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On Oct. 22, 2002, Montgomery County bus driver Conrad E. Johnson was getting ready to begin his morning route in Aspen Hill when he was shot in the abdomen. Johnson died later that day at an area hospital. Two days later, authorities arrested Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad as suspects in the region’s sniper shootings.

Authorities combed a wooded area near the Aspen Hill shooting and found ballistic evidence linking the crime to the alleged rampage of the suspects.

Most media outlets treated the story cautiously, reporting that the suspects had worked as a team in the alleged attacks. The New York Times, however, went further. For starters, the country’s paper of record cited evidence that Malvo, who was 17 at the time, had pulled the trigger not only in the Aspen Hill shooting but in others as well. That was a surprising conclusion given that Muhammad, 41 at the time, is a former Army infantryman trained in marksmanship.

But in its sniper coverage, the Times specialized in providing surprising story lines backed by provocative details. Around the time of the Johnson slaying, said the Times, Malvo may have been sucking on a grape stem. His DNA, Times reporter Jayson Blair revealed in a Dec. 22 story, had been found on a stem left at the crime scene—helping investigators compile their case against Malvo as the shooter.

It wasn’t the first time grape stems had appeared in news coverage of the case. In previous reports, the Washington Post had passed along tips from authorities about grape stems.

Blair, however, took the fruit connection to another level. “All of the evidence [investigators] have points to Mr. Malvo as the triggerman. Little if any indicates Mr. Muhammad fired a shot,” Blair wrote.

Blair threw in four other items of evidence implicating Malvo, including a surveillance videotape at a shooting site that showed someone who “appear[ed] to be Mr. Muhammad” at the wheel of an automobile. “I don’t know where in the world that comes from,” says Robert Horan, the Fairfax County, Va.’s, commonwealth’s attorney who is prosecuting Malvo.

Still, the grape-stem theory became an item of curiosity among reporters, investigators, and attorneys in the sniper case. Think of the odds: A young, impressionable boy arrives in Aspen Hill to prepare for a killing. He brings his Bushmaster rifle, ammunition, and a cluster of grapes. He eats the grapes not by plucking them one by one, but by biting them from the stem. He then carelessly leaves a saliva-coated stem at the site. Police later comb the area and retrieve the stem. Lab results come back with a DNA match.

“I guess if you’re eating a grape and leave your mouth on the stem, you’re going to leave some DNA, but what the hell does it mean in the greater scheme of things?” says Michael Arif, one of Malvo’s attorneys.

When Blair first broke his Malvo-as-triggerman story, Horan lashed out. In a press conference called specifically to address the Times story, Horan said that three of the five items of evidence cited by the Times were bogus. He declined to specify which items were false and which were true.

Since then, Horan has loosened up a touch. Along with the surveillance tape claim, he now acknowledges that the grape-stem story is hogwash. “I gave him the benefit of the doubt that he had a bad source, but it may have been worse than that. He was engaging in a little guesswork,” says the prosecutor.

After Horan denounced the Dec. 22 story, he spoke with Times national editor Jim Roberts and delivered the same message directly to the Times masthead. “I told him that his reporter has either got a bad source or he’s writing fiction,” recalls Horan.

Horan’s warning came four months before Blair would go down in a scandal that will be referenced in every analysis of the Times for years to come. Last Friday, the Times admitted that Blair’s April 26 story about a Texas woman whose son was missing in action in Iraq “incorporated passages from one published earlier by The San Antonio Express-News. The Times has been unable to determine what original reporting Mr. Blair did to produce it.”

Blair, 27, had resigned the previous day. In an interview with the Associated Press, he read from his resignation letter, which cited “recurring personal issues, which have caused me great pain….I am now seeking appropriate counseling.” (Blair did not return calls for this story. His quotes in this story come from conversations that preceded his resignation.)

