NYT untrue: My brush with Jayson Blair

I'm always morbidly fascinated by the Janet Cookes and Stephen Glasses of the world, those clearly gifted journalists who, for whatever mix of reasons, turn to lying and plagiarism in order to make their stories sexier, shine brighter than more truthful colleagues, or scoop the competition.

I bring a special fascination to the Jayson Blair saga, however, because of a phone call five years ago. Blair is the former New York Times reporter who, it was revealed on April 30, had invented parts of his stories, stolen others' work, and claimed to be reporting from such places as Texas and West Virginia when he was actually at home in Brooklyn, employing his cell phone and laptop in ever more creative ways.

Blair called me on July 7, 1998, and said he'd found my name and phone number on a web page devoted to the murders of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans in the Shenandoah National Park in May 1996. I had posted a message on the website, fred.net/kathy/at/thoughts.html, saying that I was writing an article on the murders for C-Ville and asking people who knew Julie or Lollie, if they were willing, to contact me.

Blair told me he'd covered the story when he was with the Boston Globe, and wondered if I would be interested in collaborating on something. Whether or not the word "book" was used, that was clearly what he meant. I was so amazed that a New York Times reporter was asking me such a question that I automatically said yes.

We discussed the murders, and he mentioned something that I wanted to include in my article. We agreed to talk again and hung up.

I never could get him to respond to my messages, though, and became so frustrated in my attempts that, by the time I gave up, I was thoroughly disgusted. In the years that followed, whenever I thought about him, it was, frankly, with the hope that he was reporting from the Staten Island obituary desk. Instead, this past fall I had to suffer through news that he had scooped the Washington Post in its coverage of the sniper case.

When the story of his real activities broke, I did my own investigation to see whether he'd actually covered the murders near the Appalachian Trail. He had indeed, during his summer as an intern in the Globe's Washington bureau.

But what inspired him, two years later, to read through the website, call a small-town reporter, and talk about collaborating on a book? I'll never know.