After the Hurricane: What's Up with the Reporter Who Took Down Jayson Blair?

Article excerpt

"I'm just a brown girl down here in the valley, trying to figure things out and make sense of them," Macarena Hernandez says. It's mid-afternoon on a sweltering summer day in Edinburg, Texas, and the Rio Grande Valley brown girl and unsweetened iced-tea addict who inadvertently became a journalistic mega-catalyst is talking from her cell phone. "Hold on a second," Hernandez says, pulling up to Whataburger, a fast-food drive-thru Texas staple. "Yeah, I'll have the unsweet tea. Extra-large. And extra, extra ice. Thanks. Sorry. I go out at least once a day for unsweet tea. I looove it. I won't make it at home 'cause if I did I'd just drink the whole thing in one sitting. This way I have to take it one gulp at a time."

Taking it one gulp at a time is how the San Antonio Express-News special-projects reporter has always approached her vida loca--and it has been loca, particularly since April of last year, when Hurricane Jayson blew through. The erstwhile and disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair garnered most of the media attention. First for his serial plagiarism, fabrications and lies, which brought down the Times' leadership, and later for his nonstop book-hawking blitz.

Though Blair was an equal-opportunity thief, stealing from everyone, it was ultimately the theft of one of Hernandez's articles that sealed his doom. "He stole my story and my voice," says Hernandez, 29. "It pissed me off. I was like, 'You know what? You can't do that."

A brief recap: The story Blair stole had originally run in the Express-News on Friday, April 18, 2003. It was about Juanita Anguiano, a Los Fresnos single mother whose firstborn and only son, Edward, was the last American soldier MIA in Iraq. Hernandez spent hours with the anguished and vulnerable woman, who sadly showed the reporter the final gifts her son had given her. A tennis bracelet. A set of Martha Stewart patio furniture. A ceiling fan.

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Eight days later, early on Saturday, April 26, Hernandez read online a New York Times story by Blair about Anguiano in which he described her pride in her "Martha Stewart furniture out on the patio." When Hernandez had been there, the furniture, like the bracelet, was still in its original box. A mother with a missing son halfway across the world having the energy and interest to assemble patio furniture by herself? And be proud of it?

Hernandez didn't think so, and told her editors so. (See "All About the Retrospect," June/July 2003.) The next day, Sunday, Edward Anguiano's family was notified that his body had been recovered. Monday, the family wasn't speaking to the media, who by then were swarming the house's front yard. Among the reporters there were Hernandez and the Washington Post's Manuel Roig-Franzia. The two struck up a conversation.

"We talked and I told him what Jayson had done," Hernandez says. "I'd torn his story apart, diagramming the similarities. There was no doubt about it. It was my story. The plagiarism was extremely obvious, stealing lines and phrases that I had written verbatim.... Manuel contacted the Post and four hours later [Washington Post media writer] Howard Kurtz was calling my cell."

Hernandez then called her old New York Times mentor Sheila Rule, who had hired both her and Blair five years earlier as interns. "I told her, 'I don't know how big of a deal this is going to be, but I want to give you a heads-up. Jayson Blair stole big chunks of one of my stories and Howard Kurtz is already on it.'"

Later that afternoon, Blair called Hernandez, supposedly to double-check a quote the mother had given him in Spanish that had been translated into English by the daughter. He asked for a copy of Hernandez's original story, which he claimed never to have seen.

"At that moment I knew he had never been there," Hernandez says. "Because the mother spoke English. I thought, 'Oh my God, this is bad.'"

The denouement, like the build-up, was fast and fierce, disturbing and then dominating Hernandez's life. …