In the aftermath of the San Antonio Express-News scandal, the reporter’s history of factual sloppiness has come into full public view. Over five years, the Times published 36 corrections that can be traced directly to Blair. Recent questions about Blair’s credibility, along with his frequent visits to the Page A2 corrections box, have prompted the Times to undertake a review of “other work” that he has done, according to a Times editor’s note.

Times Executive Editor Howell Raines has assigned five reporters and three editors to suss out Blair’s reporting. “When you publish what turns out to be bad journalism, the correct response is to do good journalism about the bad journalism and share the results with your readers,” says Raines.

Tracking Blair’s reporting may well require deployment of the Times’ best investigative minds. Blair’s problems appear to have extended far beyond the cut-and-paste technique that tripped him up. Raines suggests an inventory of Blair’s career misdeeds: “We’re talking about, probably, lifted quotes, inexact quotes, or maybe even made-up quotes, fake datelines—filing from a city where you are not—and other things,” says Raines.

The Times may have to retract whole swaths of Blair’s sniper package, which includes 52 stories spanning last October through April. Week by week, the Times’ coverage helped to misshape public opinion on the sniper case—a rampage of carelessness that certainly taints the U.S. media, if not the sniper jury pool.

“They pride themselves on all the news that’s fit to print. I say, in the hands of Blair, it’s all the fiction that’s fit to print,” says Horan.

The sniper courthouse beat is essentially a bunch of scoops waiting to happen. At its center stand two shadowy suspects whose strange relationship has spawned tens of thousands of words of feature copy in the Times and the Post.

All around the suspects flitter sources dying to leak: defense attorneys, legal guardians, prosecutors, and investigators from every gumshoe office in this probe-rich region.

Sorting through it all generally falls to a newspaper’s most hardened cop reporter, someone who has seen both federal and local investigators in action and always gets it right.

Blair hardly fit the profile. When he hit the ground on the sniper story, he had a résumé stacked with ho-hum stories and factual lapses. He had started at the Times as a summer intern in 1998 and had gotten his byline right into the paper—with correction appended. His first miscue came after a July 1998 piece detailing New York City Transit’s plans to buy “1,081” new rail cars; the actual number was 100.

The screwups came in many forms: Like most green reporters, Blair misspelled names and botched job titles. But as an agent of journalistic malpractice, the young reporter did much more.

• In a January 2000 piece, Blair reported that a Long Island man had allegedly shot his wife to death. She had been strangled.

• In a December 2000 piece, Blair reported that New York Gov. George Pataki had signed a law about recordkeeping for voided arrests. He had vetoed it.

• An October 2001 piece on a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden for Sept. 11 victims kicked up five separate errors in a correction. Blair:

• misstated the price of the most expensive tickets—$10,000, not $1,000.

• wrote that former President Bill Clinton had been given the hat of a fire-department official who died in the Sept. 11 attack; it was a bracelet.

• misquoted Clinton as telling the crowd, “[W]e are about mountains of courage and hearts of steel.” In fact, Clinton had said, “You’re about mountains of courage and hearts of gold…”

• misportrayed scenes from a Woody Allen film made for the event.

• stated that Bono and the Edge of the band U2 had participated in the benefit; they had canceled.

Whoppers like the benefit-concert story eventually prompted a rebuke from Times management. In April 2002, according to Raines, the Times issued Blair a formal warning saying that further errors “could lead to your separation.” Raines notes that people on the outside have wondered why Blair wasn’t fired at that point. However, says Raines, the Times’ guild contract prohibits summary dismissal for anything short of plagiarism for personnel, like Blair, working in the “intermediate reporter” program.

Still, big newspapers generally have plenty of out-to-pasture positions for factually challenged staffers. There’s always the obit desk, or an assistant-editor slot in the home section. How come Blair didn’t end up in one of these spots, where he could do less harm?

Well, you’d have to meet him, say Times staffers. During his time in New York, Blair managed to seduce not only his fellow beat reporters but also masthead titans. “He was always having drinks with the right editors,” recalls a former Times writer.

