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Sunday, March 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Jerry Large / Times staff columnist
"Look, I'm through lying," he says, but his eyes, after making contact with mine for an instant, sink toward the gray ottoman in front of his chair. Someone in an adjacent apartment turns up the volume on a piece by the minimalist composer Philip Glass. The walls distort the music, and what comes through are discordant phrases that match the discomfort I feel sitting in this room.
It is so easy to lie. I have never met Jayson Blair or been inside his apartment. Blair, you will recall, often wrote from his apartment about places he'd visited and people he'd interviewed in those places.
In a business that trades in truth and trust, lies and deceptions are deadly.
Blair has a book out now giving his version of things. I started reading it the other day, partly out of a sense of duty, partly out of prurient curiosity. But I didn't finish it.
Reading it felt like a waste of time because I couldn't believe anything it said, though I worked hard trying to read between the lines, to mine it for something real.
You shouldn't have to do that when you pick up a newspaper or magazine, and that is why journalists worry so much about liars in our midst, because they generate public distrust of what all of us do.
Someone might decide reading the news is a waste of time.
Blair has gotten most of the attention lately about lying journalists, but several other cases have come to light since he lost his job at The Times.
This month, USA Today exposed the sins of one of its stars, foreign correspondent Jack Kelley, who has been nominated five times for a Pulitzer Prize, the highest award in the business.
Though he hasn't gotten as much attention as Blair, Kelley is a much bigger fish. His work did not raise the suspicions that circled Blair from the beginning of his short career.
It was unbelievable stuff, one editor said. Really unbelievable.
He wrote a moving piece about a young Cuban woman who drowned trying to reach the United States. He'd even taken a photograph of her before she got into the boat that would later sink.
Except we now know the woman in the photo was an employee at the hotel where he stayed in Cuba, and that she is quite alive.
Kelley wrote about places he never visited, quoted people with whom he never spoke and invented people when he needed a good quotation.
Kelley apparently lifted material from other media and submitted expense accounts for his travels, including a $3,450 bill for paying an Arab journalist for assistance. The Arab journalist said he had never worked with Kelley or been paid by him.
You name the sin, and it seems Kelley committed it.
Kelley resigned in January after 21 years with USA Today, as editors began an investigation of his work, the results of which were published this month.
So far the fire at USA Today hasn't moved uphill. The two senior editors at The New York Times resigned as the Blair case developed, but no one has left USA Today but Kelley. The people who trusted him when he gave them stories that were too good to be true are still there.
The pressure to overachieve that helped create these cheats is also still there, especially at the top of American journalism.
There is a lot more pressure in all walks of life in this country today to perform more, better, faster, cheaper than there was a generation ago.
Vigilance is called for, but so is turning down the heat, because in every endeavor there are people who will look for the easiest way to the top.
People of weak character often take a path that tramples across the truth.
I wish I could have written the perfect piece about this for you, but I wasn't in the right place at the right time. And that's the truth.
Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.
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