To Tell You the Truth

As the journalism world feeds on its own frenzy, SARAH HEPOLA confronts an intimate past with exposed Times fabricator Jayson Blair, and her own history of exaggeration.

I met Jayson Blair once last summer. At a Times party where I knew but a handful of people, Jayson was a blessed ally. He introduced me to his colleagues, talked me up in front of the important ones, even bummed a few cigarettes on my behalf. We lost hours at the bar, talking about the things we had in common. He was a twenty-something reporter, like me. He was short, like me. He had a loud laugh, like me. He had given up drinking, fearing it had begun to compromise his work. I’d done the same thing two years prior, after a string of forgotten nights left me stuttering excuses and half-truths to everyone I knew—where I’d been the night before, why I was late with the story, where I’d spent the money. I was sober for a year and a half, but lately, I’ve taken to six-beers-in-a-bar kind of nights like this, dark and loud and lovely.

‘You want another drink?’ Jayson would ask, disappearing to the bar and returning with another. He did this gleefully, as if I were drinking for both of us.

A few months later, when I saw Jayson’s byline on the front page of the Times, I glowed. ‘Hey, that’s my friend!’ I told anyone within earshot. He was covering the Washington sniper, the war in Iraq, the big stuff. This Sunday, as I poured my coffee, my best friend looked up from reading the Times. ‘Is this the Jayson you know?’ she asked.

‘Probably,’ I said proudly. ‘He’s been on the front page a lot.’

Then she flashed the headline: ‘Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception.’

I sat down with a thunk.

His deceit is breathtaking. Quotes from people he never interviewed. Dispatches from cities he never visited. Phrases cribbed from other publications and wire services, descriptions inspired by photographs and television footage. ‘The Times journalists have so far uncovered new problems in at least 36 of the 73 articles Mr. Blair wrote since he started getting national reporting assignments last October,’ reads the paper’s apology, a stunning two-page spread of his misconduct.

Christ. What had he done?

* * *

The night we met, Jayson and I talked about liars. We were discussing a guy we both knew, a reporter who had changed his name after a series of early-career mistakes. ‘I just think he’s a liar,’ I said. Jayson defended him, enumerated his good qualities. The truth is, the guy’s all right, and I hardly knew him to begin with, but I was too emboldened by alcohol to back down. ‘Once a liar, always a liar.’

It’s funny that I should say such things to Jayson Blair, whose betrayal marks what the Times calls ‘a low-point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.’ But to me, it’s funny I should say such things at all. I have often joked about my own childhood compulsion toward lying. In fifth grade, addicted to the TV show Fame, I told my classmates I had been accepted to New York’s High School for Performing Arts. I lied about where my family ate dinner and where I bought my jeans. The lying became so frequent that, like all great liars, I began to believe myself. Was I really related to Bluebeard the pirate? Did I really meet Duran Duran? The lies became elaborate and tough to account for, and I became so exhausted that in eighth grade, I adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward my own bullshit. But the old habits crept back, like when I began to drink, too heavily, in a family that frowned upon such behavior, or in a profession that encouraged it.

‘I don’t trust the guy, is all,’ I told Jayson, continuing my tirade and draining another beer.

I can’t remember exactly how Jayson responded. Did he admit his own struggles at the Times? By that summer, superiors had warned him to shape up or else. I don’t think he mentioned it, but if he had, I would have been all sympathy. In four years as a reporter, I had racked up enough embarrassing mistakes to still wrest me from sleep, and I often wondered if my tendency toward hyperbole, so evident at cocktail parties, didn’t seep into my own writing. Not on purpose, of course, but bit by bit, when I wasn’t looking, when I was desperate to make a deadline, when I was staring at a computer screen so blank that finishing a story felt akin to shoving a bowling ball up my nose. That’s when the urge sets in to nudge things a little—push a quote in one direction, nip and tuck, give the thing a nice dramatic arc. I was raised not on hard news, but on Vanity Fair articles and movies. I wanted a slick ending, a killer quote. Also, I wanted praise.

