back to the Black Table
     
  THE EXILED FOSTER WINANS HAS A MESSAGE FOR JAYSON BLAIR.  
   
   
 

“If I were Jayson Blair, I’d have a real hard time finding a reason to live right now.”

If another journalist uttered this line, the assessment might smack of moral indignation, sprinkled with a dose of the Schadenfreude evident in much of the proselytizing about the tawdry affair. But out of the mouth of Foster Winans, it sounds like the insight of a man who has walked in Blair’s shoes.

In the past few weeks, the 27-year-old Blair went from young, ambitious New York Times reporter to the “troubled” man whose catalog of errors, plagiarism and outright fiction delivered the Gray Lady her biggest shiner in her 107 years in the Sulzberger family. Nineteen years ago, Winans delivered a similar blow to the Wall Street Journal after it was revealed that he and a small cabal were illegally profiting by trading in advance of Winans’ market-moving "Heard on the Street" columns.

The Blair matter will recede just as the Winans scandal faded from memory. The Times will endure. Blair will vanish -- condemned to boilerplate paragraphs in the occasional article on breaches of journalistic ethics, forever wedded to Winans, Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass.

However, questions remain. Why does a promising reporter compromise his integrity and the reputation of the establishment that trusts him? Why would an apparently intelligent person think the fraud wouldn’t be easily uncovered when it has been splashed across the pages of a national newspaper? What is going to happen to the rest of this man’s life?

Foster Winans seemed like the right person to ask. In his 1986 memoir, Trading Secrets: Seduction and Scandal at the Wall Street Journal, Winans recounts that suicide held an undeniable appeal as an alternative to culpability for his actions. But he chose the alternative: Criminal prosecution. Jail. The end of his career as a journalist. The death of his lover David Carpenter by AIDS. Varied employment, including a stint as a New York cabdriver. By 1994, with New York City “filled with ghosts,” he returned to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he was raised.

This is where I found him -- in the Writer’s Room, the not-for-profit writer’s workshop Winans founded in Doylestown five years ago. He has poured $65,000 into the venture, which began as his last refuge from loneliness and evolved into his best shot at personal redemption. Winans, now 55, seemed amused by the recent uptick in media inquiries. He has become a useful source in recent weeks because his fall from grace coupled two strains of scandal now cresting at the same time: Wall Street misdeeds and journalistic fraud. While acknowledging his misdeeds, he took pains to draw distinctions between his case and Blair’s.

“I can’t relate to what he did,” Winans said. “There were no factual errors in my stories. One of my great artifices that enabled me to continue doing what I was doing is that there were no errors in my stories.”

Our conversation lingered on the differences between the two cases -- and, to a lesser extent, the case of Stephen Glass and his completely fictitious New Republic stories. Nonetheless, the personal tragedies remain intrinsically linked in my mind. And while listening to Winans discuss how he slowly put his life back together, I wondered whether Glass or Blair would ever make peace with themselves -- or if Winans truly had.

Full Disclosure

I first heard about Winans nine years ago, when I started working for The Wall Street Journal’s nascent interactive operations. I was bemused over having to sign a slew of Draconian forms about stock-trading -- why, I asked, did a 23-year-old working a graveyard shift assigning tickers and subject codes have to sign waivers on stock trading? Foster Winans, I was told. Over the next six years that I worked at the paper, the name Foster Winans rarely came up.

The Journal, however, was the first subject Foster discussed.

“The first thing I thought of with the Blair case was, ‘Gee, that couldn’t have happened at the Wall Street Journal,’” Winans said. “There’s no place where errors have greater consequences -- if you misquote a police chief in Maryland, no one is going to lose money.”

Winans credits the Journal for being sticklers about accuracy and says they treated him appropriately after his actions were revealed. I asked him if he thought the paper had changed since his days writing "Heard on the Street." “It’s still a great paper, but the Journal doesn’t take chances like it used to,” he said, conceding, “my case might have had something to do with it.”

