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May 31, 2004 | home

The former Times reporter strikes back.
Issue of 2004-03-15
Posted 2004-03-08

One short year ago, Jayson Blair was, for all that readers of the Times knew, a reporter in good standing, and Howell Raines was the paper’s triumphantly successful, though not well-loved, executive editor. The rather abrupt pace of journalistic history in this case is worth keeping in mind, because Blair has just published a memoir that is sure to set off a great reconsideration of last spring’s succession of dramatic events at the Times: Blair’s resignation, the paper’s printed exposure of his amazingly extensive journalistic misdeeds, and the resignations of the paper’s top two news executives, Raines and Gerald M. Boyd, the managing editor. In theory, the publication of a book should mean that the event it’s about is ready for a full, wise assessment. That is not the case for the Jayson Blair scandal, partly because it’s still too soon, and partly because of the nature of the book. Only ten months after his resignation, Blair has produced a full-length work that you can hold in your hands. If you subtract however long it took to negotiate the contract and physically create the book, it appears that Blair must have written it in a few weeks. Of course, Blair never had a problem in being rapidly and copiously productive.

Inescapably, it’s a quickie book. It feels padded; there are many brief chapters, some of which are recitations of the sort of reportorial adventures that are fine as after-work barroom anecdotes but fall short of book-worthiness. It is less than scrupulously edited (“One learns from their environs, particularly when it comes to the priorities”). The bits we’ve all been waiting for, where Blair begins faking stories, don’t start until two-thirds of the way through. The larger issues that Blair’s story raises—the nature of Raines’s reign, the Times’ vulnerability to fraud, the question of whether Blair’s being black had to do with the scandal—don’t synch very well with the book itself. It’s a curio, an artifact, an unprocessed download from Blair’s brain—vivid, wired, serviceably written and paced, and, in a way, more interesting for its artlessness. Here, you feel, is the real Blair, not a Lillian Hellman-like fully imagined and realized character who happens to share the memoirist’s name.

The most obvious example of Blair’s appealing lack of authorial control is that, in calling the book “Burning Down My Masters’ House” (which must have beaten out “Confessions of Nat Timesman”), he seems to be putting forth the view that the whole affair was about race—to be precise, old-fashioned white racism, with him as victim, rather than a racial dynamic engendered by affirmative action, through which he benefitted. But in the text he can never quite stay on message, and he winds up presenting a story whose racial angle is about as complicated and undidactic as race relations actually are. Blair grew up in suburbs all over the country, some integrated and some not. His father works for the federal government, and his mother is a schoolteacher. He appears to feel quite comfortable around white people and they around him—his world, as he describes it, isn’t all that far from being a paradise of diversity in which everyone gets to be ethnically identified and proud of it and can interact richly and unself-consciously with members of other groups. Some of Blair’s best friends are white, and some of his most complicated relationships are with blacks. His (very small) superego seems to want his downfall to contain a lesson for us all about discrimination, but his promotion of this thesis is mainly confined to dutiful-sounding transitional passages at the ends of chapters—for instance, his hope for an “order where I was not a pawn in a game because of my race.”

Actually, if you wanted to put Blair into a category, it would be Major Head Case. And his book would be more appropriately shelved under Recovery (except that he doesn’t recover) than under African-American Studies—or, for that matter, under Journalism. He is, he tells us, a childhood sexual-abuse victim, an alcoholic, a cocaine addict, a twelve-step-program graduate, and a man much counselled and therapized—at least once while clutching a Teddy bear. He hints that he has been on both sides of the drugs-for-sex equation. (As he somewhat cryptically puts it, “When I was on the performing end, it was usually implicit that it was for drugs. When I was on the receiving end, the reasons were under the surface, even if the surface was transparent and obvious.”) He has that familiar addict’s quality of being bracingly honest and aware of his faults but nonetheless incapable of behaving decently.