Only on rare and drunken occasions have I spoken about this with other journalists. More often, we complain about the journalists who make us look bad. The Pulitzer Prize winner who invented interview subjects: You can’t do that! The memoirist who invented a false and terrible childhood: That’s not right! And Stephen Glass, oh Stephen Glass, who invented just about everything else. But many of us dart around in the gray areas, invoking artistic license when it’s convenient, streamlining quotes and events, leaving out certain details, embellishing others. It’s not egregious, but it’s not always right.

When I hear stories from non-journalists who were misquoted, or taken out of context in a story, I can only roll my eyes. Journalists—you can’t trust them. The journalistic imperative, in the words of the Times, is ‘the simple truth,’ but too many of us abandoned that long ago like an old party joke. Ha, the simple truth—I’ve heard that one before. And the simple truth is often at odds with our narrative flourishes, our ability to entertain, to engage, to instruct. Those are the imperatives of Hollywood not journalism, but these days, it can be hard to tell the two apart.

Back in 1976, Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky brilliantly satirized this in Network. But, sentimental as I am, I prefer the 1987 romantic comedy Broadcast News. Writer/director James L. Brooks’s film is a critique of how the entertainment industry—with its style over substance and pandering to the lowest common denominator—was infecting network news. William Hurt plays a handsome anchorman who fakes tears for the camera in an effort to sensationalize his first news story.

‘It’s terrible what you did,’ his producer and romantic interest Holly Hunter says when she finds out. ‘You totally crossed the line.’

Hurt’s character doesn’t get it. In his mind, it’s no biggie. ‘It’s hard not to cross the line. They keep moving the little sucker, don’t they?’

That line rings even truer in an age of digital manipulation and reality TV and a thousand other ways to blur the line between fact and fiction, news and entertainment. I don’t trust much these days—not network news, not CNN, not much mainstream media at all. (I do, as a general rule, trust The New York Times.) When he won his Oscar for best documentary, Michael Moore said, ‘We live in fictitious times,’ and Bowling for Columbine is proof. Not only does it rip the veil off the hysteria and half-truths handed us by the media, but it abuses those same tools of obfuscation to push Moore’s agenda. It’s an entertaining film, a great piece of activism, but the simple truth? No way.

So I’ve been trying to stay outside the gray areas these days. I’m trying to tell the truth, in all its raggedness. But I slip up sometimes. I duck the straight and narrow. As I read over what I have written here, I wonder: Have I lied to you yet? Would I even know?

* * *

That night, Jayson and I shared a cab back to Brooklyn. I was smashed, and when he tried to kiss me, I told him I had a boyfriend. It was an easy lie. The next morning, probably agonizing over my own stupid behavior, I pounced upon his. ‘What’s the deal with Jayson?’ I asked the woman who had invited me to the party. ‘He was all over me.’

She told me Jayson was a good kid. Troubled, but trying to change.

The kindness of her response chastened me. ‘He wasn’t that bad,’ I told her. Once more, I had been dramatizing for effect.

There was another conversation I should tell you about. My memory is hazy now, so you’ll forgive me if I paraphrase. It was about drinking—or not drinking, in this case. See, it’s my belief that drinking, like lying, is about trying to bridge the gap between the person you are and the person you want to be. Sometimes it’s innocuous, but pushed to extremes, it can erode what you hold most dear. When I drank too much, I couldn’t tolerate the truth about myself—my writing or my character or my appearance. The insidiousness of alcohol is that the more you rely on it to escape, the more trapped you become. So for that reason, I always try to encourage people who are trying to quit. Because it can be hell, feeling the gulf that separates you from the person you want to be. It’s easy to slip back into old habits, maybe because living honestly is hard work. And I think Jayson appreciated what I said that night—I was too drunk to remember what I said, but it was probably nice. Something about how we were both, in our own way, struggling to be better—better people, better writers, better friends. How we were both struggling to be more honest about ourselves.

Jayson was struggling far more than I realized. The Times article reports, ‘In the final months the audacity of the deceptions grew by the week, suggesting the work of a troubled young man veering toward professional self-destruction.’ For some, Blair will be another example of journalism’s ethical erosion, or another high-hopes youngster whose ambition got the better of him. He will be a villain and a liar and a fraud. For me, he is simply a reminder, and a humbling one.