes in light of the electronic tools of journalism, not just for competitive reasons, but so that integrity can keep pace with technology. Companies cannot simply lag behind and point at the prominent missteps technology makes possible. These tools, so badly abused in this example, do not present a dire conflict between "shoe leather reporting" and exploitable shortcuts, but a natural one between change at the pace of institutions and change at the pace of life as it's lived.