The life he led at the Times was recognizably that of an adrenalized young reporter: an unlived-in apartment, not much sleep, a work routine that blends ambulance chasing with crusading against injustice, late-night meaning-of-life sessions with friends. And yet even the prelapsarian Blair was pretty deeply lapsed. He would run up tabs of several hundred dollars at a Times Square bar and charge them to his expense account; the paper reimbursed him without a peep. He used a company car to cruise around with friends on weekends. He engaged in a variety of reporting practices that he presents, wrongly, as standard-issue. He asked a public official he knew through his reporting to advise him on a friend’s personal problem. He allowed himself to be seduced by a publicist, and returned the favor by plugging her client in the Times. He blew off meetings and lunches. He was a kind of journalism addict, using deadlines and bylines and travel as a way of keeping himself levitated slightly above the plane of reality. And that was before he became a full-fledged alcoholic, and then a man whose cocaine habit cost five hundred dollars a week or more. Once, he tells us, he was so desperate for a high that he snorted Alka-Seltzer.

Blair’s official position is that he was mistreated by the Times, partly because of general organizational callousness, partly because of race. He doesn’t seem to have his heart in it, though. His occasional accusatory passages come across as rote: “I wasn’t going to fight for a job at a newspaper that had disappointed my idealism, for a newspaper that I had allowed to take something very precious from me.” His editorial critique of the Times is familiar—that it pays more attention to the lives of its upper-middle-class readers and to “celebrity culture” than to poor people—but is undermined by some of his anecdotes (about enormous Times investments in stories concerned, for example, with American race relations and with the genocide in Rwanda). Unintentionally, he creates an impression of an organization that endlessly forgives an unforgivable employee. It isn’t exactly clear why—distance isn’t Blair’s specialty—but it does seem too much of a stretch to say that it all happened because Blair is black. He was also charming, energetic, and a member of a race-transcendent type that was then in favor with management.

Everybody in journalism has read a memo that the Times high command sent staff members a couple of weeks ago, saying, in a way that must have piqued their curiosity as much as it reassured them, that an advance look at the book revealed that it contained “smears” of individual staffers. An efficient search for the smears is impossible because there’s no index, but those who plow all the way through looking only for them will be disappointed. They are either pro forma (“Joyce had all the warmth and tenderness of a petrified piece of wood”) or anonymous (in a couple of places, Blair says, without naming names, that he wasn’t the only sinning reporter at the paper) or unpersuasive. The villain of “Burning Down My Masters’ House” is supposed to be Jonathan Landman, the “insensitive” Metro editor and, for a while, Blair’s boss, but it’s hard to sign on to the idea that Landman’s policy of keeping extra-close tabs on Blair was unwarranted, given Blair’s account of himself. Blair gratuitously lists the names of a few Times employees who committed suicide or died mysteriously, but, if that’s meant to exculpate him by demonstrating that the paper routinely crushes the spirit of people who work there, it doesn’t. (His noting that the Times botched its coverage of the Holocaust doesn’t have much exculpatory power, either.) Zingers that Blair seems to have written so that they will be quoted in reviews usually reveal him to be toweringly self-obsessed: “Perhaps if they had looked more carefully, people would have seen the storm raging inside me”; last May’s long recapitulation in the Times of his journalistic sins “had been written and edited with no regard to the harm it might cause the one person who had the most to lose in the situation”—namely, Jayson Blair. At one point, he summons up his self-righteousness and reports, “A close friend in the newsroom had told me confidentially that being a recovering addict at the Times was bad enough, but that being a recovering black addict was something that many would not forgive me for any time soon.” But even being given the opportunity to feel the subtle sting of one’s bosses’ unspoken disapproval for being a recovering addict sounds like a pretty good deal.