Blair practiced immersion journalism at Times HQ on West 43rd Street. He came in early and left late. In between, he gossiped. A tireless reader of his own paper, Blair always had an on-point remark about a colleague’s work, along with plenty of material to skip to other topics. “He spent way too much energy doing journalism inside the building,” says a staffer.

Colleagues, in fact, may have overlooked Blair’s poor reporting because he did such good work on internal affairs. One fellow reporter recalls that Blair often came to possess sensitive company documents. In late February, says the source, Blair brandished the paper’s “Pulitzer book,” a folder of the articles submitted by the Times for journalism’s top awards, accompanied by cover pages and all.

“It’s a document that Times reporters would rarely see, let alone have in their possession,” says a staffer.

Raines dismisses the notion that Blair had special access to memo traffic. “The early indications are that this is a person who took things, at least journalistically, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there were other things,” he says.

Blair made his newsroom allies happy with an Oct. 30 Times piece on the sniper case. The story got big play on Page A1, and for good reason: Blair wrote that U.S. Attorney for Maryland Thomas DiBiagio had interrupted a fruitful interrogation session with sniper suspect Muhammad. “State and federal investigators said today that John Muhammad had been talking to them for more than an hour on the day of his arrest in the sniper shootings…when the United States attorney for Maryland told them to deliver him to Baltimore to face federal weapons charges and forcing them to end their interrogation,” reads the story.

Blair quoted “a local law enforcement official” as saying the interrogators “were going to get a confession.” To boot, he said that DiBiagio was acting on orders from the White House to pull Muhammad away.

It looked like a brilliant feat of reporting. The next day, other major news outlets printed their own versions of the interrogation story. In seven months, the reporter had gone from a disciplinary action to a choice assignment.

Raines reports that the Times’ reprimand appeared to have worked. In May, he says, Blair enrolled in the company’s Employee Assistance Program, which provides counseling for personal problems. After completing six weeks of counseling, says Raines, Blair got his facts under control: “[A]fter that letter was delivered to Jayson, his error rate declined to 1.9 percent” over an eight-month period, from a previous high of 18 percent, says the executive editor.

In securing his sniper assignment, Blair had traded on his experience reporting in the D.C. area—as a reporter and editor for the Diamondback, the University of Maryland’s daily, as an intern in the Washington bureau of the Boston Globe, and as a freelancer for some of the Post’s zoned community publications.

Still, Blair had arrived in Maryland merely to supplement the paper’s already well-staffed sniper beat. A Nov. 3 front-page Times piece, for instance, incorporated contributions from 10 staffers. Just prior to his trip south, Blair had been working on the paper’s sports section.

But after the DiBiagio splash, Blair didn’t have to worry about his NCAA sources: In a crowded field of reporters, he’d caught fire. He became the Times’ lead sniper guy. “The pattern here is that reporters who work hard and turn in significant stories get opportunities,” says Raines.

Blair used those opportunities to deepen an identity crisis in full swing at the Post. Other news outlets during the sniper drama had reported salacious details of the sniper rampage that the Post hadn’t picked up. Although some of those scoops later turned out to be bogus, the newsroom at 15th and L Streets NW buzzed with second-guessing on how the Post could miss key parts of the biggest local story since Sept. 11.

Nothing damages Post morale quite like alien outlets treading on its turf. The paper, after all, is a regional news monster. Its Metro desk is stacked with 225 full- and part-time employees who produce thick daily sections supplemented by weekly or biweekly extras in nine counties and the District.

And so institutional pettiness appeared to drive the Post’s follow-up to Blair’s DiBiagio story. In its Oct. 31 piece, the Post wrote that Blair had it all wrong: Muhammad had said nothing useful in the interrogation. In three separate places, the story cited Blair’s account for the purpose of challenging it.