The Outsider

When the conversation turned to what Blair had done, Winans noted some of the distinctions. In addition to factual accuracy, he noted that his was a conspiracy with others. “It was a bunch of young people not realizing the gravity of what they were doing,” Winans said. It sounded like a strange inversion of an Andy Hardy movie -- let’s put together an insider-trading ring.

“I don’t understand what Jayson did,” Winans said. “If I could talk with him, I would have to ask: ‘What the fuck were you thinking? You know you’re going to get caught!’”

I noted to Winans that Blair, or someone else, might ask the same question of him. Winans acknowledged this point and spoke eloquently to why he thought Jayson Blair did it, and his reasons sounded similar to sentiments he expressed in his book about his tenure at the Journal.

“I think it has to do with feeling like an outsider; he didn’t feel he belonged.” Winans said. Winans felt Blair’s being black didn’t play a major role, but being overwhelmed by the institution may have. Winans said that, like himself, Blair may have felt out of his depth. “You’re afraid -- you feel you’re not entitled to be here. At the Journal, I always believed I was going to be fired anyway.”

Winans also said young people, especially today, don’t understand the consequences of their actions: “The younger generation thinks that everything has a reset button that wipes away the past and the consequences.” He also noted that our culture imposes great pressure to achieve success at a young age. “Life teaches us that it takes experience and time to become the kind of success we truly want to be.”

Winans said papers like the Times and the Journal have economic incentives to hire young people, but he doesn’t think “going from the dorm to the newsroom with no real life in between is such a good idea.”

What will happen to Blair? “I think he will be prosecuted, though I’m not sure if he should be,” he said, adding that he thinks the Times will hang Blair out to dry as the press pillories him. "It's a very self-righteous profession." Winans also doesn’t think either will ever work in a newsroom again. “Obviously, Blair and Glass should be writing novels.”

Exile on Main Street

Writing novels is what has sustained Winans over the past decade. He has ghostwritten 14 books, and is currently working on one for “Tough Love,” the group that counsels parents struggling with teens in crisis.

He also created the Writer’s Room, which he started “as a cure for loneliness” when he returned to Bucks County. The Room offers workshops and seminars for aspiring writers from Bucks County -- a region with a rich literary tradition, from James Michener to Dorothy Parker and S.J. Perelman. Winans also began a program called “Generation Crossroads,” in which students with literary aspirations write booklets recording the memoirs of local senior citizens.

While the media who call to discuss Jayson Blair or Wall Street securities fraud may not delve deeply into the Writer’s Room, it means a great deal to Winans. He sold his home to keep it going, and thanks to support from businesses and individual donors, it’s “taking care of itself now,” Winans said. It seems clear that his redemption is tethered to the fate of the Writer’s Room.

“For the first half of life, I tried to see what I could get out of it,” Winans said. “Now, I am spending the second half seeing what I can put back into it.”

Good-bye

A few folks were trickling into the Writer’s Room for the seminar, so it was time to wrap up. Still, I was thinking about how, toward the end of Trading Secrets, Winans dreams of being back at the Journal -- as if the whole mess never transpired, and he was watching a young reporter like himself learn “the difference between a stock and a bond.”

While I didn’t ask him if he still dreams of being in the Journal newsroom, I did ask: If given an opportunity, would you want to be a reporter again?

“I’m not sure I’d want to be a journalist -- the pressure,” he said, adding, “I like ghostwriting. If something’s wrong, it’s not your fault.”

He walked outside with me as I left the Writer’s Room. As he greeted his seminar participants, we exchanged pleasantries and said we’d talk again. As I headed for my car, he smiled and called after me.

“Do they still hate me at the Journal?”

Not sure what to say, I told him that most of the people at the Journal in 1984 weren’t there anymore.

 

*BT*

Ed. Note: This story was modified after publication. An earlier version said that Winans felt during his Journal tenure that he was treated unfairly because of his homosexuality. The Journal reported this as fact in 1984; Winans informed us that he never felt that way.