Q&A: Jayson Blair as a Sign of the Times in ‘CQ/CX’

Playwright Gabe McKinley’s latest work, “CQ/CX,” follows a young, black New York Times reporter whose duplicitous ways (read: tendencies toward plagiarism and fabrication) result in a massive scandal at the “paper of record.” Sound familiar?

The play parallels the story of Jayson Blair, the journalist who plagiarized dozens of articles throughout his career for reasons that were never simple to peg down; drug addiction, bi-polar disorder and exhaustive pressure, combined with Blair’s prismatic personality were all reportedly at play. In this case, art imitates life right down to the bone.

Yet, it took the writer nearly a decade to finally figure out how to treat Blair’s story, which, after a major book deal (for Blair) and multiple television interviews, remains perplexing. Talented, personable and successful, why did Jayson Blair lie again and again? “CQ/CX,” set to premiere off-Broadway under the direction of Tony Award Nominee David Leveaux, hopes to better illuminate the answer.

MetroFocus spoke with McKinley to learn more about his attempts to unwind Blair and his tragic moment.

Q: You were working at the New York Times at the same time as Jayson Blair. Did you ever come in contact with him? Were you there when the scandal unraveled in 2003?

A: We knew each other. He wasn’t that much older than me. I was a news assistant and I was there during the scandal. Jayson was a very gregarious, very enigmatic guy.

Q: What attracted you to Jayson Blair as a theatrical subject? And the Times as a setting?

A: At the time of the scandal I was a fledgling dramatist and I thought one day I’d like to do this as a production. But I filed it away and it took me many years to come to terms with it, partly because I had to figure out how to write a play about a news room. Watching people type is not the most interesting thing in the world. But I’ve got a passion for journalism and the Times is an intense place to work. It attracted me as an institution. My time there spanned the 2000 election, 9/11, anthrax in the mail and snipers in D.C. I was attracted to the 24-hour news cycle.

Q: Do you have a theory on what led Blair to plagiarize throughout his career? I never really understood.

A: He’s a fascinating study. While creating this work it all led back to that question. It was never just one reason with Jayson and it kept shifting, so I found it very hard to nail down. Personally, I can’t speak for the man, but probably it’s a whole bunch of different things including self-medication, cracking under pressure and failing upward. He was very young at the time, feeding the machine of the Times.

And it’s important to understand the cultural moment. The Times had just shifted during that time. They were pushing news in a different way because of the shift toward digital media. They were pushing younger writers in a way they hadn’t before. There was a cultural landscape that allowed for it to happen.

Q: The fallout of the scandal was perhaps the ugliest part. Blair was black, and a lot of racially charged accusations were flung about, including speculation that he had been promoted and gotten away with what he did because of his race.

A: That’s one of the major themes of the play. In any scandal the most dramatic and tragic elements are in the ways it’s ground up and churned out.

David Leveaux (r) is directing Playwright Gabe McKinley's (l) latest work "CQ/CX." The play opens to the public on January 25. Image courtesy of the Atlantic Theater Company.

Q: How would you describe the production, stylistically?

A: There’s eight characters; it’s an ensemble piece. It’s about Jayson and the scandal and it’s also about the New York Times. There are some composite characters of people who ran the Times.

Q: Your protagonist’s name is Jay Bennet. Why not Jayson Blair, why not a biographical play?

A: That’s something I struggled with. It’s a work for the theater and I felt, like Jayson, that to get closer to the truth I had to get farther from the facts sometimes. I had to create some characters and create composites of several people.

Q: Can you explain what CQ/CX refers to?

A: They’re both shorthand used during fact-checking at the Times. Editors would use CQ — an abbreviation for the Latin term Cadit Quaestio, meaning “question falls” — if a statement was correct. CX is shorthand for corrections, if something was false.

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