The Post’s revisionism provided an opening for Times staffers who questioned Blair’s ability to handle the hottest story in the country. Blair dismissed what he termed an “inside frag” and boasted of his experience working the cop beat in New York.

When pressed, Blair brooked no challenges to the veracity of his account. “[The Post’s] follow-up story the next day merely served to confirm the strength of our sources,” Blair told the Washington City Paper at the time.

He got cocky, too. “The Post got beat in their own back yard, and I can understand why they would have sore feelings,” he said in the same interview. The remark would later draw an admonishment from New York, according to Blair.

The truth about Muhammad’s demeanor remains locked in an interrogation room. In subsequent reporting, to be sure, the suspect has come off as a stony figure who defies probing of his alleged killing spree. “I don’t think he talked about the case at all,” says Horan. Peter Greenspun, one of Muhammad’s defense attorneys, refused to comment on his client’s conduct in the interrogation or on any of the evidence in the case. Raines says he has taken a close look at the competing accounts of the interrogation. “We dig into these things,” he says, adding that it’s impossible to know “definitively” what happened.

Siding with either version of events is ill-advised—a misjudgment to which the City Paper pleads guilty. On Nov. 8, this publication published a column that endorsed Blair’s account, even though his first sniper byline had come just five days before his DiBiagio story. Further, the column knocked the Post for its reactive reporting. “The undisputed facts…don’t reflect well on the Post,” read the column. The City Paper has apologized to the Post for the dreadful judgment.

If anyone was driven by institutional resentments, in retrospect, it was Blair. “The Washington Post was a newspaper that wouldn’t hire me,” Blair told the City Paper at the time.

The Post newsroom responded with venom to Blair’s sudden fame. One staffer recalls overhearing two colleagues chatting in the bathroom, trashing the Times upstart. They were marveling at how this cub reporter who had once filed stories for the Post’s community pullout sections could have risen so fast at the Times.

The Post’s Metro brain trust, meanwhile, was trying to figure out how seriously to take his reporting. “Being aware of what the competition is doing and reacting to it—that’s a healthy part of the process. It makes for better newspapers,” says Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao.

As time went on, though, the Post didn’t have to devote as many resources to debunking Blair’s work. After the Dec. 22 Times grape-stem story singling out Malvo as the triggerman in the sniper attacks, Fairfax prosecutor Horan did the work for the local paper of record, dismissing the Blair piece as “dead wrong.”

The Post didn’t even touch the Times’ theory. “I’m really proud of the fact that, pretty much, we still didn’t report things because other papers and media did,” says Armao.

Perhaps Posties realized what Blair and his superiors at the Times didn’t: When you overreach in covering a criminal-justice proceeding, you can get burned. Conflicting data pop up in motions, hearings, and leaks to the media.

If Blair hadn’t learned this lesson in his Big Apple reporting, he figured it out in sniper coverage. On Jan. 5, shortly after the Times’ grape-stem story, the Post came out with a piece reporting that police had found Muhammad’s fingerprints at the scene of the Oct. 9 killing of Dean Harold Meyers in Manassas.

The Post story freaked out the Times, whose reaction story was a masterpiece of cover-your-ass journalism. The very first sentence showed the lengths to which Blair would go to hold on to his triggerman story: “The task force examining the sniper attacks that left 10 dead in the Washington area has uncovered fingerprints placing one defendant, John Muhammad, at the scene of one shooting, but still have little evidence suggesting that he pulled the trigger in any of the killings…” reads the Times’ Jan. 6 account.

To keep his big scoop alive, Blair quoted the star of his sniper coverage—the anonymous law-enforcement official: “This certainly does not give us any inkling of who pulled the trigger in the Meyers shooting.”

