Burning Down My Master's House: My Life at the New York Times
By Jayson Blair
New Millennium Entertainment Press; 288 pages
He lied, he lied -- and then he lied some more. Or so recounts the B-list celebrity journalist Jayson Blair at the opening of his notorious swan-song memoir, now begging its ironic place at the top of The New York Times best-seller list.
In the current storm of questioning journalistic integrity (buoyed by talking heads the likes of Neil Cavuto and Bill O'Reilly -- not to mention the Rupert Murdochs that pull their strings), this is front-page news. Blair's memoir, released March 9, "Burning Down My Masters' House: My Life at the New York Times" (the apostrophe cleverly placed to include an entire world of post-slavery injustice), has become -- perhaps without merit -- the talking point in the whirlwind of distrust being suffered by the masses who apparently need to know too much. Katie Couric went as far as to ditch her matronly fare of Atkins noodles and colonoscopies to push an exclusive prime-time interview. Even the reptilian O'Reilly quizzed Blair in his typically megalomaniacal way for a good six minutes on air: "What if you walked in to the newsroom and said, 'I love this O'Reilly guy?'" Blair's response: "I would be laughed out of the newsroom." The writer only came off as yet another pawn in O'Reilly's campaign to justify his own existence in the world of too much talk about nothing.
Which is appropriate, because that's precisely what this book is: nothing.
More important than the book itself is the period in which it finds itself published. Blame the war, but these days, folks are more likely to divert their concerns to the flippancy of John Stewart's "The Daily Show" shenanigans, than to flip anywhere past Page One of the Times.
That's where the story of Jayson Blair (who was coined the more bland "Jason" at birth and added the "y" later) begins. The Old Gray Lady has seen her share of criticism in recent years for being influential in a way-too-liberal way. Blair's bitchfest portrays a newsroom full of flunkies in desperate competition for front-page placement, a workplace more interested in doctored sensationalism than maintaining its status as "The American News Source." In sociological terms, this is understandable -- you always diss the giant that fired you.
But the real story grew bigger in time, with two of the paper's editors forced to resign over Blair's indefensible oversight. That oversight, now widely reported, involved a trip to Texas (among others) that never happened. He was sent to cover the story of Edward Anguiano, a Texan who had disappeared in Iraq. A story that, in the case of Blair, was second fiddle to what he considered his breakthrough coverage on the arrests of sniper suspects Lee Malvo and John Allen Muhammad. Blair faked receipts, plagiarized quotes from the San Antonio Express-News and whittled his time away in his New York apartment downing booze and narcotics. The irony came quick, when it became clear that the writer of the San Antonio story was a former co-intern of Blair's, and the dirty wind breezed up to the brass of the Times. Meetings were called, sympathies offered, and Blair toed the line of his made-up story with all of the aplomb of a drunken convict.
"After hours of lying, I was not only emotionally exhausted, but also worn with guilt," he writes.
Much of Blair's information for this story came from the Internet -- the often unspoken source of journalistic mythology: "At first, I had used the database as a resource, to reimagine details and scenes that I had legitimately witnessed," recalls Blair. "I found that the camera often captured things that the memory of the human mind does not record, offering different light, different angles. Later, I had begun using it to paint pictures and details that I had not witnessed, a tactic that can be legitimate on some occasions."
Except it can't.
"In recent months, though, while cooped up in my apartment, I had been using the database to get details about places that I had never been in order to write the kind of colorful details my editors demanded without the traveling it required. It was a simple system of deception -- my roots were my laptop, my cell phone, online archives and the photo database, which could be accessed from my kitchen table."
The self-pity button is pressed with increasing frequency throughout his memoir, climaxing with such teary-eyed exchanges as: "Last night I almost killed myself. I wrapped my belt around my neck and was going to do it. I can't fight anymore. I can't fight for a job that I don't want anymore. I just can't take the questions. I can't do it."
The editors, it would seem, are the enemies. The writers, the victims.
"Because editors put certain stories on the front of a section or the lead of the paper, they are the ones that many of us reporters study and try to replicate, more than helping people or exposing something that we can get our name, and equally as important our writing, on some sliver of the front," he writes with a rare hint of clarity. "The competition is intense ... . There would be interesting observations often about whom was favored or not. Because managers were busy running a newspaper, they operated on impressions, while we had the stone, cold facts."
But the point is, Blair didn't have anything stone or cold, unless you count the crack rocks and the Grey Goose. What he did have is a chance to make a difference. A chance that was, in fact, encouraged -- even out of character (think affirmative action) -- by the higher-ups. A useless number of chapters are spent with Blair in rehab, where the editorial board had hoped to save him, and, perhaps, their image. What Blair does with this chance at personal renaissance is another story altogether. With Augusten Burroughs and James Frey already detailing the chilling steps of creative minds as they're forced to count to 12 and breathe again, Blair's recount is about as antiseptic as it comes. Vindication, as well as rehabilitation, make no appearance here.
Tediously enough, Blair's continued involvement throughout the controversy makes the rest of "Burning Down My Master's House" read like an overblown exercise in futility. Blair even foolhardily drops a comparison of himself with ascendant editor Howell Raines, hoping against hope that he may still keep his job. "Raines had a lot of things in common with me ... . He was a big believer in rapid social change. ... Colleagues throughout his career had said he had an air about him that left the impression he had been around forever even though he had not been."
But airs and hot air are two different things, and Blair's sanctimonious attempts to justify his wrongs against the wrongs of journalism in general -- especially with the incorporation of racial overtones for a paper so clearly guilty of being "too liberal" by those in the know -- are about as intriguing as 1,000-word recounting of "Chicken Little."
"A close friend in the newsroom had told me confidentially that being a recovering addict at the Times was bad enough," Blair writes. "But that being a black addict was something that many would not forgive me for any time soon. I would have to do my 'time in purgatory.'"
With his book out -- some say suspiciously too soon to elicit any real sympathy -- Blair's taken his impish fact-faking to the streets with an indecipherably mixed message of dishonesty and recovery. Oxymoron or moron, Blair is having his day.
He recently told Richard Johnson of the New York Post that several copies of his book at the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble were vandalized with Blair-baiting expletives. And that he thought it was funny. "They said, 'Jayson Blair is an anti-Semite,' 'Boycott this book,' 'Jayson Blair is a cokehead dwarf,' things like that," he said. "It gave me a great laugh. I figured out my fan base isn't on the Upper West Side -- I guess I should stay in Brooklyn."
Blair wants to go on a speaking tour of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and college campuses to pontificate on "mental-health issues and African-American issues," he also told Johnson. "Too much of my story has focused on the journalism stuff, but the human element is more important."
Which is good news, considering that, by all indications and foul stenches emanating from "Burning Down My Masters' House," journalism doesn't matter, anyway.