Such comments aren’t representative of the book’s over-all tone, though. Blair evidently does not have the ability to lie to himself about himself, and the gravamen of “Burning Down My Masters’ House” doesn’t have to do with the Times at all but with Blair’s psychological condition, which he diagnoses, persuasively, as severe manic-depression. By the time of his downfall, last spring, he was off drugs and alcohol but was nonetheless delusional. He was holed up in an apartment in Brooklyn, armed with a cell phone and a laptop, writing fiction for the Times, having segued rapidly, in the rushed period after the September 11th attacks, from plagiarizing quotes to dropping all pretense and simply making stuff up. Once, near the end, his landlord burst in to his apartment, because Blair had forgotten to turn off the bathtub faucets and had flooded the building.

Blair’s story is not unique to journalism. He is of a type with Nick Leeson, of Barings Bank, as well as with disgraced reporters like Janet Cooke, of the Washington Post, and Stephen Glass, of The New Republic. Established institutions that disseminate information, operate on trust, hire lots of ambitious young people who work under minimal supervision, and ask their employees to produce spectacular results are highly vulnerable to the rogue-employee problem. Although it’s hard to imagine anybody being more spectacularly screwed-up than Jayson Blair, the idea that no organization could have protected itself against someone so charming and pathological won’t do as an excuse. A set of common conditions runs through the famous fraud cases. The place where they occur is usually undergoing some kind of category shift in its mission, which makes the safeguards that were invented for the old mission insufficient.

The Times, like a lot of daily newspapers, has got closer to being a daily magazine over the last generation, especially in the use of narrative techniques in stories. It does less in the way of reciting yesterday’s events than it used to, and it is less intensely focussed on the doings of government officials and other powerful personages. Under the Raines regime, evidently, the newsroom was like an engine being revved up past the red line on the tachometer. There was an endlessly demanding monster story: the September 11th aftermath. Because of an institutional predilection against joint bylines, lots of reporters were doing anonymous work on other people’s stories. If this induced an overpowering craving for credit, well, it could be slaked if you produced spectacular, colorful material. The paper now seemed to favor ungovernable, flamboyantly non-Ivy League reporters like Blair and his friends. People were being moved around from section to section. And fraud-enabling technology—mobile telephones, electronic filing of stories from non-geographical addresses, online access to vast, pilferable stores of words and pictures about any subject—had made a great leap forward. With Blair in particular, you can imagine the case being made for him in editors’ meetings: he was a wildly energetic and fearless street reporter who would go anywhere and talk to anybody, and he could phone in his stuff to the desk where soberer heads could tame it. All of that produced both the temptation and the possibility of writing stories from the field that were too good to be true, but good enough for the front page.

Blair’s only really telling charge against the Times is that the national desk encouraged a practice called the “toe-touch,” in which a reporter would make a pro-forma visit to a remote location so that the already written story could bear a dateline. (Toe-touching is one of the sins that led to the departure from the paper of one of Blair’s heroes, Rick Bragg.) Blair himself, as he nicely puts it, escalated from the toe-touch story to the “no-touch” story, written from Brooklyn under a made-up dateline. It was the exposure of one such story of Blair’s, set in Los Fresnos, Texas, that caused the whole place to unravel.

There are ways to prevent future Jayson Blair scandals. A newspaper organization can change its incentive structure so that employees don’t feel that the only thing really valued is what’s known in the trade as a “holy shit!” story, and it can devise better ways to police itself. I have a suggestion for the Times and other big newspapers: establish a guerrilla team of fact checkers who perform random pre-publication reviews of a small percentage of stories. It would be insuperably expensive and logistically impossible for a daily paper to check every story before publication, the way magazines do. But most of the journalism scandals involve a certain type of story, a vivid feature from an exotic location. If reporters knew that every once in a while somebody would pluck a story of this kind out of the in-type list and talk to all the people quoted (that didn’t happen, by the way, in the Stephen Glass case), it would have a powerful effect. Certainly it would have more preventive power than setting up broader avenues for after-publication complaints, like the Times’new “public editor” position. God is not going to stop making charismatic maniacs, so it falls to newspapers to figure out how to do a better job of apprehending them.