Sniper-beat observers have questioned the authenticity of this particular Times quote. Not only does it nakedly support Blair’s contentions, but it also defies the usual sniper vernacular of local police. Investigators in the case generally refer to the locations of the attacks, such as the “Ashland shooting,” or the “Home Depot shooting.” Seldom do they use victims’ names to designate a particular attack.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of the shooting in those terms,” says Paul Ebert, the Prince William County, Va., commonwealth’s attorney who is prosecuting Muhammad. “It would be an uncommon way to refer to it—but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility.”

When the Times encountered more concrete evidence that its triggerman theory was fragile, it just ignored it. An April 6 Post story, for instance, yielded juicy details on a November interrogation of Malvo. According to the Post, Malvo discussed with investigators how the suspects decided when to shoot. “The shooter makes the decision,” Malvo said, according to the Post.

“When your friend shot, it was up to him?” asked the investigators.

Malvo said yes, the Post reported.

Blair’s April 7 reaction piece said that Malvo had refused to discuss Muhammad in the interrogation.

As Blair pursued his tendentious reporting, Post staffers learned not to panic every time the Times dropped a “scoop.”

“We took his reports with a grain of salt,” says a Post editor.

And why wouldn’t they? Blair, after all, couldn’t even ace his easy assignments.

In early March, Blair produced a profile of Fairfax County Detective June Boyle, who had played a key role in drawing out Malvo in the November interrogation. The story was just the sort of assignment that seasoned beat reporters relish, a chance to take a break from legalese and churn out a little narrative.

But first you have to get the facts right. Blair failed that test in the third paragraph of the Boyle piece: “[A] little more than six hours after walking Mr. Malvo into headquarters, Detective Boyle, a 26-year veteran of the Fairfax County Police Department, walked out with what investigators say is one of the most crucial pieces of evidence in the case: Mr. Malvo’s videotaped confession.”

No such videotape exists, according to Horan. “There is not now, nor has there ever been, a videotape of the Fairfax interrogation of Lee Boyd Malvo,” wrote Horan in an April 16 motion. Boyle did not return a call for comment.

In fairness to Blair, the existence of a videotape is a matter of some conjecture. Lawyer Arif reports that an investigator working on the defendant’s behalf believes there is a videotape. When asked about the videotape in an interview before his resignation, Blair referenced that investigator’s convictions.

“They’re hallucinating,” says Horan.

Absent a videotape, the Times’ Boyle story collapses. Here’s the piece’s finale: “One law enforcement official who has seen parts of the videotape said he was in awe of Detective Boyle’s performance. ‘To watch her is to watch a master,’ the official said.”

And if omissions count as errors, Blair’s Boyle piece adds to his dubious tally. Blair neglected to mention that FBI agent Brad Garrett had been in the room with Boyle and Malvo. Garrett is the kind of law-enforcement superstar who usually leaps into reporter’s notebooks: Prior to his involvement in the sniper case, he had garnered confessions from Mir Aimal Kasi, who went on a shooting spree outside CIA headquarters in 1993, and Ramzi Yousef, who planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

The Times has had trouble determining where Blair was in late April. On April 25, he was supposed to have been in Los Fresnos, Texas, reporting on the anguish of Juanita Anguiano, whose son was the last unaccounted-for U.S. soldier in Iraq.

After discovering that Blair’s April 26 Anguiano story contained passages nearly identical to those of the San Antonio Express-News story, a Times reporter asked Anguiano if Blair had paid her a visit. “No, no, no he didn’t come,” Anguiano told the Times.

Courthouse types are now saying essentially the same thing about Blair’s last dispatch on the sniper case. “I haven’t seen him at a hearing since late January,” says a reporter who has been on the beat.

On April 29, Blair picked up a byline covering the previous day’s court hearing on the admissibility of Malvo’s November confessions. There are some problems with the piece:

• Blair reported that the judge in the case, Jane Marum Roush, had said she would “rule quickly on arguments by Mr. Malvo’s lawyers that the police violated his rights during a six-hour interrogation last Nov. 7…”

Melissa Martin, administrative assistant at the Fairfax courthouse, says Roush said nothing that day about when she would rule on the lawyers’ arguments.

