The new Stephen Glass

What I find extraordinary about the Jayson Blair story (rundown-slash-mea culpa here, if you haven’t been following this) is that you’ve got a reporter who’s supposedly travelling all over the country, filing reports from all over — and no one seems to notice that he hasn’t turned in any expense reports for airplane tickets or hotel rooms in half a year. And not only that — at the newspaper of record, it apparently doesn’t occur to his editors to ask for such proof even when they are beginning to doubt his veracity:

On April 29, toward the end of his remarkable run of deceit, Mr. Blair was summoned to the newsroom to answer accusations of plagiarism lodged by The San Antonio Express-News. The concerns centered on an article that he claimed to have written from Los Fresnos, Tex., about the anguish of a missing soldier’s mother.

In a series of tense meetings over two days, Mr. Roberts repeatedly pressed Mr. Blair for evidence that he had indeed interviewed the mother. Sitting in Mr. Roberts’s small office, the reporter produced pages of handwritten notes to allay his editor’s increasing concern.

Mr. Roberts needed more — “You’ve got to come clean with us,” he said — and zeroed in on the mother’s house in Texas. He asked Mr. Blair to describe what he had seen.

Mr. Blair did not hesitate. He told Mr. Roberts of the reddish roof on the white stucco house, of the red Jeep in the driveway, of the roses blooming in the yard. Mr. Roberts later inspected unpublished photographs of the mother’s house, which matched Mr. Blair’s descriptions in every detail.

It was not until Mr. Blair’s deceptions were uncovered that Mr. Roberts learned how the reporter could have deceived him yet again: by consulting the newspaper’s computerized photo archives.

Think about this. They’ve called the guy in, they want proof that he’s actually been where he says he’s been…but it doesn’t occur to them to ask to see a plane ticket or a credit card receipt. He describes the house, and the editor says, oh, okay then, sorry to have doubted you.

The whole story is bizarre. Blair didn’t just make up anonymous sources, like Stephen Glass — he fabricated quotes from actual people who presumably read the stories and thought to themselves, hey, I never said that. And sometimes they complained about it, and sometimes they they just shrugged it off — anyone who’s ever been interviewed for anything understands the fundamental unspoken truth of the media, which is to say, they always get it wrong somehow, and maybe this is exactly what Blair was counting on.

Speaking of Stephen Glass…the mack daddy of fictionalized journalism has written a fictionalized memoir of his days as a prevaricating reporter, and if the postmodern self-referentiality of that doesn’t make your head explode, this might: he apparently received an advance of $100,000 to make up a story about the time he spent making up stories.

I know that nobody ever said life was going to be fair, but you know…in a just society, fuckups like Stephen Glass and Bill Bennett and Jayson Blair would retreat behind a wall of shame, never to be heard from again. But contrary to what you may have heard, there are in fact second acts in American life, not to mention third and fourth and fifth acts, ad nauseum. Within a year, I’m sure we can look forward to Bill Bennett’s bestselling novel on his Struggle With Sin, and I won’t be at all surprised if, not long after, the NY Times bestseller list features the autobiography of former NY Times reporter Jayson Blair…