On Wednesday, University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism featured a panel discussion with one of the school’s most famous alumni: Jayson Blair.
Before Blair became a reporter at the New York Times in the early 2000s, he served as editor of the school’s student newspaper, The Diamondback. Ordinarily, an alumnus moving on to such an impressive job would have been something for his alma mater to crow about. But then, in May 2003, readers learned Blair had fabricated and plagiarized more than 36 articles while at the Times.
A student named Shannon Gallagher invited Blair back to campus for a journalism-ethics project. A story in The Diamondback about the visit, which was centered around an interview between him and Gallagher, says that Blair seemed “anxious” as he apologized for his mistakes that “damaged the profession” and expressed regret over the “people who I hurt … who had done absolutely nothing wrong.” Another Diamondback writer, though, mentions he was taken aback by Blair’s “good cheer” and his “breezy” tone—perhaps a product of his current profession as a life-coach in Virginia, he wrote.
Either way, Blair’s Philip Merrill homecoming felt perplexing, but also redundant. When I studied journalism there, Blair’s name was mentioned in virtually every class as a model for how not to act. Reporting classes stressed meticulousness and attention to facts; media law classes warned us about the slippery slope of libel and plagiarism. And at every turn, Blair was the (negative) example. My ethics professor taught us entire lessons on Blair’s mistakes, reminding us of the consequences if we followed his path: sitting before an ethics panel of Merrill faculty, then expulsion, then getting blacklisted from news outlets, and finally, eternal shame.
The Diamondback even ran a three-part feature in 2013 that went into extensive detail about how much Blair’s student colleagues hated his guts while he was editor of the newspaper. Some of the anecdotes are unflattering, to say the least:
He had just started writing for The Diamondback in January 1995, but he immediately took to gossiping and socializing. His distinct cackle — a cross between a hyena and Woody Woodpecker, said Tom Madigan, who worked with Blair as a sports editor and later ombudsman — became well known throughout the newsroom and journalism college.
The Diamondback report suggests that students were enlightened by learning what led Blair to plagiarize and fabricate so many stories, specifically the part about his crumbling mental health state at the time and his bipolar diagnosis after the scandal broke. But for a Philip Merrill grad, bringing Blair to speak at Maryland feels like a strange, scared straight-like PSA delivered from someone in media prison.
Blair has not yet replied to my request for comment on how the homecoming felt. One student who attended the panel commented, “Seeing his perspective on why he did it kind of opened my eyes to just how easy it is to cross the line. Everything a journalist is, it’s a lot of pressure.”
Correction: This post originally said Blair spoke on Wednesday night.