• The Times account takes a quote from Malvo’s defense: “‘Not one of Mr. Malvo’s five attorneys who had been appointed by the court to represent him was given any information about the action taken,’ Michael Arif, one of Mr. Malvo’s lawyers, said later today.”

Arif says, “I do not remember making that quote, and I definitely do not remember making it to Jayson.”

When asked about the authenticity of the Arif quote, Blair at first responded that it came out of a court motion. Then, when he was told that the piece itself identified the quote as coming from an interview, Blair said he’d check his notes. But his notes, Blair said, were at home.

• Four passages in the story, including the lead, are almost identical to parts of two AP stories published the day before. One AP account read, “Prosecutors do not dispute that Malvo, who was 17 at the time of the interrogation, asked police, ‘Do I get to see my attorneys?’ and later said, ‘My attorneys told me not to say anything to the cops until they got there.’ But they say those statements fall well short of the clear demand for a lawyer needed to stop questioning.”

Blair’s version: “Prosecutors did not dispute that Mr. Malvo asked, ‘Do I get to see my attorneys?’ and later said, ‘My attorneys told me not to say anything to the cops until they got there.’ But they said those statements fell short of the clear demand for a lawyer needed to halt questioning.”

Blair’s story on the hearing ran on the same day that the San Antonio Express-News scandal blew up. The reporter spent the day playing defense against his bosses at the Times as well as reporters seeking his comment on the Anguiano piece. Similarities between his account and the San Antonio Express-News story, he explained, had arisen from a muddled story file in which his notes commingled with previous pieces.

The next day, April 30, the City Paper asked Blair about alleged screwups in his coverage of the sniper case, including the March videotaped-confession story and the April piece on the hearing. To each question, Blair responded with quick and decisive comebacks.

To prove his due diligence on the sniper beat, Blair e-mailed the City Paper names of two other reporters. One of them, he said, had seen him at the April 28 hearing, and the other had worked for him as a stringer covering other recent hearings. When contacted, both people contradicted Blair’s contentions. “I worked a preliminary trial in mid-December, and that was the last time,” says D.C.-based freelance reporter Chris Maddaloni. “I haven’t done any of the big stuff.”

Blair insisted on the opportunity to rebut all allegations of reportorial misconduct before the City Paper questioned Times management about them. He was already fighting for his job at the paper, he explained, and another round of questions might just sink him. His resignation came the next day.

As Blair was defending indefensible journalism with Times big shots, Post staffers, it is safe to say, followed the story closely. “It is impossible to understate the weird kind of train-wreck glee that is pervading this room, now that everyone smells blood in the water…” noted a Post writer.

When it comes to correcting itself, the Times is a two-tiered institution. The correction desk at the paper is legendary for its thoroughness. Anyone who takes a look at its daily work—the paper’s Page A2 corrections box—cannot avoid the conclusion that the paper of record is serious about its job. The box picks apart every sentence of the erring reporter’s work and pointedly restates the mistakes—all of which makes for interesting reading. Compared with the Post, says Slate magazine Editor At Large Jack Shafer, “The New York Times is more responsive about being accountable about errors of fact.” (Shafer is a former editor of the City Paper.)

At a less perspicacious publication, Blair might not have acquired such a grotesque corrections archive.

Yet Blair’s sniper coverage appears to hit the paper’s mea culpa weak spot: ‘fessing up to mistakes in coverage trends. Whether it’s correspondent Walter Duranty’s brushing off the famines that killed millions in the Soviet Union in the ’30s or the late-’90s stories that overstated the U.S. espionage case against scientist Wen Ho Lee, the Times resists acknowledging that its coverage ever goes off track.

