Maryland alumni say school ignored concerns about Blair

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — A group of 30 former student journalists at the University of Maryland says disgraced reporter Jayson Blair wrote questionable articles and manipulated his mentors while on campus in the mid-1990s — just as he did at The New York Times before resigning this spring.

In a memo to university officials, alumni from the Diamondback, the independent undergraduate newspaper, faulted the Merrill School of Journalism and board members of the paper's parent company, Maryland Media, for ignoring questions they had raised about Blair's work.

"Maybe we didn't speak out enough back then and regret that," said Jon Solomon, sports editor when Blair was editor in chief from 1996-1997. "There were concerns we wanted to put on the record with Maryland Media and the journalism school that we didn't six, seven years ago."

On four occasions, the alumni said, flaws in Blair's campus reporting and management smacked of the kind of fabrications, plagiarism and unaccountability that stained his work in scores of stories for The Times.

The letter alleges:

• In 1997, Blair wrote and edited stories that strongly and inaccurately implied that a Maryland student died of a cocaine overdose. After Blair's tenure ended, the newspaper apologized to the student's family.

• As editor, Blair kept the paper's finances secret and withheld earned pay from reporters and editors.

• Blair disappeared for long stretches while editor, at one point claiming to have been almost killed by a gas leak. Other editors said they confirmed his on-campus apartment did not have a gas stove.

The group sent the letter to Thomas Kunkel, dean of the Merrill College of Journalism, associate dean Christopher Callahan, and Ivan Penn, a Baltimore Sun reporter and former Diamondback editor who is board chairman of Maryland Media.

Copies also were sent to University of Maryland President C.D. Mote Jr. and to William Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland.

"It's very clear to me that these young men and women care a great deal about the college, and the Diamondback, and about how things were handled when Jayson was here," Kunkel said Friday.

Penn said some of the concerns cited in the letter were not brought to his attention as a volunteer board member at the time. Others, he said, involved small-scale disputes not unique to Blair.

"I'm neither a defender nor a supporter of Jayson Blair," Penn said. "But some of this feels like piling on."

Callahan, the associate dean, has been faulted by some former Diamondback editors for vigorously supporting Blair for internships and for the job as the student paper's chief editor, even though peers preferred a rival candidate.

Much of Blair's journalistic experience occurred at other outlets, including the campus-run Capital News Service.

"I thought he was by far the better candidate," Callahan said. "I supported him in various internships, much like we support people whom we think are good, strong young journalists."

Solomon, who drafted the memo, and two other former Diamondback editors who signed it, said the effort was intended to improve the way the college and the newspaper function. They also said they had not wanted the memo, first disclosed by the student paper, to become public.

"We care about the paper, we care about the journalism department and we care about the school," said Seth Emerson, a sports reporter at the Albany (Ga.) Herald who was the Diamondback's sports editor in 1997-1998.

The memo cited "a culture inside the College of Journalism that fostered the belief that speaking out could hurt internship possibilities and career hopes."

The alumni also wrote, "We represent a portion of your public, and some of our faith in you has been lost. Please help restore that mutual trust."

Blair quit The Times on May 1. Scores of his articles have proved to be riddled with fabricated quotes and observations, plagiarized passages and inaccurate statements. The scandal led to the resignations of The Times' two top editors.

The journalism school hired a wire-service editor to review the approximately two dozen articles Blair wrote for the Capital News Service for accuracy and integrity.

Student journalists at the Diamondback are conducting the same kind of examination.