Bipolar Disorder and the Jayson Blair Scandal

How Bipolar Disorder May Have Played a Role in the Journalism Scandal

When the Jayson Blair scandal broke in 2003, many people thought, "How could he do that?" How could a bright young man have falsified or plagiarized dozens of news stories at the revered New York Times and gotten away with it for over a year?

The Jayson Blair Scandal

It was an earthquake in the journalism world. Twenty-seven-year-old Jayson Blair, who had been one of only two African-American editors in the history of the University of Maryland's Diamondback newspaper, and had been hired as a full reporter at the New York Times at an impressively young age, resigned only 6 days after first being accused of copying a story from another newspaper.

By the time the tremors stopped, two top editors of the Times had been forced to resign. 

In a 2003 interview with WCBS in New York, later shown on CBS's 60 Minutes, Blair spoke of making up quotes to substantiate material that was true but rather thin. He also spoke of then finding himself needing to make up sources for the quotes. In other words, the lies begat more lies. 

The Bipolar Disorder Diagnosis

When we learn that Jayson Blair has since been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, his behavior begins to make more sense. Mania doesn't make a person unable to tell right from wrong, to be sure, but still it is easier to understand his behavior as part of a larger bipolar profile, which can include any combination of the following characteristics:

  • Pressured speech: College classmates and professors remember him as extremely talkative, exuberant, and enthusiastic;
  • Grandiosity: There are recorded incidents during his internships where he criticized superiors inappropriately, and he often snubbed his peers, preferring the company of professors;
  • Inflated self-esteem: Throughout college and internship, Jayson had been given top assignments and preferential treatment in spite of sometimes poor performance. These experiences must have only added to his manic sense of I can do anything; I can get away with anything.
  • Thriving on danger: Plagiarizing and making up elements of his news stories might have given him an exciting sense of living dangerously or recklessly; Andy Behrman described this manic element eloquently in Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania;
  • Self-medicating: His substance abuse was undoubtedly acting as self-medication for then-undiagnosed bipolar disorder;
  • Poor judgment: And not just at the Times; classmates from the University of Maryland School of Journalism have come forward telling of serious problems during Jayson's college years as well;
  • Provocative or obnoxious behavior: During his internships, he was described as a flagrant gossip and the Boston Globe, where he interned, evaluated his behavior overall as unacceptable.

In an article about a Dateline NBC interview with Jayson Blair, Katie Couric told AP reporter David Bauder that Blair had told her that he was through lying. She also said that "Blair [had] struck her as contrite, but that she could see how he could be charmingly manipulative." Although "charmingly manipulative" is nowhere listed as a symptom of bipolar disorder, I have no doubt that this description sometimes fits any number of people at times during manic and hypomanic episodes.

The Impact of Being Undiagnosed and Untreated

Today Jayson Blair's name is cursed in the world of journalism.

In 2004, Blair published a book titled Burning Down My Master's House: My Life at the New York Times. When rumors circulated that Blair wanted to use some of his earnings from the book to fund a scholarship at the University of Maryland School of Journalism, officials there raced to deny all such stories.

According to the publisher, Blair instead looked to donate a portion of his earnings to an organization in the mental health field. While journalism turned its back on Blair and his attempts to make amends, the mental health world should attempt not to scorn. Jayson Blair has a mental illness. What he did wrong was done when the illness was undiagnosed and untreated.

It seems apparent that undiagnosed bipolar disorder had a lot to do with Blair's actions, and had anyone paid enough attention to the danger signals of his earlier behavior, he might have been diagnosed and treated in time to prevent the scandal from occurring.

Jayson Blair Today

As of 2009, Blair now works as a Certified Life Coach helping people deal with problems including living with bipolar disorder. For more, see Once Notorious, Jayson Blair Now Helps Others.

Resources

The Baltimore Sun - 2/29/04 - "The making of Jayson Blair," by David Folkenflik
The disgraced journalist's closest peers were troubled by his work and behavior while he was still a student, but no one heeded their warnings.

The Diamondback - 2/25/04 - "Blair won't donate money to Journalism," by Adam Lewis
Former student wants to fund mental health research

Jayson Blair Sells Tell-All Book - CNN.com - 9/10/03
Former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who was dismissed [in 2003] for plagiarism and fabrication, has sold his story to a Los Angeles-based publishing house.

NBC's Couric Defends Interview with Blair - 3/4/04 - by David Bauder
Even though she finds his actions "repugnant," NBC's Katie Couric defended giving prime-time exposure to former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, the serial fabricator who brought down the paper's top editors.

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