The Blair episode, though, may produce a turnabout: Raines says he has “escalated”—from six to the current eight—the number of staffers on the Blair beat. “We want to have a substantial story in the next few days,” says the executive editor, who denies that the paper has a problem with self-examination.

No probe, however, will excuse the full-system breakdown that permitted Blair to tarnish American journalism. Where were the line editors with the questions about the alleged interrogation videotape? Didn’t anyone ask how this kid parachuted into Maryland and suddenly corralled a breathtaking scoop? “There’s no system that I know of that can protect you from a reporter or editor who sets out to make up untrue things and get them into the paper,” says Raines.

Times officials also apparently didn’t do much of a background check. Blair’s tenure as editor in chief of the University of Maryland’s Diamondback in the 1996–1997 school year, for example, furnishes a question mark or two.

On Saturday, April 5, 1997, Donald Gene Castleberry was found dead at his fraternity house. In that Monday’s Diamondback, an article on which Blair shared a byline mentioned the arrest on charges of cocaine possession of a man who had been at Castleberry’s fraternity house. The article also described the death of Maryland basketball player Len Bias of a cocaine overdose in 1986. The next day, another article, not written by Blair, ran under the headline “Rumors about death circulate.” Most of the story recited speculation on campus that the death might have resulted from a cocaine overdose. On April 9, the state medical examiner’s office issued a report saying Castleberry’s death was caused by a rare heart condition.

On the subject of vetting, Raines says that Blair’s personnel file indicates that in Blair’s internship at the Globe, he was reputed to have produced “a high rate of important stories” but had “sharp elbows” that frustrated his peers. “To our surprise, he turned out to bond very effectively with the other figures,” says Raines, who notes that he occasionally stopped by Blair’s desk to talk about basketball.

Forces outside of the Times, too, kept Blair in business. There’s no shortage of eyes scrutinizing the paper of record: The New York Post, the New York Observer, the New York Press, the Daily News, the Village Voice, and New York Magazine all have media columnists.

“A lot of people in New York know him in the media community,” says Gabriel Snyder, a former media columnist for the Observer. “He’s a young journalist, and young journalists know each other.”

If they didn’t meet him on the social circuit, media reporters could find Blair on the corrections page—not the worst place for the Times watchdogs to start hunting for tips. Towering corrections often hint at a juicy back file of reportorial misconduct and blundering.

Blair’s October 2001 missive on the Sept. 11 benefit concert at Madison Square Garden, for instance, cried out for a deconstruction. Yet no one bit. “They corrected the story, and what are you gonna do, reprint their correction?” Snyder says.

Snyder won’t say if Blair was a source and says that he would never talk about any of his sources. Critics from the Voice, the New York Post, and New York Magazine say they’ve never talked to Blair. One writer does regret not noticing Blair’s tendency to get loose with the facts. “I’m more than a little mad at myself for not picking up on it,” says the writer.

Just as Blair shared gossip with his Times colleagues, he passed his tidbits along to other media outlets, including the City Paper.

For instance, after the Post was forced to take back a February front-page story on the sniper case, Blair sent along an e-mail with the following subject line: “oooooooppppps.” The missive proceeded to chide the Post’s reporting and accused the paper of “stretching.” Blair bragged that his reporting had steered him away from the story.

No list of Blair enablers, however, is complete without technology. Like many reporters in the field, Blair shuffled his communications between cell phone and e-mail. It’s possible that his editors never spoke with him over a land line, a piece of ancient technology that might have helped them ascertain whether Blair was indeed visiting Anguiano in southern Texas.

“I don’t want to get sidetracked on the technological aspect of it. Frankly, that’s not where our energies are right now,” says Raines.

As Times personnel rummage through Blair’s sniper reporting, they may be relieved to find that Malvo’s fingerprints reportedly showed up on a raisin package near an Ashland, Va., shooting.

Raisins/grapes; fingerprints/DNA; Ashland/Aspen Hill: If you’re on the Times’ sniper beat, it’s close enough. CP